St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and the city council have crafted a reasonable compromise for proceeding with plans to replace the city’s aging downtown Pier. In fact, it appears both sides of the emotional debate were able to keep the public’s best interest in mind when taking this next step toward resolving the dispute over the $50 million pier project. The city council voted Thursday night to spend $869,000 to proceed with the demolition of the inverted pyramid Pier and to conduct a limited amount of design work on a possible replacement structure, known as The Lens. The original contract called for the city to spend $1.5 million for this next phase of design work. But concerns that The Lens may be derailed by a possible referendum in three months led to the vote Thursday to scale back the expenditure.
Council members voted to spend money on design work that will help voters decide whether to support The Lens should the referendum be held in August. It also keeps the architects engaged and the plan on track should voters approve the project in that expected referendum. The city council also decided to stay with its plan to close The Pier at the end of this month and proceed with demolition work sometime this summer. Calls to keep The Pier open until the likely referendum in three months were rightfully dismissed. With the planned departure of anchor tenants Cha Cha Coconuts and the Columbia restaurant, the city faced $400,000 in subsidies to keep the structure open. For its part, Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, the political action committee challenging The Lens, has delivered its petitions to city hall in anticipation of the referendum. If enough signatures are verified, the question will appear on the Aug. 27 primary ballot along with the mayor’s race and four city council races. The timing spares the city the expense of holding a separate election just for The Pier. The prospect of a referendum gives at least a glimmer of hope that the drawn-out battle over The Lens will soon be resolved. It was approved after a lengthy vetting process by the city, but doesn’t appear to have captured the public’s imagination. A vote should provide the authoritative answer on just what the public thinks of the futuristic design. Because of its aging infrastructure and the competition for visitors from Beach Drive and the city’s bustling downtown, the existing Pier needs to be demolished. If The Lens is rejected in August, the city council can regroup to contemplate the best use for the iconic waterfront spot. We advocated earlier that the city council hold off on spending the $1.5 million until the likely referendum on The Lens’ fate. But the mayor and city council found a middle ground that will educate voters and keep all of the city’s options on the table. It was the right decision.