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Is the St. Pete Pier worth it? | Opinion

So two Tampa Bay Times editorial writers walk into the St. Pete Pier.

Editorial writers Jim Verhulst and Elizabeth Djinis went to the St. Pete Pier this week as tourists, not art critics or stewards of the tax dollars. Jim brought institutional knowledge and a fear that the Pier may underwhelm. Elizabeth was armed with hope and a willingness to be excited. Would those feelings pan out? Only a tour will tell.

Editorial board members Elizabeth Djinis and Jim Verhulst at the top of the Pier building. [ Elizabeth Djinis ]

Jim: Elizabeth! It’s great to see you! Well, sort of see you. Nice mask.

Elizabeth: I’m just so excited to be around real, live human people. I haven’t seen much of anyone other than my boyfriend and mom for months.

Jim: Well, here we are — the new St. Pete Pier. To quote Hamilton, Look around! I’m sorry; we just streamed the musical. More than once.

One of several illuminated St. Pete Pier signs. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Elizabeth: I’ve never seen Hamilton, so I’m going to ignore that. As for the Pier, I have no idea what to expect. I love the idea of an outdoor park complex with entertainment, but sometimes these things are cooler in theory than in practice. Either way, I think I’m a little more excited than you.

Jim: Maybe my mask is hiding my excitement.

The aerial sculpture called "Bending Arc," by artist Janet Echelman. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Jim: Ah, the “Bending Arc,” the big public art! During the day, it just doesn’t do much for me. An awful lot of people are going to love this. But if I want to view expensive art I don’t understand, I’m heading to the Dali Museum, where my friend Walt the docent will explain it to this Philistine.

Elizabeth: It’s hard to figure it out from a distance with its net-like quality. I appreciate the way it opens up toward the sky, like a giant skylight, but it lacks the ethereal quality during the day. So, $1.5 million for this work or art. What do you think?

Jim: Maybe it looks better at night.

"Bending Arc" at night. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]

Elizabeth: I like the colors. What is it supposed to mean?

Jim: See, you’re trying to ascribe meaning to art. It means what it means. ... Look, there are birds on it. I knew there would be birds on it. If I’m going to lie on the lovely grass to look up and admire this art, I’m going to keep my mouth shut — just in case.

Elizabeth: Good advice.

The new splash pad at the Pier. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Elizabeth: The splash pad looks fun. Something after my own heart, especially in this heat. Are adults allowed?

Jim: I’d love to bring my grandchildren here. Oh wait, I don’t have grandchildren. Maybe my sons will read this. I mean, I don’t want to pressure them. But it’s a really cool splash pad. It’s got lights and water and little geysers. It’s the kind of thing grandkids would love to do when they’re visiting.

Elizabeth: I think you’ve made a compelling argument for grandchildren. It’s hard for me to look at the Pier and not see it as before and after coronavirus. Before coronavirus, a splash pad seemed fun. Now, the idea of little kids splashing together with their parents close behind is just ... cringe-inducing.

Elizabeth: You have to admit: The views of the water are beautiful.

Jim: I don’t want to be the old meanie, but we have views from back there, (motioning to the waterfront parks) and they didn’t cost $92 million.

Elizabeth: I think a lot of people like you — who have lived here for a while and have seen the iterations — are going to feel underwhelmed. That doesn’t mean you don’t like it.

Jim: I don’t hate it. I actually kinda like it. There’s just more concrete than I expected. But the path is narrow enough that you really feel as if you’re floating on the water. That’s pretty cool.

St. Petersburg's previous inverted pyramid

Jim and Elizabeth, in unison: Is that a rainbow? Yes, that’s definitely a rainbow.

Jim: That’s a good sign, right? An auspicious beginning.

Elizabeth: Let’s get a picture.

(Editor’s note: Sadly, like vampires — or is it witches? — rainbows can’t really be photographed, at least by these amateurs.)

