St. Petersburg voters decisively reject the Lens

Published Aug. 28, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — The acrimonious debate about how to carry on the city's tradition of a public pier ended with a clear victor Tuesday, as voters resoundingly rejected the $50 million Lens project.

Much less certain, though, is what eventually will hold a place of pride on the city's downtown waterfront and how long it will take to choose a more palatable project.

The Lens went down with 63 percent of voters opting to end the city's contract with designer Michael Maltzan Architecture.

"We're feeling pretty good right now," said Bud Risser, whose group, Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, spearheaded the petition drive that led to the referendum.

Mayor Bill Foster said he will focus on moving forward. The city is still seeking permits to demolish its closed 1973 inverted pyramid Pier, and he will recommend a process to the City Council to pick a new design, he said.

Rick Kriseman, who along with Foster earned a spot Tuesday on November's mayoral ballot, was reluctant to discuss specifics about the Pier, saying Foster is in charge now. When pressed about whether he would call on the mayor to delay demolition until after the election, Kriseman said he would like to discuss the issue with Foster.

Defeated mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford was less reticent about the referendum's results. "I'm delighted," she said. "I thought it was a boondoggle."

Risser said the Lens referendum appealed to a broad spectrum of residents who didn't like the Lens or the decision process for various reasons. "Our hope is that we start once again with the Pier task force report and go forward," involving residents all the way, Risser said.

Both sides had feared that the referendum language, which asked residents to accept or reject an ordinance to cancel Maltzan's contract, would confuse voters. A no vote was to build the Lens; a yes vote was to kill it.

"I voted no to build the pier. I think I got that right," joked Hugh Seeley, 49, as he left his polling place Tuesday at the Coliseum.

Before he filled out his mail ballot, Carter Reid, 80, got a postcard telling him to vote "no" to build the new pier. Reid, who opposed the Lens, inadvertently voted to continue the contract.

"I just made a mistake," he said. "I'm an educated person, and I didn't read the damn ballot."

But the margin of victory quieted worries about confusion.

For those who wanted to build the Lens — which has already cost $4 million in planning and design — the question is, what now?

"There is no plan," said Mike Collins of the lately formed pro-Lens group, Build the Pier.

"Unfortunately, the center of attraction for St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront will remain in limbo indefinitely."

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But City Council member Leslie Curran, a staunch Lens supporter, is ready to look ahead.

"We regroup. Move forward," she said. "We certainly can't afford to have an empty, boarded-up, fenced-up Pier like we experienced many years ago, and we just need to gather together and move forward."

Ed Montanari, another advocate for the rejected design and vice chair of the Pier Advisory Task Force that led to the Lens, also struck a conciliatory note.

"One thing that everybody agrees on is we need a pier in St. Petersburg and we need a pier that everyone can embrace and be proud of," he said.

Montanari has found himself on another pier committee, the 8/28 Alliance appointed by Foster to come up with recommendations depending on Tuesday's referendum. "I just want to have a positive message about how do we bring our city together and move forward from here," he said.

Today, the alliance, which includes supporters and opponents of the Lens, will formally present the mayor with its recommendations. With the Lens rejected, the group is recommending that the city seek public opinion about what residents really want. The alliance also recommends that the city establish a modified design selection process rather than the international design competition that led to the Lens.

Maltzan issued a statement from its Los Angeles headquarters Tuesday: "Since the completion of the international design competition, the public conversation about the project moved beyond a discussion about the architectural merits of the Lens design and became a polarizing political issue.

"Michael Maltzan Architecture and our team of design and engineering professionals continue to stand by the Lens. … Although we are steadfast in our belief that this is the right project at the right time for St. Petersburg, we respect the public's vote to set a new course for the pier."

Council member Karl Nurse, who sided with opponents of the Lens, believes that the city could go out to bid on a new pier within a year, with construction taking perhaps 24 months.

Some residents have wondered whether the inverted pyramid could be reopened in the interim, something the mayor opposes.

Times staff writers Mark Puente, Anna M. Phillips and Danielle Paquette contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at or (727) 892-2283.