Holding a wet finger up in the air to assess the way the wind is blowing may be a dependable form of political calculus, but it is no way to create a memorable city.
Two decades of public service and another handful of years as an urban planner mean that I’ve had a ringside seat for major changes in the Bay area.
Decisive leadership has brought us a Pinellas County criss-crossed by bike ways and a Hillsborough County with green areas protected forever though the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Purchase Program (ELAPP). Also, some big mistakes, such as the placement of the Tampa Convention Center on a landlocked parcel, better suited to small shops.
Leaders admittedly take a risk by making bold decisions, but can also elevate their communities from good to great. The challenge for many elected officials is that having vision requires skill sets they don’t have. To get elected, people need to be friendly, raise money and have some organizational skills. Unfortunately, an understanding of design or transportation or city planning or neighborhood dynamics is not a requisite.
Mayors, councilmembers and county commissioners are in a position to reshape their communities through proposing and funding projects, zoning decisions and demolition permits. They can put their thumbs up or down to protect a wetland or allow an airport runway to create a misery of noise for the adjacent neighborhood.
Common sense provides a decent path for most votes to follow, especially if the cul-de-sacs of special developer interests don’t lead the decision-makers off course, but the really important design decisions get tricky.
Paris’s icon, the Eiffel Tower, was hugely controversial when it was contemplated, but it wasn’t up for a vote. Democracy doesn’t work well as a process for selecting innovative urban design. Generally people want what they are familiar with, so new is often perceived as strange and distasteful or even threatening.
Which brings us to The Lens. What a graceful, imaginative icon for St. Petersburg!
It appears doomed to a negative vote, and a number of early supporters have jumped ship in their support of this stunning proposal. Why this change of heart? Cynically, one could cite the sea change in the tide of public sentiment or the Lens’s organized, well-funded opponents.
“It doesn’t look like St. Pete” is an oft-repeated criticism. But what, exactly, should St. Pete look like? The process of selecting an architect for the project was absolutely transparent, as top design professionals picked internationally recognized firms to compete for the job.
Yet, after months of public meetings and tons of journalistic ink were spent explaining the need, vetting the proposals, exploring what adjustments would need to be made once the final design was chosen, some observers still refuse to accept anything other than the unloved, under-used, upside-down pyramid. Others remain firmly entrenched in their anti-Lens position while offering no feasible ideas for an alternative. And some councilmembers and candidates, seeing the way the political winds were blowing, backed away from their initial support.
Councilman Karl Nurse, who was for the Lens before he was against it, texted me this prediction: “It is my expectation that 10 days from now our community wil begin the process to build a consensus as to what functions do we want in a new Pier. Then we can ask for designs.”
And here we thought building a consensus and commissioning a design is what the city has been trying to do for, oh, the last decade. But apparently we must slog through another 10 years or so until we get a Pier that’s bland enough to satisfy everyone.
Well, great design is not for the faint of heart. I say, “Step up, be independent, vote for beauty!”
Wouldn’t that be the wildest idea of all?