It wouldn't be a meeting about the Pier if it weren't obscenely long and drawn out, now, would it?
After hours of dramatic, sometimes teary-eyed public comment, a good grilling of the Pier Park's design team and an, um, spirited debate among certain council members, the St. Pete City Council Thursday afternoon agreed to move forward with the Pier Park concept.
It's the concept that transforms the Pier approach into parkland and dismantles the inverted pyramid.
Ahead of public comment, Mayor Rick Kriseman said that the process of choosing Pier Park was successful, and asked the council to move it forward by approving negotiations with its design team.
“Prior to the ranking, I stated that I would champion whichever design team and concept was chosen by the selection committee," he said. "That's what I'm doing today. I love the Pier Park concept. I think it represents a clear illustration of our city's vision and that it honors our past and pursues our future.”
Dozens of people filled out comment cards allowing them to deliver public comment, but probably only half spoke. A small majority urged the council to reject the proposal and instead pursue negotiations with the team that designed Destination St. Pete Pier, a concept that fully preserves the inverted pyramid.
Quite a few of the Destination fans cited nostalgia as their reason for supporting it.
"My childhood memories of downtown are all centered around that Pier," said Michelle Knight, the first speaker, as she got a little choked up. "Fishing with my dad, school trips to see the bounty, the aquarium, and watching Fourth of July fireworks from the top floor...To destroy that standing icon would be destroying the image of our city."
But those in favor of Pier Park had a different take on that nostalgia — they lamented the fact that the city's children are not able to enjoy the Pier the way others have.
“If you delay the process, I could have a big part of my childhood without a Pier,” said Betsey Johnson, 11, who spoke in favor of Destination St. Pete Pier at a recent Pier Selection Committee hearing, but has since changed her mind. “There's lot of it for kids, and I think that we should build Pier Park so that kids can have a Pier sooner.”
Proponents call the design innovative and in keeping with the waterfront's orientation toward green space and water.
Destination St. Pete Pier garnered the most votes in a non-binding public survey earlier this year, but the committee chose Pier Park largely because it appeared to fulfill criteria gleaned from public input last year.
St. Pete Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Chris Steinocher was reluctant to say that he supports Pier Park as a design, but he urged the council to keep the process moving.
“We understood getting into this process that, just like any process, it's not perfect,” he said “We understood that there might be a debate. We understood that there might not always be an inverted pyramid… Any delay stops people from loving our city the way you and I and everybody else does."
There will likely be some pushback from the pro-Destination St. Pete Pier camp, which is largely made up of the same people who opposed the Lens design, ultimately getting it put up for a vote and rejected by voters. Some argue that St. Pete already has enough parks, or that the city ought to preserve what some people consider an icon.
“There were folks who wanted to bulldoze all of Old Northeast and we said no, this is important. This is our heritage. Let's protect it. And we did. And it's been wonderful to watch that whole preservation effort expand throughout our city. Now we come to today,” said former councilwoman and mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford. “As we look at our heritage and moving forward, we have a significant, significant asset in our city, and that is the inverted pyramid.”
Ford ended her testimony by urging the public to sign a petition to stop the current process in favor of a referendum at voteonthepier.com.
Only one person on the council agreed with her.
Councilman Wengay Newton, a staunch opponent of Pier Park, suggested the council table its decision and create a referendum in which residents could choose between the two designs during the August City Council primary, at a cost the city clerk estimated would be around $66,000. But the city attorney told him that If the city were to go forward with such a referendum, it would violate state statutes and open up the city to lawsuits
Newton's colleagues were not amused.
"I guarantee you if we violate the statute you are begging for a lawsuit," said Councilman Charlie Gerdes. "I will not vote for your motion."
Though they ultimately opted to move forward, the council grilled Pier Park's design team on details like the proposed coastal thicket planned for the wide Pier approach; floating docks that could be problematic during intense storms; the casual dining restaurant on the Pier head; a breakwater reef to stabilize sand on the project's Spa Beach portion; and whether or not the project will be carried out within budget.
For the most part, the council seemed satisfied with the responses, or their concerns were at least assuaged by flexibility that's built into the project at the current stage.
"I have some concerns, I hope that we can move through them," said Councilwoman Amy Foster. "And I know that it is a work in progress."
She had words for the people who are threatening to hijack the process via a petition drive and possible referendum.
"I do think that this is the Pier for the next generation and it's important that we consider that," Foster said. "One of the messages that I've heard over and over from some folks who got involved in the process as young professionals is [that] the opposing side, instead of being invited to the table to have a discussion about how we want to move the city forward and what we want… they're interested in buying the table and standing on it and screaming like a toddler when they don't get their way."
The seven council members who approved Pier Park said they wanted to move forward with it because the design is a good fit for the city and the process has been satisfactory so far.
Councilwoman Darden Rice condemned the opposition's recalcitrance.
"It's breathtakingly irresponsible and it's a shameless refusal to move forward," she said. "I think this process has worked. It's time to move forward...I do not agree that we have too many parks. If anything, we have too many parking lots."
"Those generations had a chance to do something unique with the Pier and I think this generation needs a chance to do something unique with the Pier," said St. Pete City Councilman Steve Kornell.
After the hearing, Kriseman sent out a written statement praising the council for moving forward.
"The process we implemented more than a year ago continues to serve our city well," he said in the press release. "The citizens who participated in our public process over the last year, as well as Pier Working Group and Selection Committee Members, are to be commended for their service. Our waterfront park system is the crown jewel of the City of St. Petersburg. I thank the St. Petersburg City Council for sharing that vision and their leadership.”