ST. PETERSBURG — Taking the path of many construction projects, the 26-acre Pier District has meandered past its original completion date, buffeted by the vagaries of weather, surprise encounters with long-buried pilings and seawalls and other unforeseen circumstances.
The vaunted world-class destination of the city's aspirations, once scheduled to be finished early this year, then targeted to fall, and now with promises of "substantial completion" in December, won't be ready to welcome visitors until the spring of 2020.
"We will get the keys handed over to us at the end of December,'' said Chris Ballestra, the city's managing director of development coordination. "But while we theoretically could cut the ribbon that day, I think that we want to afford our tenants some time. They will be taking care of all of their equipment inside their spaces and training their staff, as will we.
"We want to be prudent on how to make sure it's a successful grand opening."
The past few weeks have produced visible above-ground progress at the site, where there have been months of subterranean and marine work. Pier contractor Skanska USA recently used a helicopter to capture the dramatic nighttime concrete pour of the Pier head building's fourth floor, where the new Teak restaurant will be located — the same level of the Columbia at the old inverted pyramid Pier. The April 16 operation involved 80 workers, 77 concrete trucks and 767 cubic yards of concrete.
Earlier this month, conservation group Tampa Bay Watch dedicated the Pier's first building. The Tierre Verde organization's Discovery Center, which will house hands-on marine exhibits and teach about Tampa Bay's ecosystem, however, has months of interior work ahead.
Preparation for the installation of a $1 million water-themed, wooden playground is also underway. In about two weeks, work on four massive pilings, part of the infrastructure required to install one of international artist Janet Echelman's billowing net sculptures, will begin.
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To date, the cost of the Pier and its ancillary projects is $87 million. The original $50 million budget has grown as the project has expanded from 5½ acres to 26. City officials say they'll need at least another $6 million to complete the new Pier District.
Work is at a stage, said assistant city administrator Tom Greene, where "we're in a better position to forecast what the future expenses associated with this multigenerational project will be."
He said three categories of available funds, along with remaining elements of the project were used to make the forecasts.
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"There's $8.4 million in projects that are proximate to the Pier project, which include $5.5 million in seawalls," Greene said, with much of that $8.4 million coming from Tax Increment Financing in the Intown Redevelopment Plan area and from Penny for Pinellas funds. A little more than $800,000 also is being spent on sewer and stormwater improvements while the area is torn up for construction, Greene said, a decision that makes "economic sense."
There's also a $2 million pot of donations and grants, including $250,000 from the American Academy of Dermatology for shade structures.
However, the long-awaited project also faces about $2 million in overages caused by rising construction costs and unforeseen conditions, Greene said. St. Petersburg has avoided the 18 percent hike in construction costs forecast by industry experts because of agreements with contractors that locked in prices, but new segments of the project are coming in at current market pricing, Greene said.
The city also is tapping into its technology budget for infrastructure for Wifi service and its marketing and transportation budgets for wayfinding signs.
Original funding for the Pier came from a 2005 agreement between the city and the Pinellas County Commission, which allocated $50 million tied to tax increment financing, in which increased tax revenue in a certain area is reinvested in that area. Mayor Rick Kriseman sought another $20 million in 2015, and two years later an additional $14 million for Pier enhancements.The City Council agreed to only $10 million for the enhancements. The money is paying for such elements as the playground, much of the infrastructure for Echelman's sculpture and a more elaborate splash.
As of April 18, $854,699 of the $10 million remains. The city has needed to dip into the enhancement money to cover contingencies.
"The longer the construction takes, the more chances there are for prices to go up," Ballestra said. "The good news is, we've completed some major milestones. All the marine construction is complete. The Pier building is well underway at the head and our foundation is complete and the shell for Doc Ford's (restaurant). We now have more of a comfort level for unforeseen conditions in the next 10 months."