Likely referendum leaves City Council with funding dilemma
ST. PETERSBURG -
Envisioned as a jewel in the city's waterfront, the city's new pier design is lauded in slick videos on the city's website and on promotional posters in the lobby of City Hall.
But the fate of the futuristic pier known as the Lens is looking increasing precarious as some City Council members Thursday publicly acknowledged that the $50 million project is almost certain to be dragged into a referendum that could permanently sink it.
Leaders of Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg say they will have enough signatures to force a referendum on the pier within the next few weeks. That has some council members questioning whether the city should spend any more money on a project whose future is in doubt. The next bill for the pier - $1.5 million toward a detailed design - is due May 2.
“The worst of all worlds is you approve the next wave of money, and the next week they file their petition and force a referendum,” said City Council Chairman Karl Nurse, who signed the petition despite voting earlier to approve the pier. “I am going to push the folks getting the petition to have them turned in by then or give us a hard count so we're not in that terrible spot.”
The group, which recently hired a Los Angeles firm to help with its petition drive, already have more then 13,000 signatures and are closing on their target of 17,000, Nurse said.
The doubts about the pier's future surfaced during a Thursday discussion on whether to hold a workshop on April 18 to address engineering and safety concerns raised by Lens opponents.
The council voted 5-3 to schedule the meeting after a heated discussion that revealed major divisions among council members.
Leslie Curran, who served on the committee that selected the Lens design, said the workshop would undermine confidence in the project and the work of city officials and architect Michael Maltzan. She said there had been ample opportunity for the public to weigh in at meetings dating back to 2008.
“Whatever happens with the petition is going to happen, but in the meantime I'm not willing to throw away the five years of work we've done,” she said.
Council Member Wengay Newton said the city made the wrong decision to approve the pier over calls for a referendum.
“This is a major train wreck,” he said. “I wish we had done the right thing and let these people vote.”
The April 18 workshop is meant to address technical concerns raised by Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, who say that the pier's proposed aluminum and steel design will corrode in salt water and question if there is sufficient access for emergency vehicles.
“Our hope is the workshop will help council better understand the risk inherent in this very unusual design,” said Bill Ballard, a formal U.S. Navy engineer who is the group's president.
City staff members will be prepared to answer any questions from residents or the council, Mayor Bill Foster said. But he questioned the validity of the issues raised by opponents.
“When was the last time we built a significant structure in the City of St. Petersburg with taxpayer money that fell down or blew away? Not in my lifetime,” he said.
Council members said they welcomed the extra scrutiny that the workshop would bring and added that it could serve as an educational forum for any possible referendum.
Whether to spend additional money on the pier design is not the only headache for the council and Foster.
A judge is expected to rule on a lawsuit filed by former City Council member Kathleen Ford, who is representing VoteonthePier.com. Leaders of the group, which collected more than 20,000 signatures, hope to save the existing pier and are asking the judge to halt the project until a referendum is held.
Meanwhile, city officials have given pier business and restaurant owners until May 31 to move out of the inverted pyramid structure. Shortly after that, the 1973 building is scheduled for demolition.
That could turn one of the city's leading tourism attractions into an abandoned eyesore while officials wait for a referendum that could potentially push the project back to Square 1.
“My biggest concern is what we do if that process stops,” said Council Member Jim Kennedy said. “If we have another design competition, who is going to apply?”