ST. PETERSBURG - City officials on Thursday secured one of the permits they need to demolish the iconic inverted pyramid pier and build the controversial Lens, though voters could reject the new pier in a referendum next month.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District approved a permit for the city's plans along the downtown waterfront, which include demolishing The Pier; using concrete rubble from the demolition to stabilize the shoreline of Albert Whitted Airport; and building a landside retail hub and plaza, a 24-slip marina and a new pier.
Envisioned as an iconic centerpiece of the city's rejuvenated waterfront, the $50-million Lens project has been mired in controversy since last summer.
The city rejected a petition submitted by residents trying to save the inverted pyramid. Another group submitted a petition of more than 20,000 signatures to force next month's vote.
The Lens design was selected by a panel after an international competition aimed at replacing the inverted pyramid building, built in 1973, and the pier approach, built decades before.
The futuristic design includes a crossing-loop pathway that leads to an 86-foot-high crown-like structure. The project would include a gelato store, small restaurant and viewing balconies. The pathways would be used by pedestrians, joggers, bicyclists and a slow-moving trolley service. A Columbia Restaurant is planned for the pier's base.
About a dozen critics of the Lens, including mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford, called on Swiftmud to deny the permit, saying the project would damage sea grasses and marine life. Under Florida law, residents have 21 days to file an objection to the water management district's decision.
Ford sued the city after it elected not to hold a citywide vote on saving the old pier. A judge ruled against her in April, allowing the city to tear down The Pier, though Ford has appealed.
The city still needs a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for demolition and a permit from Pinellas County to begin construction.
Demolition of the pier is not expected to take place before the Aug. 27 referendum on the Lens project. With poll numbers showing strong opposition to the project, Mayor Bill Foster has formed a group of civic leaders, fans and critics of the Lens to discuss how to move the city forward after voters have their say.
If residents vote to cancel the contract for the Lens, the city would have to ask Swiftmud to approve a revision to its permit, allowing it to build a different pier.