The other day, I was in a hard hat, neon vest and a cloud of construction dust on the still-in-progress St. Pete Pier. And kind of amazed.
A forklift trundled past juggling a massive sable palm, one of more than 500 trees being added before the Pier's expected re-opening next spring.
My impressions from a tour of the hard-fought, not-yet-finished, latest version of this town's much-loved Pier?
I didn't realize it would be so green. And praise be, someone gets the critical importance of shade.
Overall? As someone who lives across the bridge in Tampa and is thoroughly enjoying my own town's current momentum, I walked away with a serious case of St. Pete envy.
Although the years it took getting here didn't look so easy. Let's just say there's been some differences of opinion along the way.
While many considered the old Pier and its upside-down pyramid tired and obsolete, others defended it as iconic and at the very heart of St. Pete's history.
In 2013, voters rejected a proposal for a futuristic-looking replacement called the Lens.
Then there was that billowing net sculpture by an international artist planned for nearby Spa Beach that got push-back and was relocated. You even saw some eyebrows raised this year when the artist, Janet Echelman, publicly unveiled her sculpture's design at an event not in St. Pete but Tampa. Ahem.
But look at this Pier project now — 1,350 feet stretching into Tampa Bay and 26 acres all told in a district blended into the city's waterfront with the downtown high-rises as a picturesque backdrop.
On the tour, we passed where vendors will sell from kiosks and tents and people can lounge on grass and benches in the shade. We saw where kids will romp in a marine-themed playground with a splash pad nearby and places everyone can gather for events. We walked up a sloping lawn — tilted, they call it — and saw where native plants will grow in a coastal thicket you'll be able to stroll through.
City architect Raul Quintana pointed out the two restaurants in progress and the educational discovery center with its wet classroom. And that stacked-looking building at the end that reminds me of playing Jenga? It's just one more thing to do out there, not the only thing, not the single destination. The place has great hang-out potential.
And at the pier's very end facing across the bay is an expansive fishing deck with a bait shop, fishing being, oh yeah, one of the points of a pier. Even one that's a whole Pier District expected to top out at $92 million when you include all the ancillary projects.
As we tromped through the rumble and dust discussing surprise seawalls found during construction that might be a century old, Quintana stopped and squinted at the water. "I just saw a dolphin," he said, which no matter how long you live in Florida or how many you see, never, ever gets old. Isn't that part of the point of a pier, too?
I saw a cormorant drying its wings at the water's edge and a pack of pelicans sitting patient in the sun, ignoring all the construction fuss.
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No doubt they'll be here when the Pier finally re-opens at last, making it their own, too.