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Tuesday, Sep 23, 2014
Joe Brown Columns

Any ideas for Pier-less St. Pete?

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The bar conversation started out as a debate about what the Rays should do with pitcher David Price. Should he stay or should he go? Will the Rays ever be able to keep a superstar? Would a new ballpark really make a difference?

The discussion about a new ballpark and where it should be grew into a comparison of downtown Tampa and its counterpart across the bay. Everyone agreed that St. Petersburg’s has much more to offer. “It’s 10 times better than Tampa’s,” remarked one guy.

Soon we were talking about the St. Pete Pier and what should be done with it. Since voters rejected the city’s proposed Lens project to replace the shuttered landmark, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has sought public input and adopted a “no rush” approach to an eventual replacement. Although none of us had attended any meetings, we all had our opinions on what we would like to see there.

A Philadelphia native who spent many a weekend in Atlantic City thought its iconic boardwalk would be the perfect thing for St. Pete’s waterfront. He said the shops, restaurants, arcades and other activities that made the city famous easily could be transplanted to Florida’s Gulf Coast — minus the casinos, of course.

A recent vacationer who had visited Seattle thought its waterfront would be a good fit. In addition to its famous Pike Place Market, it has a beautiful waterfront park, piers, a ferry and shipping docks. There’s also one of the nation’s largest Ferris wheels providing a beautiful view of the city and surrounding areas.

My personal choice is a place I first visited as a child that is celebrating its 100th birthday: Chicago’s Navy Pier, which is the city’s top tourist destination. I can easily look at the current inverted pyramid and see a Navy Pier-like structure on St. Petersburg’s waterfront. I’ll also admit my background makes me a little biased.

Built on the shoreline of Lake Michigan, Navy Pier has been one of the most versatile facilities in U.S. history. As the Chicago Tribune noted in 2012, “Navy Pier has been an entertainment venue, a university, a naval base, an Army base, a convention center, a food storage facility and, well, a pier.” It was closed to the public during World War II while the Navy used it. Former President George H.W. Bush trained there as a pilot. As a teenager, I played basketball there many times.

By the 1970s, Navy Pier fell into severe disuse. There was talk of demolishing it until Chicago declared it a landmark in 1977. In the early 1990s, a $150 million redevelopment project began. In 1995, a grand reopening took place, complete with year-round shops, restaurants, attractions, including a giant Ferris wheel, and exhibition facilities to make it what it is today.

Could the same thing happen with the St. Pete Pier? I don’t know, but then again I never in my wildest dreams imagined Navy Pier becoming what it is.

Mayor Kriseman is right not to rush into it. After all, this is something you want to last for generations of St. Petersburg residents. It’s not like stadiums built for professional franchises that seem to be old a few years after they open. (I mention this because Atlanta, with baseball and football stadiums less than 20 years old, has broken ground for new ones.) This has to be for the long haul.

The next time you visit a city with a waterfront, you might want to check it out and compare. It might be a terrible fit for St. Pete, or it might spark some ideas. Send your thoughts to the mayor’s office or to the city council, which will have to approve of the project, or attend any public forums.

Don’t look for any ribbon-cutting anytime soon. When it happens it will be later than Kriseman promised during his mayoral campaign, but as he has said since, better it be done rightly than quickly.

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