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Saturday, Aug 30, 2014
Commentary

Stop the bickering, and build new St. Pete pier


Published:

As Parisians watched the Eiffel Tower emerge over their city’s skyline in advance of the 1889 World’s Fair, the city’s elite were aghast. The arts community called Gustave Eiffel’s design “grotesque.” Neighbors, fearing that the structure would collapse on them, filed a lawsuit to stop construction.

A century later, architect John K. Branner scoffed that the proposed new Gateway Arch design under consideration in St. Louis would “serve no purpose except to hold your citizens up to ridicule.”

Fast forward to present-day St. Petersburg, where relentless criticism has greeted Michael Maltzan’s design for the new downtown Pier.

“The Lens,” too, is a groundbreaking edifice, one that Maltzan says he hopes will be “an overwater extension of the downtown waterfront park system.”

It promises to be equal parts dramatic and functional. The world-famous Columbia Restaurant (itself a Bay area icon for nearly a century) will greet visitors to the structure. Elongated tramways and walkways with fishing platforms and boat rental slips will lead to a sweeping canopy with lookout balconies, additional food services and an amphitheater.

Downtown St. Petersburg is known these days as much for its nightlife as for daytime views of Tampa Bay, and in this respect, too, the new Pier will reflect the city it serves, with spectacular under- and over-water light, laser and video shows.

The design has inspired passionate opposition, but more than aesthetics seems to be at issue here.

“The Pier,” in its many iterations, has been a sentimental part of St. Petersburg’s downtown core for well over one hundred years. It is a special place in a city we all love, and each of us has cherished memories of The Pier.

Consider, though, what The Lens will replace — and how long it has taken us to get this far.

The shuttered pyramid that now sits behind a padlocked chain-link fence was designed when Nixon was still riding high — and looks it. To be kind, it is visually inconsistent with the city’s skyline; to be blunt, it’s an eyesore whose mounting losses cost taxpayers $1.5 million a year.

As if to prove that there really is no accounting for taste, some urge restoring the existing Pier to all its 1980s glory. Their trip down memory lane would cost $34 million more than the Lens, according to a 2012 analysis by the City Architect and Engineer. In any event, they have yet to explain why their renovated pyramid would generate any more traffic than the dilapidated one that has been forced to close.

Others — including, apparently, The Tampa Tribune — agree that the pyramid must go, but just aren’t crazy about The Lens.

In its editorial “Vote ‘yes’ to reject The Lens” (Our Views, Aug. 9), The Tampa Tribune suggested “something simpler” than The Lens, something “perhaps closer to shore.” What’s called for, the editors suggest, is “a second chance” so that “all of the options can be reconsidered.”

Trouble is, city officials have already been grappling with “all of the options” for at least five years now. Replacement of The Pier has been hotly debated against renovation. Engineering studies have been conducted, and the world’s most storied architects have submitted their best ideas — all at a cost of around $4 million. A mind-numbing 100-plus public meetings have been held. Elections have been won and lost. Paid petition drives have been conducted.

Yet after all that, the Tribune and Lens opponents would have us start all over again, like a game of Chutes and Ladders. That’s a recipe for five more years of bickering while, in the meantime, downtown St. Petersburg’s view of the bay will be blocked by a closed-up, decaying relic that looks more shabby by the day.

Nor is there any reason to believe that the next design — whatever it is — will be any more satisfactory to The Lens opponents than this one. The Tribune’s solution isn’t a “reset.” Rather, it’s a course reversal.

Taxpayers in the downtown St. Petersburg community redevelopment district have been setting aside funds to replace The Pier for decades, and the time to do so is now. Build the new St. Pete Pier. Vote “no” Aug. 27.

Mike Collins, a communications and public affairs professional, is co-chair of the BuildThePier campaign.

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