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After years, St. Pete Pier opens to a crowd of thousands Monday

The newest iteration of a 131-year-old city tradition includes restaurants, a beach, art, open space and attractions for the kids.
Visitors walk along the 26 acre, $92 million St. Petersburg Pier District, Monday, July 6, 2020 s the pier opened to he public.
Visitors walk along the 26 acre, $92 million St. Petersburg Pier District, Monday, July 6, 2020 s the pier opened to he public. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Jul. 7, 2020
Updated Jul. 7, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — After one plan and then another, after campaign promises, after tens of millions of dollars and more than a decade of waiting, St. Petersburg’s new pier finally opened to the public on Monday afternoon.

More than a thousand people, each with a reserved ticket and timeslot, lined up along Bayshore Boulevard NE to see the new attraction. Once inside, parents with toddlers and teens alike gushed about the expansive 26-acre district, the family amenities, its dining options and its views, of both the bay waters and St. Petersburg’s growing skyline.

“I’m quite impressed,” said Rebecca Martin, 60, who moved to St. Petersburg when the 1970s-era inverted pyramid still stood at the old pier.

She thought the old version was attractive, and that a new pier was a waste of money. Standing behind the five-story building looking out over the bay, Martin said she’s come to appreciate the space the new pier district offers.

Mayor Rick Kriseman, who made the completion of the $92 million project central to his mayoral campaign, cut the ribbon, inviting St. Petersburg onto the newest iteration of a 131-year-old city tradition.

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

He acknowledged the moment the pier was birthed into, seized by the pandemic and ongoing civil unrest over racial inequality. Attendees wore face coverings and pier-goers were let to trickle in to avoid crowding. About 30 protesters pivoted from City Hall, their usual gathering spot, to lead chants at the pier.

“Virus or no virus, there’s no better place to be than St. Petersburg in 2020,” Kriseman said.

But neither the virus nor the protests could quell the excitement of the residents who came to take in Day 1 of the renewal of a defining element for a city already so proud of its waterfront. Families remained late into the evening, sitting in Adirondack chairs and taking in the twilight underneath the illuminated and billowing net sculpture Bending Arc suspended above.

Visitors enjoy drinks on the top floor of the Pier Head building at the new St Petersburg Pier District, Monday, July 6, 2020.
Visitors enjoy drinks on the top floor of the Pier Head building at the new St Petersburg Pier District, Monday, July 6, 2020. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

The pier offers a bit for everyone, from several places to purchase local merchandise, food and adult beverages to a beach, splash pad and custom-built playground.

Jeff and Missy Siemietkowski, 40 and 43, of Largo lounged in colorful sun chairs as their 7-year-old son Jaxon ran through the splash pad.

“If the kids are happy, parents are happy,” Missy Siemietkowski said.

While the finished product may lend itself to sunsets over the city’s skyline, the new pier came to fruition despite a series of stumbles, pauses, indecision and disagreements stretching back more than a decade.

A pier has been part of the city’s downtown fabric since 1889. City leaders had been debating since at least 2006 about what to do with the previous pier, the inverted pyramid. The pier approach and the base at the end were deteriorating, weakened by saltwater. They budgeted $50 million for an overhaul.

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Related: St. Petersburg piers evoke memories of family times, a past era and change

St. Petersburg residents quarreled about whether to demolish it or build something more modern and revenue generating. In 2013, devotees of the upside down pyramid teamed up with others on a citizen-led referendum to resoundingly reject the controversial “Lens” design that had won an international competition to be its replacement.

But coming up with a new design also became steeped in drama. The concept eventually selected was a collaboration of New York and Tampa architects. Kriseman later decided to expand the project to create the new 26-acre Pier District and a second team of architects was hired for the portion of the project that would link the area to the thriving downtown.

Visitors walk along the 26 acre, $92 million St. Petersburg Pier District, Monday, July 6, 2020 s the pier opened to he public.
Visitors walk along the 26 acre, $92 million St. Petersburg Pier District, Monday, July 6, 2020 s the pier opened to he public. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Council Chair Ed Montanari, who participated in Monday’s grand opening, became involved in the city’s quest to carry on the city’s Pier legacy. He was part of a Pier visioning process in 2008 and served as vice chairman of the Pier Advisory Task Force that held 63 meetings and issued a key report in 2010. After residents voted down the first proposed Pier replacement in 2013, Montanari was asked by then Mayor Bill Foster to join a committee to decide on a way forward. After Kriseman took office in 2014, Montanari was drafted for the new mayor’s Pier Working Group.

Will Michaels, author of The Making of St. Petersburg, was also a member of the pivotal Pier Advisory Task Force and was its design chair. He sees evidence of their work in the new Pier District.

“I am pleased to see that many recommendations made in the 2010 Pier Advisory Task Force Report have carried forth, including the marine discovery center, splash pad and children’s play area, and how the new Pier generally complements our precious downtown waterfront parks and the bay,” he said.

Related: For now, reservations required to visit the St. Pete Pier

City officials estimate that the annual taxpayer subsidy for the Pier District will be $1.9 million, slightly higher than the average 10-year subsidy of $1.4 million for the inverted pyramid, which covered just 5 ½ acres. The new district, with its restaurants and vendors, is expected to bring in more revenue than the previous Pier. The city is also selling naming rights to certain components of the new district.

Hill Carrow, CEO of Sports & Properties of North Carolina, which has been hired by the city to sell naming rights in the Pier District, said elements such as the splash pad, playground, coastal thicket, family park, plaza, marketplace, great lawn, fishing deck and tilted lawn are all up for sponsorships. He said naming rights are available for annual payments of $50,000 to $1 million for 10-year terms, but that “deals are customized for each naming rights partner as part of a negotiated process.”

As of opening day, Carrow said, one local company had purchased naming rights, but chose to “wait until an appropriate time” to make an announcement. A second contract is almost complete, he added.

The grand opening commenced with a flag raising, and then officials cut the ribbon. Afterward, Kriseman and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin greeted people at the entrance as they walked in.

“Welcome to Pieradise,” Tomalin said.