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National Politics

Clarity sought on Lens' future in St. Pete

Tribune staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 08:25 AM

The public can be forgiven for lingering confusion about the fate of the iconic Pier and the plans for replacing it with a modern architectural showpiece.

After all, for years it has been debated, discussed, voted on — and now, litigated.

Later this month, a mediation session might bring some clarity to the long-running dispute. But don't hold your breath.

The mediator does not make a binding decision in such cases. The session could result in a settlement or an impasse, the latter of which would send the case back to circuit court.

The mediation is set for Jan. 18. It was ordered by a judge who told the city and Kathleen Ford, a former City Council member who filed suit to save the existing Pier, to engage in talks.

Ford filed suit on behalf of the group, which wants a referendum on preserving and refurbishing the 40-year-old inverted pyramid structure and its deteriorating approach.

The city, meanwhile, is proceeding with a schedule to demolish the pier beginning in May and build the Lens, a $50 million loop sweeping out over Tampa Bay that its designer describes as "as much a public park as it is a breathtaking sculpture on the water."

The pyramid supporters are seeking an injunction to stop the demolition.

"It's always been my view that the Pier represents a place in time, and is the centerpiece of the downtown waterfront system," said Tom Lambdon, head of "The Pier is Tampa Bay. It's an iconic landmark for the entire area."

Lambdon said it would be "a slap in the face to city voters" to proceed on a new project without their input.

Mayor Bill Foster disagrees.

"With 100 meetings open to the public, and task force after task force, we've been talking about the condition of the Pier for 10 years. And it's been publicized," he said. "The city's official position is that we are closing the Pier as we know it on May 31."

The St. Petersburg Pier has been a symbol of the city for more than a century, from the first Railroad Pier preceding the city's incorporation, to the Electric Pier's celebration of light at the dawn of the 20th century, to the Million Dollar Pier of the 1920s and the upside-down pyramid that graces the waterfront today.

But "graces" may be too polite a compliment in 2013. The Pier's approach is as old as the now-condemned Friendship TrailBridge along the Gandy Bridge spanning the bay. The mayor describes the once-proud pyramid as "a 40-year-old building whose functional utility is questionable at best."

The city and Pinellas County began formally considering the Pier's future in 2005, when city plans were amended to provide $50 million for a Pier project. Visioning workshops were held, and a Pier advisory task force was established. In 2010, the task force report was released, calling for an international design competition for a new Pier, and the City Council voted to demolish the old Pier. In January 2012, a jury selected the Lens design.

During the process, petitions began to circulate. And as it did when it sought to redevelop its waterfront airport property, as it did when it proposed a waterfront home for the Tampa Bay Rays, St. Petersburg had another feud on its hands.

Today, referendum supporters say they have more than 20,000 signatures calling for a vote. Those petitions, however, didn't meet technical requirements for a citizen initiative, and although the City Council could have allowed a citywide vote anyway, it voted against a referendum in August.

Meanwhile, a second group of city adversaries has entered the fray. Stop the Lens, another citizens' group, is handing out yard signs and circulating petitions that would force the city to cancel the contract with the Lens architect.

In a Stop the Lens video, prominent businessmen say the proposed structure "doesn't work," is "out of scale" and resembles "a toilet seat."

The acrimony over the Lens project recently drew a high-profile newcomer into the clash. Anthony Sullivan, the British infomercial pitchman behind OxiClean and the Swivel Sweeper who recently bought a home in Snell Isle, volunteered his gift of persuasion to the city.

He said he was prompted by the proliferation of yard signs and petitioners objecting to the Lens.

"A switch just went off on me, and I realized, these people could actually scuttle this project."

Sullivan said St. Petersburg wasn't doing a good job of promoting the Lens, which he calls a "world-class structure." He said design-based objections to a structure vetted as thoroughly as the Lens aren't necessarily valid.

"If you look at history, people hated the Eiffel Tower. They hated the Sydney Opera House. They hated the London Eye. They called the Washington monument 'a stick of asparagus.' "

Amid the sloganeering and yard signage dotting downtown St. Petersburg, Sullivan, whose infomercial empire is based in Tampa, came up with a line of his own: "Make Lens, Not War."

As in any emotional political scuffle, the two sides are batting facts and figures back and forth in he-said/she-said style.

The city says it would take $80 million to refurbish the pyramid; Lambdon of says he is working with a contractor who can do it for the $50 million the Lens would cost. The opponents of the Lens say their voices weren't heard; St. Petersburg Mayor Foster calls them "the Rip Van Winkle crowd," after the literary character legendary for a lengthy slumber.

Opponents decry spending $50 million after a recession. Supporters point out the money is being raised in a specific tax district approved decades ago that will raise $95 million by the time it expires in 2035, and they note the existing Pier is costing the city $1.5 million a year in subsidies to businesses there.

Ford, who is representing the group, declined comment for this story, and any mediation strategy could not be determined.

Foster said the city is sticking to its plan.

"We've got to move," he said. When the City Council was considering allowing a referendum in August, "I told everybody, in my opinion, the train was going to leave the station in November, and it did."

Opponents hope the mediation session later this month will be a first step in stopping that train.

"If voters want to renew the inverted pyramid, it should be an option," Lambdon said. "If they support the Lens, then God bless America. The Pier is the centerpiece of a highly protected downtown waterfront system, and that alone should warrant support by voters across the city." (813) 259-7834