Like it or not, efforts to disrupt St. Petersburg's plans to replace the aging Pier appear to have succeeded, and Mayor Bill Foster and city council members are now left with some difficult decisions. Among them: Should the city push ahead with the $50-million plan to tear down The Pier and build the replacement structure called The Lens? That would involve spending $1.5 million in a few weeks to move the design along to the next phase; moving tenants out of The Pier by May 31; and beginning demolition work shortly after. The gamble with pushing ahead is that the $1.5 million for further design work will be wasted if efforts to derail The Lens succeed. Should the city delay payment of the $1.5 million until learning whether efforts to derail The Lens will succeed in holding a referendum on its fate? The group behind the referendum effort will know soon whether they have enough petition signatures to force a vote, possibly in July or August. The gamble with a prolonged delay is that the architects might walk away, effectively killing the plan.
We think the city should delay the $1.5 million payment until a likely referendum on the fate of The Lens. If held, a referendum would provide a clear message from the public on whether to proceed with the project. This is not to find fault with the city for failing to put the question to a referendum long ago. Our political representatives are elected to make tough calls, and it would be chaos if every major decision were left to a popular vote. The Lens was vetted and voted upon at public meetings over the course of several years. But the opponents have proven that they are passionate about the future of the iconic spot on the waterfront that has defined the city's character for generations. They have turned that passion into a likely referendum that could be beneficial in understanding what the public wants. It is hoped that the group behind the petition moves quickly to verify the signatures. And if enough signatures are gathered, the group should promptly notify the city so that a vote can be held in as short a time period as possible. Separate from voting on The Lens is the question of what to do with The Pier in the months before the likely referendum. Plans call to begin demolition shortly after the last of the tenants move out at the end of next month. We think the city should proceed with its demolition schedule. The inverted pyramid that defines The Pier is no longer functional. The maturation of Beach Drive as a dining and entertainment destination, and the overall vitality of St. Petersburg's downtown, leaves few reasons for visitors to make the half-mile trek out to visit The Pier's shops and restaurants. If the referendum succeeds in ending the city's plan to build The Lens, the city should return to the drawing board to consider how it might develop a plan that more fully captures the imagination of the masses. The city council is expected to discuss The Lens project at its meeting Thursday. Among the concerns to be addressed are the worthiness of the materials that might be used in building The Lens, and their ability to hold up to the sun and seawater. Those concerns are worthy of discussion. But the bigger questions are whether to spend $1.5 million the city might never get back, and whether to delay the demolition. The city should not spend the money, and should begin the demolition.