ST. PETERSBURG — Nearly two-thirds of voters rejected the controversial Lens project Tuesday, meaning the city will have to start over with plans to either replace or refurbish the aging inverted pyramid pier, which it closed in May.
More than 63 percent of the nearly 50,000 people who cast votes on the Lens issue said “yes” on Tuesday's referendum question, saying the city should cancel its contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture to build the $50-million project.
With the Lens proposal dead, the city will have to come up with a new plan for St. Petersburg's pier. In fact, that process is already underway. Today, the 828 Alliance, the task force Mayor Bill Foster formed to consider options should the Lens fail, will present its recommendations that they city seek proposals from groups interested in either renovating the inverted pyramid or building something new.
Proponents of the Lens said Tuesday's overwhelming defeat had more to do with the confusing nature of the ballot question posed to voters than the project's design.
“One of the things we heard a lot today from voters was a great deal of confusion about the language of the ballot,” said Mike Collins, a spokesman for Citizens for the St. Pete Pier, the political action committee recently formed to advocate for the Lens. “This was one where you had to say 'yes' to mean 'no' and say 'no' to mean 'yes.' It's almost comical, how poorly written this ballot was.”
Opponents of the Lens say the results reflect public opinion.
“I think we wasted this year because a year ago 60-something percent of the people didn't like the Lens, and that still holds true today,” said Fred Whaley, co-chairman of Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg. “I think if you read [the ballot question], a reasonable person could understand it.”
Tuesday's referendum sprang from a grassroots petition effort — the second the city has seen since city leaders chose the Lens to replace the inverted pyramid, built in 1973, and its crumbling approach, which was built decades earlier.
Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg collected more than 20,000 signatures to force the public vote. The “Stop the Lens” campaign followed a previous petition drive that also collected more than 20,000 signatures from people who wanted a public vote on saving the inverted pyramid. City leaders rejected those calls after concluding many of the Vote on the Pier campaign's signatures were invalid.
Lens supporters argued the dramatic design would be an icon that would help brand the city internationally and would help transform St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront. Ultimately, voters didn't buy it. Most who rejected it said they think the design was a bad fit.
“I hate the Lens,” said Sherrlyn Bell. “I'm 67 years old. It's a little too modern for me. I've lived in St. Pete all my life, and I'm more of a Mediterranean kind of person. I like the original one.”
Others were concerned the project would cost much more than the estimates.
“The taxpayers in this city don't need another burden,” said voter Rick Leveritt. “We don't need another expensive novelty on the waterfront.”
Lens supporters say Tuesday's vote is a major setback for the downtown waterfront.
“I think we're going to have to go back to the drawing board, which is unfortunate, and spend a lot of money doing so, but my hope is that we don't settle on something mediocre because we go back to the beginning of the process,” said downtown resident Jane Raddix. “It's not a shopping mall. It's a place to be outside and experience of being in the environment on the water in St. Petersburg.”