The Lens: A bridge too far?

Debates over the St. Pete Pier and its proposed substitute continue to divide the city.

| December 13, 2012
BIRDS’ EYE VIEW: An aerial rendering of the proposed Lens.
BIRDS’ EYE VIEW: An aerial rendering of the proposed Lens.
- Michael Maltzan Architecture
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As architect Michael Maltzan’s hour-long presentation before the St. Petersburg City Council last week neared its conclusion, he unveiled the pièce de resistance: an idyllic two-minute video showing his vision for a refurbished St. Pete Pier, aka the Lens. As the video opens, seagulls cry and ethereal music plays over a panoramic aerial rendering of the St. Pete waterfront crowned by the tiara-shaped Lens. The camera zooms in on sweeping walkways and a futuristic white pavilion alive with visitors enjoying restaurants, a marina and vistas of the bay. There’s a stunning sunset shot, a view of the downtown skyline framed by the Lens, and then the words “The New St. Petersburg Pier” appear on screen before it fades to black.

But immediately after the lights went back up, City Councilman Karl Nurse stomped all over the euphoric mood.

“The public amenities that we actually get are three restrooms, four drinking fountains, three seating areas,” he said, his voice dripping with disdain. He said the only air-conditioned space in the entire facility is a concession stand so small (375 square feet) that there’d hardly be room to keep the gelato cold. “It is stunning.” And he wondered how restaurants could fit into the plan, since the superstructure they’d require is not covered by the new Pier’s $50 million planning and construction budget. “I don’t know where in the world you guys are thinking that money is going to come from.”

Nurse’s criticism was no surprise; he had already voiced his disillusionment with the Lens design after having initially supported it. But two days after the Maltzan presentation, he joined all of his City Council colleagues except one (Wengay Newton) in approving the first stage of funding — $1.6 million of an eventual $4.75 million — to help Maltzan finish his design and allow Skanska, the contractor, to continue its pre-construction work.

But the Council’s vote came after both Nurse and Councilman Charlie Gerdes reminded everyone that, no matter what the tally, the fate of the Pier could still wind up being decided by a public referendum.

Because, even after years of debate and an international design competition, two separate citizens’ campaigns have arisen that could stop the Lens from ever being built.

To recap: Eight years ago St. Petersburg’s engineering department determined that the pilings underneath the Pier approach were in bad shape and would need to be replaced by 2014. Pinellas County Commissioners approved $50 million in tax increment financing for construction/renovations, and in 2009 City Council approved the creation of a Pier Task Force to figure out how to apply those funds. After more than 60 public meetings, the task force opted to look for a new design rather than shore up the old one, as repairs were deemed to be too expensive. Another motivating factor was the city’s desire to reduce the $1.4 million it spends annually to subsidize the current Pier.

Despite all those public meetings, critics who want to keep the inverted pyramid — or at the very least, stop the Lens — say their concerns have never been heard.

But they’re making themselves heard now.

Safety Harbor resident Tom Lambdon of VoteOnThePier.com was the first to marshal opposition forces, setting out to collect the required signatures for a referendum nearly two years ago. A St. Pete native, he mourns the closing of such local landmarks as the 28th Street Drive-In, and says that the iconic inverted Pier structure built in 1973 “represents to me a magnificent representation of a place and time.” As a result, he feels passionately that the St. Pete community should be allowed to vote on whether to destroy it.

Although Mayor Bill Foster said he was willing to have the measure go to a vote, the City Council voted in August to reject Lambdon’s petition for a referendum. And since he no longer lives in St. Pete, Lambdon lacked standing to go to court to stop the city’s plans.

Enter Kathleen Ford, who lost to Bill Foster in the 2009 mayoral election. Sympathetic to the claim that the city was shutting out the citizenry, she became the lead plaintiff in the suit to stop the Pier process. And last week, Circuit Court Judge Amy Williams ruled that the City of St. Petersburg would have to meet with Ford and a mediator within 60 days to come up with ballot language for a possible vote on the Pier’s future.

