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New pier is start of big changes for downtown St. Petersburg’s waterfront

If you’re the head of the chamber of commerce, and Chris Steinocher is, the coming of a new pier and an extensive master development plan are more than simply good news for downtown and the waterfront.

“It’s like hitting the Lotto,” Steinocher, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said this past week. “It’s going to be transforming in front of our eyes.”

The city council’s approval on Thursday of the Pier Park design to replace the abandoned inverted pyramid, and of the Downtown Waterfront Master Plan to develop and invigorate about 4 miles of shoreline, are expected to have an effect that will last for generations.

Steinocher compared it to Jeff Vinik’s billion-dollar development plans for the Channel District in Tampa.

“It’s rare that you can impact a community the way these things are going to impact us going forward,” he said.

The centerpiece, and the most hard-fought attraction, is the Pier Park project, expected to open in three years. The council’s approval of that design, ranked first among three finalists, authorizes Mayor Rick Kriseman to begin contract negotiations with the ASD architects of Tampa, Rogers Partners Architects and Ken Smith design team.

The decision followed more than five years of debate and controversy. In 2013, opponents to the city’s choice of the Lens design forced a referendum and overturned it. This time, some of those same activists implored the council to reject the selection committee’s ranking and choose the Destination St. Pete Pier design that incorporates a modernized inverted pyramid, an icon some argued should be preserved.

The $46-million Pier Park project will demolish the 42-year-old inverted pyramid, which the city closed two years ago with expectations that a new one would be built by this year.

Downtown Business Association President Matt Shapiro, owner of Shapiro’s Gallery on Beach Drive, is ready for something new.

“Getting the pier open will add another venue, another activity, another place for local people and visitors to go,” he said. “Anything that will bring people downtown is good for the economy.”

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The pier, as visible as it is, is only one piece of the waterfront’s future.

The $500,000 Downtown Waterfront Master Plan by AECOM and its consultants establishes development guidelines from Lassing Park north to Coffee Pot Bayou. The most intensive public and commercial uses are in the Beach Drive area, at the pier approach and in the area south of it that includes the Mahaffey Theater, the Dali Museum and Al Lang Stadium.

“It works in favor of everyone that the master plan and the pier are coming together at the same time.” Shapiro said. “It allows everything to kind of fit in place.”

The waterfront plan and Pier Park each propose open park space, bike and walking paths, water activities, concessions, art shows and outdoor entertainment at the pier approach, Spa Beach and the Straub and Vinoy parks areas.

The master plan also provides for more use of the port and marina south of the Central Avenue to draw more visitors, perhaps with marine exhibits, tall ships or mega-yachts. The goal is to tie together the entire waterfront area with a continuous trail of activities and amenities that will draw people through it without noticing how far they’ve gone, the consultants have said.

“It is a tremendous vision for what we believe is our major asset,” Steinocher said. “For those people who don’t think St. Petersburg can get better, I think this gets us to another level. And it doesn’t change who we are.”

Steinocher said there will be more attractions for tourists and local residents, more customers for downtown businesses already there and those that will come and more tourist tax money for the city and county. “It rises all boats,” he said.

City Councilman Karl Nurse, noting downtown is enjoying unprecedented growth, said attracting more investment might not be the benefit. Apartments and high-rise condominiums, some in the million-dollar range, are going up throughout downtown, and more are planned, he said.

“I’m not convinced it will attract more simply because there is so much momentum already,” Nurse said. “It will be more opportunity for people to do more, fun things, and there is something to be said for that.”

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Still, council members have some concerns about the master plan. Nurse and Councilwoman Darden Rice question the possible hotel and buildings shown in the park space near the Mahaffey Theater. Nurse says the area already is too crowded with traffic, especially during theater events, and Rice isn’t sure the city should give up park space for profit-making ventures.

Councilman Wengay Newton asked previously about the future of the Grand Prix race in the area, which consultants said will be able to continue.

Councilman Bill Dudley said the master plan is more conceptual — “ideas they are throwing out.” Some may get done, some may not, depending on the city’s financial situation, he said.

“The value is that it gives us a vision of what we can be and what it can look like,” he said. “Before, we had a mixed bunch of ideas. The waterfront master plan ties it all together.”

Rice said she was “90 percent thrilled” with the plan, and that without it “the downtown waterfront will suffer the death of a thousand cuts.”

“Everything is going to impact the way the waterfront looks for the next 50 years, and that’s exciting,” she said.

Hal Freedman, who lives in Bayfront Tower in the middle of downtown, anticipates the construction in the coming years will be a pain, “but it’s a good thing.”

The long-term plan to provide more access to the water, more pedestrian areas and more public art, for instance, will improve the quality of downtown, he said.

He wasn’t sure Pier Park will be much of a draw for tourists or local residents, except perhaps for concerts on the large lawn near the head of the pier. “And with 4,000 people out there, it’s going to be pretty loud,” he said.

Like Nurse, Freedman said he didn’t expect a sudden boost in the area, beyond getting rid of the inverted pyramid he called an eyesore. “Downtown is doing pretty well on its own,” he said.

More encouraging, he said, was the $20 million in redevelopment money Pinellas County has agreed to make available to jump-start improvements in the uplands area at the pier approach, “so it’s not just a document that sits on a shelf.”

Nurse said the development plans will have ripple effects going west through downtown.

“They really are proposing to spend over time perhaps tens of millions of dollars along a 25-block stretch of the waterfront,” he said. “You could have a waterfront that is significantly nicer than what we have now.”

Steinocher said the pier and waterfront development will refresh what the city has to offer, enticing people to keep coming back.

“I do really believe this will give more people a chance to say, “Holy cow! Look at this waterfront. Look at this downtown,’ ” he said.

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