After nine-hour meeting, Pier committee lands on a recommendation

About 70 people pleaded their case for one of three St. Pete Pier design proposals before the Pier Selection Committee, the group that has spent months poring over design proposals for the site of what was once a key tourism draw in St. Pete.

Just before midnight, the committee ranked the three top design proposals as follows:

1) Pier Park (keeps some of the structure in place, creates extensive outdoor park/recreational space).

2) Destination St. Pete Pier (renovates current inverted pyramid, adds new elements).

3) Alma (demolishes entire pier head, replaces it with a tower).

The aim of this meeting was, ostensibly, to hear a crap ton of public comment, then cast votes ranking the three design finalists. Of course, the conversation that took place after nearly three hours of public comment dragged on at a skull-numbing pace. They spoke at length about the intricacies of each design — which type of restaurant should go where, how garbage from said restaurants will be handled, what happens if someone catches a big fish off the pier and can't park nearby (seriously) and how close a dumpster should be to an event lawn.

The committee has caught a ton of flak for seeming to support Alma, an unpopular design according to public polling. When it finally ranked the designs, members of the audience clapped.

Many speakers said they favored Destination St. Pete Pier — the one that keeps the inverted pyramid. About 30 spoke in support, and many urged the panel to pay attention to public opinion.

“I don't see how the selection committee of city council can ignore the fact that three statistically significant random public surveys...ranked Alma last and destination St. Pete Pier first,” said resident David Harris.

Many appreciated the fact that the design team behind the proposal was made up of a bunch of local firms.

“It unites elements of the disparate groups that created the Lens fiasco,” said resident Hal Freedman, adding that the city held a public survey for a reason and it'd be wise to pay attention to the results. “The public was asked their opinion and I don't think it's appropriate to ignore the answer.”

Probably the most adorable moment came when Betsy Johnson, 11, offered her two cents. She was not a fan of Alma.

“If you look at the design, it doesn't have anything for kids,” she said. “I think Destination has things for somebody young and old...If I were to go down to the Pier, I would look for a place to play...Kids want to go to the Pier to play.”

Some 24 people spoke in favor of Alma, the one that demolishes the Pier and replaces it with a Jetsons-esque tower. The design hasn't gone over well in public surveys, but Alma's supporters say relying too heavily on public input amounts to design by referendum. Most Alma proponents wore stickers showing their support, tended to be younger than most Destination supporters (save for Johnson, of course). Most said they saw the current inverted pyramid, which opened in 1973, as dated and unsuccessful.

“We don't need another waterfront park. We need a pier,” said Tobin DeYoung. “Unfortunately what we've got is broke. We can't fix it. It's an antiquated design...This isn't 1970. This is 2015. This city is moving forward in a flawless, flawless amazing direction.”

“We have world class architects in this room, and I don't think if you started from scratch, any of them would have come up with an inverted pyramid," said Steve Gianfilippo, who recently renovated two hotels in downtown St. Pete. He added that renovating rather than building a new building "takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you bargained for.” 

Casey Gonzmart of the Columbia Restaurant Group (which had a location in the inverted Pier when it was open), said the logistics of Alma make most sense for restaurants, given that the design places a fine dining restaurant at the base of the Pier instead of all the way out over the water. And, he said, the Pier location was the worst-performing of all the Columbia Restaurant locations.

 “I can tell you the design concept that Alma's come up with is going to be what the world needs today,” Gonzmart said. “If we don't keep up with the times and give people what they want and what they need then we're going to miss the boat.”

Pier Park had gotten much less ink than the other two, but plenty of support from around 30 speakers. Critics say the design creates unnecessary green space given the miles of green that already line the downtown waterfront, which the design's supporters say is ridiculous. 

“I think that's a really strange argument to make,” said Nora Gaunt. “We [already] have plenty of shopping and parking and concrete and buildings.”

Pier Park aims to serve as an expansion of downtown St. Pete's waterfront park system. So instead of being basically a bridge to a mall like the old inverted pyramid, Pier Park would have activities and attractions along the length of the Pier approach, extensive event space and lush plant life with a couple of restaurants woven into the landscape. It's also the only design that, if carried out, would have a place for visitors to stick their toes in the water.

Author and consultant Peter Kageyama, who supports the proposal, offered some historical context.

"A hundred or so years ago the leadership of St. Petersburg made the decision to preserve the green belt that is around St. Petersburg," he said. "And that was a very controversial decision at the time. Think about it. At that time, everyone in every other city was industrializing their waterfront. We went in a very different direction and we preserved our green space."

He said while he digs Pier Park, what's most important is that the panel makes a decision.

"Folks like you are going to take heat no matter what decision you make. The council, the mayor are going to take heat no matter what decision we make. That's the job. The leadership of the community, that's the job. You're not going to make a decision everyone's going to like."

Ultimately, the design won over the committee, even committee chair Mike Connors, who had clearly favored Alma.

“Activating park land over water can be iconic,” Connors said.

It's now up to the City Council to take up the issue, though it's unclear when they will or what would happen if they reject the proposal. If they accept it, negotiations and permitting would start.

"The city cannot afford to have this go back to zero," said St. Pete City Councilwoman Darden Rice ahead of the meeting. "The final selection may not be what everybody likes, but we're going to build this pier."


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