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St. Petersburg’s new 26-acre Pier District was not a smooth or quick project

Mayor Rick Kriseman talks about the years-long effort to build the city's newest pier.

ST. PETERSBURG — When Mayor Rick Kriseman took office in 2014, he inherited a problem that exasperated his predecessor. A fractious public couldn’t agree on what to do about the Pier, a St. Petersburg tradition with iterations dating back to 1889.

Kriseman promised a quick solution.

He patched together committees to navigate the morass and sought public input. Not surprisingly, a proposed design to replace the unique inverted-pyramid style pier drew opposition.

But unlike a design selected by the previous administration and rejected in a citizen-led referendum, the concept selected by a Kriseman committee survived. A groundbreaking ceremony took place in 2017.

By then, the mayor’s vision had grown into a more ambitious project that would connect the new Pier with the city’s bustling downtown. His 26-acre, “world class” Pier District would increase the original budget of $50 million to what is now expected to be at least $92 million.

As he prepares for its opening July 6, Kriseman spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about the challenges and satisfaction of bringing the project to completion. Kriseman’s answers have been edited for length and clarity.

You embarked on this journey soon after you began your first term as mayor in 2014. Did you think it would be so complex and take so long to bring this project to fruition?

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Chris Ballestra, the city's managing director of development coordination, open one of several market kiosks on June 25 that will line the new St. Petersburg Pier's Marketplace. Visitors can expect to dine, shop and fish at the Pier head. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

When I was campaigning for the job the first time, I really didn’t anticipate that we were going to need to start from scratch. But starting from scratch was the right thing to do. I knew when I took office that the only way we could get this done was if we brought all the opinion leaders and stakeholders together and brought them back to the table and hit the restart button together.

There were so many opinions. It was when we were at Spa Beach to announce the path forward, and there were council members, community leaders and people from all sides of the issue standing together in support, that’s when I felt confident that it was going to happen, because we were largely united.

The original funding for this project goes back to when I was on the St. Petersburg City Council in the mid-2000s. But when you consider that we began this project all over again in 2014, we had to demolish and rebuild it — all while navigating public sentiment — six years is really not bad.

I think it is the most complex project the city has accomplished to date.

I don’t know that I would have done anything different, because we got it done. Our community and our city team and the folks who built this Pier, I think, have a lot to be proud of. Every time I go out there, I get goosebumps.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman pauses during a tour of St. Petersburg's new $92 million, 26-acre Pier District, which will open on July 6. Visitors can expect to dine, shop, and fish at the Pier head. The new Pier also features a $1 million playground, marketplace and center to teach visitors about Tampa Bay's ecosystem. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

What have been the most nettlesome challenges? Did you ever worry that it would not be complete before you left office?

I never worried that it wouldn’t be complete before I left office. I did worry about the project evolving into something different or losing momentum, had I not been reelected. At one point, the newspaper did an exercise wondering if we still needed the Pier. I felt that once we got the politics out of the way, we could get it done.

When I think of our history, we’ve always had a pier ... but that was all we ever had.

The challenge was to communicate to the public that this isn’t just a roadway to a building over the water. It’s an entire 26-acre district. We tried to communicate that this was never about building an icon. We see the waterfront parks as our icon, and this district is an extension of that.

The project you inherited was to be one with a $50 million price tag and within the boundaries of the old inverted-pyramid pier. What was behind your decision to expand the traditional pier zone, and were you concerned about the increasing cost?

I was on the Council when that $50 million price tag was put into place. When I came into office, I didn’t even have the $50 million to start. And so the reality was, it was going to be very difficult to honor the history of the Pier with the amount of money left.

In addition, voters had approved a downtown waterfront master plan. I saw the Pier as a catalyst to implement the first phase of that plan and create a district.

City budgets are complicated. There are limits on how different buckets of money could be used and how they were available to us. And so we’ve always been concerned about the cost.

Given the history of the Pier and the future that we were trying to create with the new district ... the resources we were able to put together, I believe, will be seen as money well spent. And I hope the community will see it as a special place for generations.

St. Petersburg residents are passionate about their waterfront, with the Pier being an important component. Some thought there was no need for another pier. Others wanted to renovate the old inverted-pyramid pier. Still others are not convinced they’ll like the new Pier. What would you like to tell them about this new attraction?

We are a community of passion to begin with and a really engaged community. And when it comes to our waterfront, our passion goes up to a whole other level.

I think a pier is part of the city’s DNA. For me, not having a pier was never an option.

I think that renovating the inverted-pyramid pier, given its age and how it functioned, would have been a challenge and would not have served future generations. This Pier has been designed and built for the future. It’s functional. It’s flexible. It can evolve over time, and it’s not just about a single building. It’s a district that enhances so much about what people love about St. Pete, which is our waterfront parks.