ST. PETERSBURG - Mayor Bill Foster said Wednesday he'd entertain any recommendations for the future of The Pier made by a new community task force - even postponing its demolition.
The mayor appeared to back away from his previous insistence on demolishing the aging inverted pyramid this summer, possibly before an Aug. 27th referendum on whether to cancel the controversial Lens project.
Permits city officials are seeking for demolition could be complicated if voters opt to scrap the Lens design. The city has applied for a single permit for demolition and construction of a new pier, Foster said.
"Quite candidly, it's helpful to know what you're replacing it with while you're getting your demolition permit," he said.
Foster spoke at a press conference in City Hall surrounded by six members of a new task force that will work to unify city residents if the Lens prevails and develop a process for planning a new pier if voters reject it.
That group, called the 828 Alliance, includes members of the Stop the Lens campaign, Lens supporters and community leaders.
Foster said he stands by his opinion that the current inverted pyramid cannot be salvaged within the city's $50-million budget for a new pier but said the task force is "free to consider" keeping it.
"We're still seeking a permit, but, again, this committee is wide open to making recommendations to me," he said.
City officials must obtain permits from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Pinellas County before the City Council gives final approval to demolish The Pier, city development coordinator Chris Ballestra said.
If construction plans for the new pier are modified, the permits would have to go through another review process. But demolition could begin before a new design is adopted, Ballestra said.
City leaders don't know exactly when all the needed permits will be approved, but Ballestra said their original plan to begin demolition in August doesn't appear likely at this point.
Even if demolition is put off until the fall or winter, construction of the Lens could still remain on schedule for completion in 2015, Ballestra said.
If the contract is cancelled, though, it remains unclear how long it would take for a new design to be adopted and built.
That process will be up to the mayor's new task force to determine.
A previous Pier Task Force already laid much of the groundwork for the project, carefully studying The Pier's commercial and recreational uses, costs and environmental issues before drafting a report in 2010.
The Lens design was selected two years later in January 2012 after a lengthy process that included an architectural competition.
The 828 Alliance will come up with a process in the next two months that will aim to expedite the selection of a new pier design with stronger support from city residents.
David Punzak, chairman of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, echoed the mayor's sentiment Wednesday that time is of the essence in coming together as a city around a plan.
"What we want is commerce, and what we don't want is what happened in 1967, which is when the old pier came down and then nothing was there for four or five years," he said.
The chamber plans to embark on an informational campaign this summer about the Lens project ahead of the election, while members of Stop the Lens will continue efforts to convince voters to reject the idea.
But leaders on both sides of the pier debate said Wednesday they'd put their campaigning aside during meetings starting next month to come up with a unified plan of action.
"We want to be part of the waterfront going forward, no matter how the election turns out," said Fred Whaley, chairman of Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, the group behind the Stop the Lens campaign.
The task force also includes former Pier Task Force chair Ed Montanari, Florida Institute of Oceanography director Bill Hogarth, Lens advocate Shirley O'Sullivan and several other members of the city's business community.