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Long-delayed Pier Park project gets go-ahead from City Council

ST. PETERSBURG — The pier, a project that divided families and neighbors and inspired a voter referendum that delayed the project at least two years, is officially under way.

The City Council on Thursday approved $5.2 million for the project, including contracts with the designers of Pier Park, its construction manager and the firm that will tear down the inverted pyramid that has stood for more than 40 years.

"It's time to move forward," council member Steve Kornell said, echoing the sentiments of the majority of his colleagues.

The vote came as a relief to Mayor Rick Kriseman, who as a candidate for the office promised a new pier by the end of 2015.

"Today, the Sunshine City took the final step in securing the future of the St. Petersburg pier, and our treasured waterfront, for generations to come," he said in a prepared statement.

Kriseman ordered city employees to begin preparing for demolition immediately. Thursday, public works teams were already removing cleats for docking boats, spokesman Ben Kirby said. That's ahead of work by the demolition contractor, who is expected to begin to remove metals and fixtures for recycling sometime this month and start actual demolition of the inverted pyramid in August.

It was more than 10 years ago that a study said that the pier approach and area around the pyramid were in bad shape and needed to be replaced. Council members voted in 2010 to demolish and start anew, but a voter referendum that opposed the new pier passed in 2013, putting a halt to the project. Though the inverted pyramid was shuttered back then, the city has continued to spend thousands of dollars for operating expenses and security at the overall facility. The most recent figure has been $36,000 a month.

Thursday's 7-1 vote means the long delayed project can begin. The Pier Park design will be refined during the next five months, with residents getting a chance to provide comments. Construction is not scheduled to begin until early in 2017 and will continue into 2018. No date has been set for completion.

Council member Wengay Newton, a longtime critic of the $46 million project, was the lone dissent.

Yet it's still unclear how the project will proceed. Looming on the horizon is a showdown with the federal government on the pier's demolition.

The pier is over navigable waters and requires approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before any demolition can begin, spokeswoman Nakeir Nobles said Thursday.

"Commencement of proposed work prior to Department of the Army authorization constitutes a violation of federal laws," she said in an email. "If work proceeds without a permit, the applicant will be notified and an enforcement investigation would begin."

Nobles said she didn't know what type of penalties the city would face. She said the agency has to issue a demolition permit for the entire pier structure — the approach, or bridge, the pyramid and the area surrounding it. That work, she said, cannot begin until an agreement concerning historic preservation is reached.

The city disagrees.

"Our permit application does not include the building," said Tom Gibson, the city's director of engineering. "The building doesn't affect the marine environment and it was specifically excluded from the permit by the Army Corps. It sounds like a misunderstanding."

Thursday, city staff told council members that they have the necessary demolition permits for the inverted pyramid and are only waiting for the Army Corps permit for the other pier structures.

Michael Connors, the city's public works administrator, told council member Karl Nurse that a permit is not required from the Army Corps.

"The inverted pyramid building and retail shops do not require a Army Corps permit for demolition, the city has permitted this work," Gibson later reiterated in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

Gibson said the plan is for the demolition contractor, Sonny Glasbrenner Inc. of Clearwater, to erect a security fence east of the Pelican parking lot on Monday or Tuesday. Demolition is expected to take six months.

Still, the 1973 inverted pyramid, designed by acclaimed architect William B. Harvard Sr., will live on in some form. Pier Park's designers will reuse the five 20-by-20-foot concrete caissons on which the iconic building sits.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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