ST. PETERSBURG — It's not easy to picture the city's shiny new Pier District amid the mounds of excavated earth, stacks of steel supports, cranes dangling overhead and pilings rising from the depths of Tampa Bay.
But a tour of the 26-acre waterfront park conducted by City Architect Raul Quintana helps bring the $76 million project into focus.
At Spa Beach, a spur of boulders has been positioned to stabilize the landside to the north and help the beach develop now that a seawall has been removed. A newly dug trench awaits a retaining wall that will separate the grassy area from the sand.
Nearby there are columns of reinforcement steel for the roof of the pavilion that is being built to beckon beachgoers to shade, a snack bar and rest rooms. And those slanted concrete walls? They will frame and support a "tilted lawn," where visitors will be able to enjoy shade and scenic views of Tampa Bay and downtown.
Work is also under way on the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center toward the center of the Pier approach. At its end, there is evidence that the Pier head building is rising and in the former Pelican parking lot, the pilings are in for the new Doc Ford's Rum Bar & Grille. But there's more going on than meets the eye, Quintana said.
"It's not just seeing one thing or another going on, the totality of the 26 acres is under construction. It's a very complex site right now. There's millions of dollars of work going on underground in order to support work going on above ground," he said, mentioning, for example, storm water pipes, water and sanitary service and electrical work.
Above ground, the project has two bridges — on the north and the south — that merge into a single wider span. Work is proceeding on the north bridge and the parallel "coastal thicket," the latter a design of three mammoth planters along the water's edge that will feature native plants and a boardwalk.
At the Pier head, where the iconic inverted pyramid once stood, the elevator and stair cores for a new building are being formed.
"They are part of the structural support system that will support the building," Quintana said.
It's here that a restaurant, gift and bait shop, café and roof top bar will be located. Chuck Prather, owner of the Birchwood, a boutique hotel on Beach Drive NE, has the contract to operate the fourth-floor restaurant, which he is calling Teak, a rooftop bar, Pier Teaki, and the Driftwood Café.
The café will be on the elevated terrace level, which rises nine feet from the Pier head deck and connects to a sloping lawn. The deck is where visitors will be dropped off by tram, take elevators and stairs and buy gifts and bait. Restrooms will be at this level, along with access to the fishing platform about six feet below. The platform will be built on four caissons — currently visible above the water at the end of the Pier — that once supported the demolished inverted pyramid. A fifth caisson has been incorporated into the foundation of the new Pier deck.
Work is also underway on the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center toward the center of the overwater section of the project. Peter Clark, founder and president of Tampa Bay Watch, is excited.
"It is a centerpiece of the new Pier District that is coming together," he said, adding that he's not surprised that it is one of the first buildings going up.
The city, which is leasing the site to the group, is only building the shell. Tampa Bay Watch, a nonprofit with a mission to protect and restore the Tampa Bay estuary, will be responsible for interior improvements.
Clark said the new Discovery Center will feature an exhibit hall with hands-on interactive exhibits and tanks that "tell the Tampa Bay story.
"On the eastern side, we will also have a classroom facility," he said, adding that the "wet classroom" on the western side will have steps leading down to the water and a platform from which instruction will be provided.
The Tierra Verde-based organization also plans a "front porch" on the western side of the center that will feature an open deck for additional outdoor programming.
All of this, though, will cost money and Tampa Bay Watch is already in fundraising mode. The city is requiring the organization to raise $860,000 by January for its interior construction plans.
"We anticipate the need for $2.2 million for all of the exhibit development and construction and programing and to set up classrooms and run our center for the first year," Clark said. "That includes a classroom boat so we can take the kids out on the water and so we can use it for eco-tourism in the afternoon."
Installation of Pier District's $1 million playground is not expected to begin before next summer. Quintana said it will use wood and other natural materials and will be fabricated offsite. The playground will be located close to the pavilion in section that used to be the Dolphin parking lot. The splash pad will be between the pavilion and the tilted lawn and near to Spa Beach.
The much-anticipated Janet Echelman aerial net sculpture will float just west of the playground, in a park situated in part of an area that used to be the Dolphin lot.
Quintana said the sculpture, like the playground and several other elements of the Pier District, is still in the design phase.
The Pier District is scheduled to be complete by late 2019.
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at email@example.com or (727) 892–2283. Follow @wmooretimes.