St. Petersburg delays funding for controversial pier project
ST. PETERSBURG - After a heated three-hour debate today, City Council members voted to delay for two weeks a decision on future funding of the city’s controversial new pier project. Officially, the delay is to allow city staff members to provide the council information on future maintenance costs for the project, known as the Lens, and a breakdown of the $1.5 million city officials want to spend on the next design phase. The delay also allows, if only temporarily, city leaders to side-step the thorny issue of whether to invest more in the Lens when a public vote on the project is expected in August. That referendum could kill the controversial $50-million project to replace the city’s aging pier. Leaders of Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg say they have verified more than 17,000 signatures on a petition calling for the city to cancel its contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture, the designer of the Lens. The group is waiting to file its petition because it wants to guarantee the referendum is on the Aug. 27 primary election ballot. The city charter requires special elections to be held within 90 days of petitions being verified.As expected, both supporters and opponents of the Lens attended today’s meeting to argue for and against continued support of the project. TV pitchman Anthony Sullivan, who has organized the WOW Our Waterfront St. Pete group that’s backing the Lens, did not attend today’s meeting but addressed council members in a video. Sullivan compared the Lens to Paris’ Eiffel Tower and the St. Louis Arch, both of which were controversial before becoming accepted as iconic symbols of their cities. “Controversy is not good, it’s great,” Sullivan said in his video message. Ahead of this morning’s meeting, St. Pete Polls released the results of a poll conducted Wednesday that found two-thirds of respondents were opposed to the Lens. That trend was somewhat reflected at today’s meeting, despite the ranks of people wearing T-shirts reading “make Lens not war.” Opponents of the project slightly outnumbered its supporters, as did the people who addressed the City Council. “Why does this council and mayor continue to ignore the will of the people they are elected to represent?” said St. Petersburg resident Lee Palmer. The Lens design was selected by a panel after an international competition aimed at finding a replacement for the inverted pyramid structure built in 1973 and the pier approach, built decades before. City leaders envision it as the centerpiece of a rejuvenated waterfront. 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. The city has spent roughly $3 million on the project so far, two-thirds of which is specifically tied to the Lens, said Mike Connors, the city’s public works administrator. The other money went for predesign work that could be used for another project, he said. Maltzan has indicated that a long delay could raise the costs and that it may be impossible for him to keep his current design team together, Connors said. Stay with TBO.com for updates.