City should lead, not follow, on Pier

Published April 6, 2012

St. Petersburg has spent years debating, researching and evaluating its thoughtful plan to replace the aging Pier with a visionary concept. There has been plenty of public comment along the way, and the city is negotiating with the designers. To backtrack now, as Mayor Bill Foster hints, and place dueling questions on the ballot would be an abdication of leadership — no matter how many signatures the opponents gather to try to force a referendum.

It's clear the petition is a poorly researched, knee-jerk reaction to the City Council's commonsense decision in 2010 to replace St. Petersburg's aging inverted pyramid and its approach. The group hoped to exploit a provision in the city charter that allows citizens to force a citywide vote by collecting petitions from 10 percent of registered voters (about 16,000). But the provision only applies to repealing ordinances or proposed ordinances rejected by the City Council. In this case, no ordinances related to the Pier have been passed, so the charter provision doesn't apply.

Foster, despite showing leadership in the past on the Pier, now looks to be in full retreat. He says if the petition gatherers manage to collect 16,000 signatures (they say they have 13,000) he would urge the City Council to put it on the ballot. His acquiescence would undermine years of work — including the recent international design competition he championed. A citizens task force, numerous consultants and the City Council have all agreed saving the pyramid is fiscally irresponsible and not in the city's long-term interest.

It's helpful to remember why the City Council voted to demolish the 1973 pyramid to make room for a new pier, which would be the city's third. Taxpayers are paying more to maintain the structure because of its age and a decline in visitors that forced the city to further subsidize the rents of tenants.

The biggest impetus for the decision is that the 100-foot-wide approach is nearing the end of its life and would cost $50 million to replace. Heavy vehicles such as city garbage trucks are barred from the approach. Engineers estimate by 2015 it will have to be closed entirely to vehicles.

City leaders reasonably concluded it makes more sense to spend the $50 million on a new, more fiscally sustainable pier. That led to an international design competition. The winning Lens design by Michael Maltzan Architecture of Los Angeles fits better with 21st century sensibilities. Rather than a costly signature destination with dubious economic viability, the Lens would be an extension of the city's already heavily utilized waterfront parks, with escalating and looping boardwalks. Most amenities would be on land, not over water. Some issues remain with the design, including the feasibility of an ambitious sea garden. But leadership means fine-tuning that design, not allowing critics to force a wholesale retreat.

St. Petersburg's elected leaders reached their decision on the Pier after thoughtful professional analysis, plenty of citizen input and significant scrutiny. Residents who don't agree have a way to register their disapproval in city elections. Until then, city leaders need to lead, not follow.