Throughout this campaign season, Bill Foster has been saying that one reason he should be re-elected is that downtown St. Petersburg is thriving, with a half billion dollars in construction projects on the way. Those who support replacing St. Pete’s venerable waterfront pier with the futuristic Lens see it as a piece of the Burg’s insurgent ascendancy.
But obviously, not everyone agrees. In fact, if the polling is accurate, the Lens as constituted may never become a reality. If that turns out to be the case, there will be plenty of Monday morning quarterbacking after the Aug. 27 vote. In fact, it’s already happening.
But to understand the intense opposition to the plan, it helps to realize that there were thousands of people in St. Pete against the Lens before it even existed.
In August of 2010, after 14 months and 63 public meetings, the Pier Advisory Task Force (a group of 20 civic leaders chosen by the mayor and St. Petersburg City Council) recommended that an international design contest be held to create a replacement for the aging structure, which costs the city $1.5 million a year to maintain.
By that time, Tom Lambdon was already getting busy.
The Safety Harbor resident, who had famously floated the idea of replacing the pyramid with a roller coaster, was angry about what he felt was a lack of true public input on such an important community asset. With very few major allies other than City Councilman Wengay Newton and former Councilmember Kathleen Ford (along with the hundreds of employees at the Pier who realized that the new plan called for them to lose their jobs), he founded savethepier.org and set up an action committee called Vote on the Pier to begin the slow process of gathering signatures to get the issue on a city ballot.
Meanwhile, the city was zooming ahead. A jury (Stanley Saitowitz, the renowned architect who created the Tampa Museum of Art; Susan Fainstein, a Harvard urban planning professor; Tampa architect and urban planner James Moore; and Pinellas politicos Ken Welch and Leslie Curran) was tasked with choosing a design. They whittled down the field of applicants to nine and finally to three choices — the Wave (an Inception-inspired vision of a city skyline curling onto itself from TED starchitect Bjarke Ingels); the Eye (a sea urchin-like structure by West 8 Urban Design); and the Lens, a dramatic loop by L.A.-based Michael Maltzan Architecture. The panel selected Maltzan’s Lens, citing its flexibility, beauty and cost-effectiveness.
Supporters of the Lens, like Chamber of Commerce President Chris Steinocher, say it sustains the momentum led by the waterfront boom on St. Pete’s buzzy Beach Drive. “St. Pete is a hot destination,” he says. “We saw the Lens as just one of those kinds of things that symbolizes what this city is all about — a beautiful structure of art, a beautiful place to get out in the water and see your community and walk about and sit about.”
But despite the support engendered by the Lens at first — 68 percent of public comment favored it over the other designs — the good feelings didn’t last.
In many ways, the argument about the Lens could be portrayed as generational — a standoff between those who cling to tradition vs. those who are looking ahead. Stop the Lens, the frankly anti-Lens movement that launched a Facebook page in 2012, went for nostalgia right away with photos of the old Million Dollar Pier. The group’s website offered this sniffy critique of the Lens aesthetic: “Our history and unique identity do not include extravagant exhibitionism. The Lens is a fine piece of art. It might be a worthy symbol of the City of Dubai, UAE (United Arab Emirates). The Lens is not a worthy symbol of St. Petersburg, Florida, USA.”
But the dichotomy gets a bit muddled when you consider that some of the city’s most progressive voices, such as Darden Rice, Karl Nurse, and Rick Kriseman, stand with the Stop The Lens contingent — and coincidentally are all on the ballot next week in their respective races for city council and mayor.
Nurse is an interesting case. The Council chair initially supported the Lens concept, saying it was the best of the three. But he says he quickly felt it wouldn’t work, and criticizes some of the choices that Michael Maltzan made.
“To not have any air-conditioned space shows ignorance of the temperature here,” he says, repeating a familiar criticism. “There’s almost nothing at the end [of the Pier],” adding, “they had to change the materials because they were too expensive.”
An overriding aim of city leaders was to find a way to reduce the annual subsidy to the pier; amenities like air-conditioning cost money. And even though critics stress that no one will hang out at the new Pier if there’s no relief from the heat, no one’s been hanging out there much for years, and that was with a-c.
“The subsidy is a balancing point,” Councilman Charlie Gerdes said at an informational meeting he held on the Lens at St. Petersburg College last month. He explained that the “more active” the building — meaning more infrastructure, more plumbing, more electrical, more air-conditioning — the more expensive, meaning more of a subsidy.
A year ago, Nurse joined Newton in being the only councilmembers to support Lambdon’s initiative to put the Pier on the 2012 ballot — a measure that Mayor Bill Foster waffled on but ultimately supported. But the council rejected the referendum idea, even though Lambdon’s Vote on the Pier group had managed to gather 23,000 signatures.
