ST. PETERSBURG — Walk out to the end of the brand new $93 million St. Pete Pier and try to ignore the beauty of the skyline and the bay waters for just a moment.
Instead, look down.
Cracks like spiderwebs crawl in every direction out by the pier head building. Catch them after it rains, and they stay darker longer, accentuating the imperfections.
No, the cracks do not mean that the pier is settling or that the design or construction was flawed, city officials affirm. The cracked concrete forms the “topping layer,” meaning the slabs are there for aesthetics, weathering and to provide a smooth walking and driving surface. The structural components remain intact.
“We’re aware there’s been some aesthetic cracking, and we’re going to watch it to see if it gets worse,” said City Architect Raul Quintana. “But, ultimately, it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s providing the weathering surface. But it’s not failing.”
The cracks have been there since before the pier opened in July, Quintana said. He explained they were likely caused by bad timing in the construction process.
Workers had poured the 3-inch topping slabs while there was still heavy construction equipment at the end of the pier putting the finishing touches on the head building in the mad dash to open by summer.
The concrete, a specially-designed mix meant to withstand the pounding of feet, weight of vehicles and corrosiveness of saltwater, requires several weeks to fully cure. It’s likely the vehicles and machinery drove over the affected slabs before they were completely ready to bear the load.
The slabs are reinforced with a network of fiber mesh inside. Engineers went that route instead of using rebar, because it could have rusted in a slab so thin. The mesh is holding the cracked slabs together, preventing more cracking and any of the pieces from chipping or lifting up.
Most of the pier’s sidewalks have held up, Quintana notes, even under the weight of the tram. The cracks are worst out by the pier head.
The structural slabs — 15-inch, doubly-reinforced behemoths that are tied into the pier’s piles — are meant to last at least 75 years. The thinner topping slabs, which are poured atop the structural layer, are supposed to have a life span of 20 years or more.
That replacement cycle is on par with Disney’s, which replaces their pathways every 15-25 years, according to Bill Zanetti, a theme park & entertainment industry analyst and an adjunct professor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
“Guests never like to see cracks in sidewalks, but good maintenance and planning can help them from occurring in the first place,” Zanetti said.
Since none of the cracks are uneven or present a tripping hazard, Quintana said city officials decided to see if they could squeeze more life out of them, the imperfect aesthetics aside.
Otherwise, to rip them out, pour new concrete and let it cure would require closure of the sidewalk around the pier.
“If (the concrete) had shattered or it had crumbled, it would have been replaced,” said City Architect Raul Quintana. “We decided let’s live with it, let’s watch it.”
And so, at least for the time being, the cracks are here to stay.
“We wish we didn’t have it, we wish it had come out perfectly like everything else, but in construction, these things happen,” he said.