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Tuesday, Sep 02, 2014

St. Pete approves partial funding for controversial pier project

Tribune staff
Published:   |   Updated: May 17, 2013 at 06:42 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

City Council members stopped short of putting their $50 million pier on hold Thursday but scaled back spending on the controversial project known as the Lens until voters have their say.

In a 5-3 vote, the council approved spending $869,000 for demolition of the inverted pyramid pier and limited design work for its replacement. City officials had originally asked for $1.5 million for the next phase of design, but a majority of council members balked at risking that much money on a project that voters could reject in a citywide vote expected on Aug. 27.

Thursday's decision limits funding to design work that will give voters more details on the Lens, such as boat moorings and fishing platforms or to design work that could be used for a future project should voters reject the Lens.

“We're spending what is needed to keep our partners engaged in the project and obtaining information that is critical for a pier, whatever the design,” said Mayor Bill Foster.

That includes testing and analysis of five caissons, 20-foot-square concrete foundations that support the current pier and could be reused for the Lens. Architect Michael Maltzan will also conduct wind tunnel tests to see how the structure's canopy withstands storm-force winds. That testing, which could cost as much as $80,000, is intended to address detractors' claims that the Lens canopy will act like a wind tunnel.

Scaling back spending will delay production of a detailed design of the complicated split-level approach to the Lens and details of how lighting and utilities would be accommodated, said Mike Connors, the city's public works administrator.

The vote followed another animated public discussion on the project that supporters say will fuel downtown St. Petersburg's revitalization but that critics describe as a “walkway to nowhere.”

Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, the political action committee rallying opposition to the Lens, on Wednesday filed a petition with more than 20,000 signatures calling for the city to cancel its contract with Maltzan. Provided the signatures are verified, Foster has guaranteed the issue will appear on the Aug. 27 primary ballot, when residents also will vote on the race for mayor and four City Council seats.

St. Petersburg resident Joe Reed said it would be fiscally irresponsible to gamble taxpayers' money before the referendum.

“Please push the pause button, push the common sense button,” said Reed. “Don't spend a million and a half dollars only three months before the vote.”

Supporters of the Lens questioned the validity of the Concerned Citizens group, which they said is being funded by a few rich retires. The group has raised $99,000 in donations and loans, according to campaign reports.

“The pier is too important to all of St. Petersburg to allow a small group of wealthy individuals who paid for a referendum and probably an election to stop its progress,” said Hal Freedman.

In what may have been the first skirmish of the upcoming referendum campaign, TV pitchman and Lens fan Anthony Sullivan congratulated opponents for filing the petition but warned them he expects Lens supporters to win the vote.

“I don't think we can afford to have no pier,” he said. “They have come up with no viable alternative.”

Foster used the debate to address calls for the city to keep the pier open until the vote. With anchor tenants Columbia and Cha Cha Coconuts moving out, doing so would cost the city about $400,000 in subsidies, he said.

He also had a message for Lens opponents who have said the money earmarked for the project would be better spent on improving city services.

“If you want a pier, you're going to pay for it,” he said. “Do you want to save money, or do you want to borrow money for a pier, which is something we've had in the city of St. Petersburg for over 100 years?”


codonnell@tampatrib.com

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