The rejection of the ballot measure triggered the public involvement of several parties who became very public foes of the Lens. Kathleen Ford, who hadn’t yet announced her candidacy for mayor, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lambdon and Vote On The Pier. Bill Ballard, Bud Risser and other prominent St. Pete figures incorporated themselves as Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg.
Ballard, a retired construction and banking attorney, says it wasn’t until the spring of 2012 that he really started focusing on the Lens project. And he didn’t like what he saw.
“Just from having spent a great deal of my life on Tampa Bay, I saw so many elements in this design that yelled at me, ‘This architect is clueless about the Tampa Bay environment, and that cluelessness permeated the design,” he said last week, talking in CL’s Ybor City offices.
He and his colleagues started raising money, opening an office on Fourth Street and hiring environmentalist Lorraine Margeson to run the office four hours a day, and most importantly, hiring L.A.-based PCI Consulting Inc. to gather petitions. Soon volunteers and paid “circulators” in Stop The Lens red T-shirts were ubiquitous, turning in over 17,000 signatures on May 1 and easily meeting the requirement of 15,652 verified signatures by the end of that month.
Risser, owner of the Rally filling station chain, has become Concerned Citizens’ most prominent spokesperson. He says the fault in Maltzan’s design lies less with the architect than with City Council. “I think he came up with a pretty cool idea,” he says. “If it was in L.A. it’d be a home run.”
He’s referring to the underwater reef garden, one of the most highly touted aspects of the original design. Unfortunately, marine scientists determined that a reef garden would be unrealistic with Tampa’s Bay’s dark water.
“So then you begin to start looking more closely, and there are lots of things that won’t work with the Lens.” He says if the city had more closely followed the recommendations of the Pier Task Force, “we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Risser is referring to a passage in the Competition Design Principles document, prepared by city staff for the final three competitors, that appears to be critical of the advisory task force for trying to define the parameters of the new pier too narrowly.
“This desire to identify the purpose and programming uses upon which the competition is defined,” says the document, “was well intentioned, but shortsighted.” The passage goes on to say that the task force analysis “did not look at expanding the possibilities of the Pier, but rather limiting them” — and that the “search for a prescriptive solution stifled the imagination.”
In an op-ed published in the Times last August, two members of the Pier Advisory Task Force, Ed Montanari and Will Michaels, acknowledged that the wording “was disturbing,” but insisted that “a close examination of the document shows that virtually every design principle put forth is grounded and reflective of the task force report.”
Ballard and Risser have gone to war with the Times over the Lens, which the paper’s editorial page has been strongly advocating. A particular object of fury was the editorial printed on the front of the Sunday Perspectives section on July 21, just as mail-in ballots for the August primary were being sent out to over 61,000 households. Entitled “Five myths about the Lens,” it laid out popular objections and answered them. Sidewalk to nowhere? Not true, said the editorial, the new Pier would offer plenty of opportunities for recreation. Just as cost-effective to renovate the old Pier? Nope, renovation would cost millions more. Taxpayers would be on the hook if construction went over budget? No, because the contractors, Skanska, agreed to accept liability for any overruns in cost or time.
But two of the Times’ myth-busting attempts provoked strong pushback. The paper had to run a correction after stating that the over-water restaurant on the east end of the structure, aka the Promontory, would be air-conditioned. (The correction didn’t satisfy Ballard, who wrote a letter to Times publisher Paul Tash and editor Neil Brown complaining that it occupied “only 2.2 percent of the page.”)
But the real bone of contention for the anti-Lens contingent was what the paper called “Myth#4.” The paper reported that the $50 million project is being financed with a portion of property taxes collected only on downtown properties, under the system known as tax-incremental financing (TIF).
Concerned Citizens say that’s false, claiming a bond issue will pay for the project, with those bonds paid by transfers from the city and county general revenue funds. But Times Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens says Ballard and Risser are flat wrong, telling CL that he’s written about tax incremental financing for 25 years, and he’s got the mayor’s office, the city attorney’s office, the city development’s office and the county administrator’s office all confirming the accuracy of that part of the editorial.
Nickens and Daniel Ruth won Pulitzer Prizes earlier this year for their series of editorials on the Pinellas County Commission’s move to stop putting fluoride in the drinking water. He compares Concerned Citizens’ advocacy to those who bombarded the Times a year ago with anti-fluoride arguments.
“The opponents of putting fluoride in the water brought in stacks of documents, tons of studies, and suggested science was on their side,“ he told CL last week. “And when you went through it, there were studies and it was technically accurate, but it had nothing to do with the broader argument, and that is what they have done. They have cited statutes and they have gone through the city budget and tried to track the money, and some of what they have may be technically correct, but it has nothing to do with tax increment financing and the way it works, and it has nothing to do with what’s in the editorial.”
Ballard calls Nickens’s comments a “terrible analogy,” and concludes by saying that the paper is “furthering the myth to the majority of St. Pete voters that they don’t have a financial stake in this.”