Meanwhile, a second group has formed called StopTheLens.com. As the name implies, they’re not necessarily against changing the Pier; they just hate the Lens, and want to give residents a chance to vote on termination of the city’s agreement with Michael Maltzan Architecture. Bill Hurley, a member of the group, says he wants the Council to “slow down. Stop and see what the people want. Give them the chance to voice their true opinion.”

STOP/DON’T STOP: Supporters of the Lens in teal T-shirts (including Hal Freedman, crouching center) and a red-shirted opponent on the steps of St. Pete City Hall on Dec. 6.
STOP/DON’T STOP: Supporters of the Lens in teal T-shirts (including Hal Freedman, crouching center) and a red-shirted opponent on the steps of St. Pete City Hall on Dec. 6.
- Shanna Gillette
EAT HERE? The Lens redesign includes restaurant space, as shown in this rendering.
EAT HERE? The Lens redesign includes restaurant space, as shown in this rendering.
- Michael Maltzan Architecture
YES & NO: City Councilman Karl Nurse has been both a supporter and opponent of the Lens.
YES & NO: City Councilman Karl Nurse has been both a supporter and opponent of the Lens.
- Shanna Gillette

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Comments (5)

Showing 1-5 of 5

Hopefully they will build a glass wall or net to keep all those birds from stealing your food in the restaurant!!! I ate there once on my "tourist trip" of St. Pete and birds kept trying to fly away with our food.

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Posted by Amber Taylor on 12/13/2012 at 5:10 PM

The Lens is a forward looking vision which connects the Pier to the water and waterfront like never before. It has opportunities for activities just like the current underutilized Pier, without the 1.5 million subsidy. Opponents say save the jobs, but all the jobs on the 1st floor will have to go (for at least 2.5 years) if the approach is replaced, which leaves you with Columbia and Cha Cha Coconuts. Those two and Jonny Reno's could move to the mainland and survive, they could also come back on the new Lens in 2.5 years. The other shops, if legitimate businesses could survive on the mainland. Many private tourists related businesses survive downtown without public tax subsidies, and they should join them. The naysayers continue to throw around misinformation and ideas which don't have a chance (Filling in the bay under the existing Pier?, check with Swiftmud on that)...Move Forwad with the Lens!

report 3 likes, 4 dislikes   
Posted by Brian Longstreth on 12/14/2012 at 6:32 AM

The Lens design is absolutely beautiful and is appropriate for a waterside environment. I studied the model at the History Museum, but felt like I was missing something. I watched the video, and still feel like I am missing something. Please direct me to where somebody has addressed the question, "What is the draw?" What is going to be so popular that so many people will be wandering about, as shown on the video??? What I currently see is a very beautiful, very expensive sculpture/jogging trail that would be admired by many from a distance, but utilized by a very few. On the re-design, they are talking about two restaurants? Good. We have that now, and more with the current design, and everyone says that it is under-utilized. Besides being beautiful, what does the new design give us that we don't already have?

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Posted by Don Chapman on 12/14/2012 at 9:00 AM

It's beautiful. Having spent many days and nights on Big Pier 60 back in the 70s, talking with Big Jim Mead and feeding small pinfish to Moe the Turtle, I have to point out a problem . An open venue in a salt water environment requires constant cleaning and maintenance. The salt air gets into everything. Computers, electronics etc are good for about 2 yrs at most. Electrical wiring corrodes. Paint peels and chips something awful. Ask someone who has served on a Navy ship. What are the expected maintenance requirements for this facility?

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Posted by Fly in the Pie on 01/11/2013 at 9:52 PM

This is being built for the rich because middle class people cannot afford to go to it, eat there are whatever. Its such a ridiculous redesign period. I asked my brother would he like this new design and he has lots of money and he said hell NO!!

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Posted by Betty Clouse on 01/14/2013 at 12:12 PM
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