Jim: Elizabeth, look at this cool indoor classroom put together by Tampa Bay Watch. The wave sculpture made from repurposed plastic water bottles and fishing line. I think it reminds us what happens if we don’t pick up after ourselves. And the steps outside the building? They’re almost like a mini-amphitheater leading down to the water, where classes can be held.

Elizabeth: I love the idea of adult classes — with wine and cheese. Or maybe just wine. I can see myself learning about the secret lives of seahorses.

Children partake in a learning session about marine life put on by Tampa bay Watch. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

Jim: As we walk this whole thing, I keep coming back to my bias: More nature, less concrete. The coastal thicket, close to the wet classroom, does it for me. Shade, natural plants, a place to go all Zen. What’s not to like?

Elizabeth: I love the idea that you can really contemplate life here. Maybe this will force me to finally take up meditation.

Jim, motions: There is a coontie plant! We’ve got coontie. Dinosaurs ate it!

The coastal thicket. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Elizabeth: I wish there were more signs describing the actual foliage. That’s why it’s good to have an expert along like you, Jim.

Jim: Correction, Elizabeth. My wife’s the expert. We have a certified Florida-friendly garden, but I merely dig where I’m told. In return, craft beer!

Elizabeth: Is that a beach? I could meditate and do some yoga down there. I will be truly living the Florida millennial lifestyle.

A look at Spa Beach from the St. Pete Pier [ Elizabeth Djinis ]

Jim: I’d certainly run along the beach, but I’m not bendy enough for yoga. And onlookers and dermatologists agree that my beach-bathing days are long past. Anyway, it’s really cool that Spa Beach is now a big part of the Pier, not an afterthought like before. And it’s safe to go in the water, usually. It wasn’t always so.

Elizabeth: I guess it’s time for us to actually explore the Pier building — you know, the centerpiece of this whole thing. The fact that I wasn’t sure it was finished is not a good sign.

The new Pier opened earlier this month. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Jim: Hey, I’m supposed to be the heavy, Elizabeth. Several years ago as Perspective editor, I commissioned a series of short essays around the theme “Do we still need a Pier?” My own answer at the time: Not really sure.

Elizabeth: I’ll be honest, I was probably easier to impress. But I’m sad to say this kind of solidifies what I thought from farther away, which is, Oh, it’s a building.

Jim: Yeah, this is along the route I run to work. Each day, I kept hoping that it would be an architectural marvel. The old Pier was old, decrepit, crappy and really no longer had a function. But when it was lit up at night, when somebody wanted to capture an establishing shot of downtown St. Petersburg, boy was it gorgeous. Dare I say “iconic”? Maybe special lighting can fix the new one, too.

Elizabeth: Is this a tiki bar? I love the idea of grabbing a drink up here with my boyfriend or friends and looking out on the city. I’m jonesing for a pina colada! It just feels like that type of environment.

Jim: Speaking as a not-young, I just have to say this building leaves me cool. It’s nice to walk up top and get the panoramic views of the bay and the city. But realistically, we’ll go out here a couple of times a year, when friends and relatives visit. The sloping great lawn is neat, though. Maybe American Stage should find a new home for its in-the-park productions? What say you?

Elizabeth: With any type of cultural icon, it’s hard to separate what it could become with what it is. I would love to find out in a few years that the bar at the top of the Pier became a go-to spot for St. Pete young people.

Jim: For me, the best parts of the new Pier are the “small” things, not the big-ticket items. I can imagine that instead of saying, “Let’s go to the Pier,” people will say, “Let’s go to the splash pad,” or “Let’s go to Spa Beach,” or “Let’s go to the Discovery Center” or the coastal thicket. A lot of little things add up to a nice big thing, even without an icon.

Elizabeth: It’s easy to have this underwhelm your expectations when, as a local, we’ve been waiting years. But the Pier is unique. I don’t see it rivaled in other cities, at least in Florida.

Jim: Elizabeth, I’m with you. I liked it, but, man, I didn’t fall head over heels in love.

Elizabeth: I will say, I found this walk exhausting. I got my steps in for the day. I’m embarrassed to say that this was tiring!

Jim: But Elizabeth, they will have a trolley!

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