Karl Nurse says Concerned Citizens “have a point,” but adds “it’s a little gray, because at the end of the day we’re going to want to try to replace that pier in some fashion.”
It took a while to register that the Lens might be in real jeopardy. Then, on June 20, the Lens’s biggest public advocate, commercial pitchman Anthony Sullivan, bailed out, saying the community was now too divided.
Then, in early July, Jesse Landis decided to spring into action. A public relations staffer in St. Pete who believes in the promise of the Lens, he realized that he couldn’t live with himself without doing something proactive for the city, and the design, that he loves. So he teamed up with friends to create Citizens for the St. Pete Pier, a new political action committee. The group’s website, BuildThePier.com, published a list of “5 myths about the new pier” a few weeks before the Times ran theirs; the lists are similar, with Build the Pier also pointing out that the Lens implements 40 of the 43 task force recommendations and that the design has evolved due to public input.
Worth noting, however: In response to Build The Pier’s list, savethepier.org published point-by-point counter-arguments. Among its typically sarcastic responses: “We’re sure that you won’t mind that the main recommendation that was ignored was for a 36,000 to 46,000 sq ft of air conditioned, weather protected space … You’ll never notice the sweat in your food.”
On a recent Saturday morning, about a dozen supporters of Build the Pier, several accompanied by their young children, met up at Panera Bread on Fourth Street to assemble signs and get canvassing assignments, and to combat what they claim is a massive amount of misinformation spread by the Stop the Lens forces.
“Historically each generation has put its own mark on this city,” said Orlando Acosta, a military contractor based at MacDill Air Force Base who was leading the efforts that morning. “The pier has usually been that mark, so now we’re coming up on a new generation. It’s not just a generation of age but of spirit, and this new pier, the Lens, no matter how much you may like it or not, is reflective of this new generation.”
Marcus Martin with the group said he just assumed that the process would play out “like it was supposed to play out,” but got involved when he read about polls indicating that the Lens was in trouble.
If the Lens goes down to defeat, especially if it’s close, there will be recriminations about supporters’ inability to get their message out. After frequent complaints about alleged misinformation being spread by opponents, or just a general lack of information, three Council members have held information meetings on the Lens over the past couple of months.
“The city should have stepped up more and said, ‘Here are the pros to the Lens, here are the cons to the option, and put it on a list so you can choose whatever you believe,” says Keriann Arnold, an interior designer with Wannemacher Jensen Architects, the local team working with Maltzan here in St. Pete.
So what happens after the vote on Aug. 27? Well, for one thing, we’ll know who will be running for mayor in the general election on Nov. 5.
Both Rick Kriseman and Kathleen Ford have their own plans for the Pier if they’re elected mayor in November. Ford wants to “refurbish” the existing structure, adding an additional fifth level to the inverted pyramid, and she says she can do it within the original $50 million allocated to the plan. The city administration disagrees, saying it would cost at least $70 million to carry out her plan.
Kriseman’s proposal would call for a task force to file a report within the first three months of his administration, a new design to be in place within nine months, and construction on the new pier to be completed by the end of 2015.
Foster, meanwhile, is trying to prepare for whatever outcome the Lens vote produces. His bipartisan 828 Alliance has already held five meetings in City Hall, with the goal of producing a report for him the day of the election.
At one such meeting last week, Alliance members discussed how the city should go forward if the Lens passes. One member said that something like a “professional ad campaign” would be required to sell the virtues of the project, and another acknowledged the reality that the city government has a credibility problem in the wake of this campaign. Another member talked about working with people in the marine science community to add a feature that would draw families to the area.
And all that if the Lens survives this month’s vote.
But public perceptions may be fixed.
In Midtown last Saturday, Sherman Evers, a 38-year-old African-American outside the St. Petersburg Meat Company, told this reporter that growing up in St. Pete, the Pier was a special place, a place where he and his friends would go and fish and even swim near, since he didn’t have money to go to city pool. But even though it’s been a long time since he’s gone down to that part of the waterfront, he doesn’t want any part of the Lens.
“Who the hell is that Lens catering to?” he asked. “All these rich older people? All these retirees … I do not support the Lens. I hate the Lens!”
It may not be the most sophisticated argument against the plan. And maybe you shouldn’t plan a city by referendum: like many supporters of the Lens, the Chamber’s Chris Steinocher worries about the future of projects like the Lens if they can be stopped in their tracks by a public vote long after the planning process is underway.
“I’m just nervous about what the next one is. Now we’ve got precedents to say you don’t have to honor the process, and you can spend millions and millions of city dollars and then just decide that’s not what you want because you didn’t get the vote you want. I don’t think that’s a good way to build a community and move forward.”
But the Pier and its proposed replacement have taken on so much emotional baggage at this point that there’s no going back. The public will have its say on Aug. 27, and the next chapter in the saga of the St. Pete Pier will begin.
Now about that roller coaster…