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St. Petersburg’s Pier District offers breezy, beautiful new place to play

The $92 million waterfront destination offers visitors opportunities to eat, learn, fish and even catch some shade.

ST. PETERSBURG — When the city’s last Pier closed seven years ago, there was uncertainty about what would take its place. That long wait will be over on Monday as the new Pier District emerges from its chrysalis.

Spread across 26 acres on St. Petersburg’s cherished public waterfront, the hope is that its amenities will satisfy the interests of visitors and beckon generations to come.

“It creates a real dynamic experience for families, which has been lacking in downtown,” said Mayor Rick Kriseman, under whose watch the new destination was developed. “If you’re a parent and you have young kids, now there will be a place to hang out at the beach, play in the splash pad, the playground. You can sit on the Tilted Lawn and read a book or enjoy a sunrise. And with a few exceptions, it’s all free.”

That Tilted Lawn, with beach umbrellas strategically positioned, leaves ample room for what city officials anticipate will be kids happily rolling down its incline.

A view looking west from St. Petersburg's new Pier District off the top of Pier head building on June 25. The $92 million, 26-acre Pier District will open on July 6. The new Pier also features a $1 million playground, a splash pad, marketplace and center to teach visitors about Tampa Bay's ecosystem. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

The entrance to the $92 million district is by way of a promenade with sidewalks and benches along Second Avenue NE. The first of four pieces of public art — a red, 10-foot origami-style metal pelican — serves as the official greeter. It’s certain to become a popular spot for pictures.

Two life-sized, but equally whimsical, red pelicans sit atop the sculpture, and one is on a nearby bench. A total of seven red pelicans are positioned in the district, including one near the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center about halfway down the Pier approach.

What will stand out for those who visit the Pier are the breathtaking views of Tampa Bay and the city’s skyline.

Unlike the last Pier, there’s also more shade from the Florida sun, under umbrellas and newly planted trees. In the Pelican parking lot, next to Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille, solar panels shade most of the 250 parking spaces. Solar panels also provide shade over the Pier Marketplace. And at Spa Beach, a shade structure that can be reserved was built with a donation from the American Academy of Dermatology.

The Marketplace, which will showcase St. Petersburg merchandise, is close to the Pier District entrance. Seven stalls with canopies, adjustable shelving and movable panels can be closed and locked. Each features a sample of a mural that appears elsewhere in the city, with the name of the artist and mural’s location noted. There also are 10 spaces for market-style tents.

The new Pier Marketplace area can be seen near the entrance to St. Petersburg's $92 million, 26-acre Pier District, which will open on July 6. Visitors can expect to dine, shop, fish at the Pier Head. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

The Marketplace can accommodate 30 vendors, but will start with 17, according to Chris Ballestra, the city’s managing director of development coordination.

“We look forward to expanding it,” he said. The market initially will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Kriseman said it’s a place to help small businesses.

“We wanted to make sure the market reflected the community,” he said.

Watson Hayes, president and CEO of the Pinellas County Urban League, said he is pleased with the diverse mix of vendors.

“African American businesses will finally be able to sell their own stuff at the Pier,” he said.

Kriseman is proud of the Pier District’s $1 million, mostly wooden playground with its nautical theme and colors. It’s near the family park, a splash pad and a pavilion with a bistro and public restrooms.

The Pier’s signature public art piece, Janet Echelman’s aerial net sculpture, Bending Arc, billows above the family park. The city has built berms so people can lie under it and enjoy the undulating piece.

New signs will greet visitors at St. Petersburg's $92 million, 26-acre Pier District, which will open on July 6. Visitors can expect to dine, shop, fish, at the Pier head. A pavilion near the expanded Spa Beach includes an aerial sculpture, seen in the background, by internationally renowned artist Janet Echelman. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Kriseman, who raised private dollars to help bring Echelman’s piece to St. Petersburg, said he knew the first time he saw the internationally acclaimed artist’s work that it belonged at the Pier.

“In every other place where she has had her work installed, it has brought people together to experience it,” he said. “I love the fact that it ties into the nautical nature of the Pier, and being on the waterfront, the breezes off the water bring it to life. There’s an energy to it, and so I thought it reflected not only the Pier District, but the city.”

The district’s other public art includes a 23-foot-wide by 7-foot-high mosaic by Black artist Xenobia Bailey next to the tram stop by the Pelican parking lot. And a piece called Olnetopia by Belgian artist Nick Ervinck is in front of the Pier head building.

As the city planned for its newest Pier, residents said dining was a top priority. The Pier District has two new destination restaurants, a rooftop bar, cafe and bistro. At the Pier head, Chuck Prather will operate his fourth-floor Teak restaurant with city and Tampa Bay views, the Pier Teaki rooftop bar and the second-floor Driftwood Cafe. Prather owns the Birchwood, a boutique hotel on Beach Drive NE.

Gator Jim’s Tackle is on the first floor to serve the fishing deck. Pier Gear & Gifts is nearby. Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille, which overlooks Tampa Bay from the Pelican parking lot, offers diners an unimpeded view of the Discovery Center and the Pier head building.

Spa Beach Bistro at the pavilion is positioned in front of the splash pad and near Spa Beach. The new restaurants will join Fresco’s and Hops & Props, two older establishments near the Pier District’s entrance.

Visitors to the Pier District can learn about Tampa Bay’s ecosystem at the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center. It will be open for visitors to come inside, according to executive director Dwayne Virgint, and will offer free programs in its wet classroom — the exterior amphitheater with steps down to the water — to encourage social distancing.

Various displays are inside the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center at St. Petersburg's $92 million, 26-acre Pier District, which will open on July 6. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Exhibits include an 1,800-gallon saltwater tank that shows local living species, including striped burrfish, hogfish, filefish, rays and others that live beneath and around the mangroves. There’s also a full-size sculpture showing the impact of plastic water bottles on the environment and what can be done to reduce their use.

Another point of interest will be a monument honoring the launch of the world’s first airline from St. Petersburg. A full-scale replica of the Benoist Airboat that took off from downtown St. Petersburg on New Year’s Day 1914, with a former mayor as its passenger, will sit on the site of the original hangar on the Central Yacht Basin.

There’s ample seating throughout the district, from built-in benches to colorful Adirondack and lounge chairs. In the age of social distancing, there appears to be enough space to spread out in lawn chairs brought from home.

Trams will provide transportation, making four stops — near the Pelican and Dolphin parking lots, the Discovery Center and at the Pier head. Electronic message boards will offer information, along with interactive maps.

Still growing in are cabbage palms, saw palmettos and other plantings in what is being called the coastal thicket.

“When they grow in it’s going to be terrific,” said Kriseman, marveling at the potential of the pathways over the bay.

The mayor said that every visit to the Pier District gives him goose bumps.

“I think it is the most complex project the city has accomplished to date. It’s not simply building a roadway and a building over water, but we built an entire 26-acre district,” he said. “Our community and our city team and the folks who built this Pier, I think, have a lot to be proud of.”