1. Opinion

Editorial: Don't muddy water on pier

St. Petersburg’s inverted pyramid is coming down.
St. Petersburg’s inverted pyramid is coming down.
Published May 28, 2013

Simple and straightforward is usually better. The St. Petersburg City Council should tread carefully as it considers Mayor Bill Foster's suggestion to add nonbinding questions on the future of the pier to the August primary ballot. Voters are already likely to face a citizen referendum that seeks to kill the city's thoughtful and well-vetted plan for a new pier to replace the outdated inverted pyramid. More questions could further muddy the waters in a contentious debate and alienate voters.

The City Council is expected to decide Thursday whether it will entertain the mayor's request at a council meeting June 6. Among the mayor's proposed questions, which all inform voters that the inverted pyramid will be demolished:

Should the city build a new municipal pier to "honor the 100-year tradition of having a publicly funded municipal pier open to the public"?

• Should the city give a private company a 99-year lease to build and operate a pier?

• Should the city limit the replacement pier to a flat wood fishing pier with just basic amenities?

With council approval, some or all of those questions would appear alongside a citizen referendum known as Stop the Lens. That seeks voter approval to cancel the city's contract with the architect designing the replacement for the inverted pyramid.

Foster ostensibly wants to give voters a chance to provide a more nuanced portrait of what they want in the next pier beyond simply scuttling the project. But that risks undercutting the city's best argument about why voters should support the new pier plan by rejecting the Stop the Lens measure on the Aug. 27 ballot.

Since 2009, the city has been investigating what's next for the pier, from a citizen task force that met for more than a year and held dozens of public meetings to an open international design competition won by architect Michael Maltzan of Los Angeles. Maltzan has continued to modify the design significantly in the past year to reflect public input, such as adding restaurants and more shaded areas, widening the escalating and looping walkways and expanding the seating of an over-water amphitheater.

The Legislature has tried this sort of approach before, attempting to add constitutional amendments to the ballot when lawmakers did not like an amendment placed on the ballot by voters. It was bad policy that failed then, and there is no reason to judge the St. Petersburg situation any differently.

The biggest challenge the new St. Pete Pier continues to face is public awareness about what it actually will offer. Contrary to critics, it is far more than a "sidewalk to nowhere." It provides a thoughtful solution to a unique problem of building a high-functioning public amenity over water within taxpayers' fiscal constraints. Rather than confusing voters with multiple questions that would be neither binding nor clear, a more productive City Council discussion might be how to better inform voters about the good plan it already has approved.