With costs rising, enthusiasm dropping and questions looming about St. Petersburg's plans for a new pier on the downtown waterfront, now is the time to pause and take stock of what should happen next before plunging ahead on a project that could help define the city for generations. With Mayor Rick Kriseman signaling the city needs more money, it's reasonable to reconsider priorities and long-term goals before spending substantially more or settling for anything less than spectacular.
Much has changed since the city approved the new pier design:
• With demolition of the old Pier now completed, St. Petersburg residents are beginning to live life without a pier and many like what they are seeing — unobstructed views of Tampa Bay. Until it was gone, many people didn't consider the obvious question: Is the city certain it needs one?
• A centerpiece of the pier itself, a restaurant that would look back toward the city, has drawn little interest from restaurateurs, which should give planners pause. Another national franchise does not sound appealing. And is it smart to use public money to create subsidized competition in a restaurant marketplace thriving on Beach Drive and steadily moving west in areas showing new life?
• City officials know that the pier project, as conceived, will need far more money than is budgeted and have signaled that to Pinellas County officials, who would have to sign off on earmarking more tax increment financing. Would the pier be worth that substantial extra expense?
In short, this is not the same project that the city approved. That is not to say that the pier project should be abruptly killed, but it would be prudent to pause and reflect — and to weigh the costs and benefits of going forward. When the Times' Perspective section recently asked, "Do we still need a pier?" hundreds of readers thoughtfully responded. Almost no one wanted to proceed with a scaled-back pier, and a vast majority were happy to have no pier at all. Granted, this was a self-selected and small sample.
The pier money is currently committed because of restrictions on the bonds. But it's worth looking at options at how that could change. The cost of simply paying off the bonds and abandoning the project also should be reviewed. Building a new pier that would be another jewel on the downtown waterfront is going to cost millions more than originally envisioned — and the city should not settle for merely an adequate pier only because it has had one for more than a century.