Permit requirements complicate efforts to build new St. Pete pier
ST. PETERSBURG -
Voters may have the final say on a new pier, but Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council have not wavered from a plan to close and demolish the inverted pyramid.
Yet, the planned August demolition of the landmark that has been the centerpiece of the city’s waterfront since 1973 is still far from a done deal.
Before a wrecking ball can target The Pier, the city must still obtain permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud.
That could delay demolition because city officials have yet to respond to a March 22 letter from Swiftmud stating the city’s application is missing crucial information, including construction drawings. Meanwhile, opponents of the new pier are lobbying the Army Corps to hold a public hearing so they can air their concerns.
A further stumbling block for the troubled project emerged last week after Pinellas County planners warned commissioners that the futuristic Lens design may not comply with county regulations governing docks and marinas.
That would not prevent demolition but could put the fate of the controversial Lens project in the hands of county commissioners.
The county’s water and navigation code limits the size of walls and prohibits roofs on piers or docks. The code was intended to regulate private docks and marinas, not a once-in-a-lifetime project of the magnitude of the Lens.
“This is complicated,” said Kelli Levy, section manager of the county's Watershed Management Division, in an email. “The Lens is like no other structure that has come before county staff for permitting.”
The uncertainty surrounding the Lens goes beyond permit issues.
At a meeting last week, several commissioners expressed concern the city would move ahead with a project that could be derailed by a referendum.
Leaders of Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, a group opposed to the new pier design, say they have collected 21,000 signatures to force the city to hold a referendum on canceling its contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture, the Lens designer.
The City Council is scheduled to vote Thursday on a $1.5 million payment to Maltzan for the next design phase.
“Our hope is certainly the city would wait on spending that amount of public money when there is a vote coming up,” said County Commission Chairman Ken Welch. “My assumption is they’re going to weigh that heavily.”
After meeting with county officials Wednesday, City Public Works Administrator Mike Connors said county staff members are only concerned that the Lens does not block views of the waterfront that help boaters navigate. Because the Lens is smaller than the existing pier, he expects the county will approve the project.
“They want to make sure our Lens design fits the bill,” he said. “It’s smaller in height; it’s smaller in footprint, but they need more convincing.”
The new pier was envisaged as the jewel in the city’s waterfront. The Lens design was selected by a panel after an international competition.
The futuristic design includes a crossing-loop pathway that leads to an 86-foot-high crown-like structure that would a gelato store, a small restaurant and viewing balconies. The dual pathways would be used by pedestrians, joggers, bicyclists and a slow-moving trolley service. A new Columbia Restaurant is planned for the base of the pier.
The $50-million project includes the demolition of the old pier deck and removal of badly corroded concrete pilings, which will be used to reinforce the seawall at nearby Albert Whitted Airport.
Project reviewers from Swiftmud want assurance that the project will not lead to dust and rubble polluting the bay and that sea grasses will not damaged.
Floating barriers would be installed during demolition and construction, and construction barges would be prohibited from working or anchoring within 20 feet of sea-grass beds, according to the city’s application to Swiftmud.
To satisfy the Army Corps, city officials must demonstrate that the demolition will not threaten endangered marine life, which include manatees, sea turtles and small-tooth sawfish, said Darlene Dannels, an Army Corps project manager.
Before issuing a permit, the Corps must get comments on the project from the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service and complete an environmental assessment report, Dannels said.
Despite those regulatory requirements, Connors said he is confident demolition will still begin in August.
Permits are typically valid for as much as five years. If the Lens project is turned down by voters, then Connors said the city would revise its permit application for demolition only.
As things stand, Memorial Day will still likely be the last chance for residents to visit The Pier before it closes.
City officials recently sent letters to tenants giving them the choice of vacating their businesses by June or signing lease extensions that would give them until July 10 to remove merchandize and equipment from their stores and restaurants.
Those extended leases would not require them to pay extra rent because The Pier will remain closed.
The long-drawn out saga has dampened trade and the morale of business owners, said Debra Brown, owner of Peppers on the Pier.
“I’m not happy about losing our business,” Brown said. “It’s been the death of a thousand cuts because this has been going on for years. It’s torture really.”