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Scientists propose more realistic vision for pier's underwater garden

Published Jul. 28, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — Local marine scientists never thought that a crystal-clear underwater garden was a realistic feature for the city's new Pier.

Tampa Bay's murky waters just won't allow for it, they said.

The doubts were so loud, the city's contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture omitted the design costs for the feature until it could be studied more.

This week, architects and city staff met with marine scientists for the first time and heard the verdict: Maltzan's dream of a Key West-style reef with corals and easily visible sea life would remain just that in Tampa Bay waters. Now the architect is going back to the drawing board, looking for more realistic ways to present the centerpiece feature of the Lens, as the replacement of the current Pier is known.

"We had two months to get an idea and get a sensibility about the Tampa Bay estuary and we went with it as we could," said Tom Leader, who is working with Maltzan. He designed the underwater garden with a proposal to plant sea grass that would "attract manatees looking to graze" and sea turtles.

The underwater project is not dead, he said.

"There definitely can be a reef and there are all different views about how it can be done. … Will it look like the Florida Keys? No.''

Local experts point out that the murkiness of local waters is not a flaw, but a natural feature.

"Tampa Bay is an estuary, and one of its functions is as a nursery area. It's a very rich environment and it should not be that clear," Holly Greening, executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, said Friday.

The architect's next deadline for a revised plan to present to the City Council is October.

Experts offered several ideas at Thursday's meeting, including elevating the sea floor with rocks to create an inter-tidal area and attract marine life and birds into the oval space proposed for the underwater garden. The scientists also suggested using underwater technology to let visitors see and hear marine life in the real-life bay, as opposed to the jewellike setting of the architectural renderings.

"We were just trying to deal with a black lagoon and how do you turn it into the emerald that is shown in the pictures," said Albert Hine of the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science.

"As a group of scientists, we were brainstorming. That was part of the scientific process of thinking through this particular phase of what might be an effective and functioning ecological system," Greening said.

"I think there are a lot of things on the table that still can be done."

Despite the cooperative spirit, however, scientists said the expertise of St. Petersburg's prestigious Ocean Team, a consortium for marine science, oceanographic, and environmental research agencies and institutions, should have been sought earlier.

Hine said that Thursday's meeting was "way too late in the game" and that local scientists should have been consulted before the international pier design competition in which Maltzan ranked first.

"The Lens had flaws and those flaws are now unfortunately rearing their heads. … What they presented, that PR bandwagon, went too far before the scientific brakes were applied."

Margaret "Penny" Hall of the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg said she was encouraged by the ideas that emerged from the meeting.

"I think there's a real opportunity for creating something that's not only beautiful, but also educational, but it's not going to be an aquarium," she said.

"We have a way to go," said Peter Betzer, president of St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership and a retired scientist.

"I think we are talking about three or four months of effort to make something that will work, something that would be educational," he said. "Something that would be a tourist attraction, that would be good for business, but in fact be iconic and that families will enjoy."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

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