Demolition of the St. Pete Pier's inverted pyramid structure could start as early as next week, officials said Thursday.
A pier with porch swings, splash pads and a tilted events lawn — all facets of the Pier Park concept — could be a reality by 2018 if all goes well.
In a brisk (relatively speaking, of course) move, the St. Petersburg City Council approved a multifaceted measure to move forward on the Pier Park proposal — and demolish the inverted pyramid structure that's ostensibly at the heart of the Pier debate.
In separate votes, the council voted 7-1 to allow Skanska USA, which has a branch in Tampa, to be the project's construction manager; to move forward with Rogers Partners/ASD, a New York/Tampa partnership, to cover the architectural/engineering aspects; and asked Sonny Glasbrenner, a Clearwater outfit, to carry out the demolition — all at a cost of $5.2 million.
While public comment periods during Pier-related meetings have in the past lasted for hours and attracted dozens of speakers, Thursday's was comparatively abbreviated, and most spoke in favor of moving forward.
“We've come this far and I want to urge you to continue the work that we've done,” said resident Justin Bean. “We've selected that Pier and now it's time to actually pull the trigger and move forward...I think everyone's going to be sad to see the pyramid go.”
Even supporters of preserving the 1973 inverted pyramid structure said they want to work with the city going forward.
“Hopefully we've learned a lot in these last experiences that we've had," said Gene Smith, a spokesman for Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, a group that opposed the Lens design in 2013. "I think that we do have a design concept here that needs a lot of work and we understand that...we have a lot of talent in this town, people really interested in making sure that we get the best project that we can have."
Those who spoke against moving forward with Pier Park were thoughtful in doing so, relying less on nostalgia and unfounded accusations of corruption than on reasonable questions.
“I believe we're rushing things here," said Hal Freedman, who was pro-Lens in 2013 and has been closely watching the process. "I'm trying to figure out how you can approve a contract — maybe with air quotes around it — before the permitting is completed, because that's an area that's of significant question.”
He said he is concerned that if there are insurmountable permitting issues, the city will be stuck with the Pier Park contract, especially with demolition of the pyramid likely to occur before permitting rather than after.
While there was little objection to moving forward during public comment, the action stalled as the council discussed it. Councilman Wengay Newton, who has always opposed demolishing the inverted pyramid, called into question one aspect of the demolition contract that waives the requirement to put that contract out to bid again, given that it's three years old and was secured before the city voted down the Lens design proposal. The city increased that bid by 4.9 percent to $3,158,281.47 to account for increases in labor and equipment costs.
"We are going to be asked to waive section 244-E of the procurement code which is...altering a bid when we got a bidding process that was done three years ago, we have a bidder who knows what the other bidders bid, he can see it now...so this bidder's asking for an increase of 4.9 percent...is that altering the original bid [...]?" he said. "I have a serious problem with that."
City attorneys and other staffers reassured him repeatedly that the waiver in no way constitutes bid tampering. City Councilman Steve Kornell even accused Newton, who is likely running for a seat in the state legislature, of playing politics.
“If I thought [there was bid tampering], I would call the proper legal authoties and report it," Kornell said. "And if people don't do that, then it's politics. It's making a speech in front of the cameras.”
He added that the waiver is more a way to save taxpayer dollars, given that going out to bid on such a project takes time, and other firms, knowing how much money Sonny Glasbrenner is getting paid, could try to outbid them.
Besides, he said, it's time to move forward on something that's been kind of a mess in recent years; anyone who doesn't believe that ought to look at the city's history.
“In 1921, our Pier was destroyed by a hurricane. And that generation boldly stepped up and did the million-dollar Pier," Kornell said. "Then in 1973, a new generation said, 'We want something different' and we got the inverted pyramid. And I think it's time for this generation to have an opportunity to do the same thing, and I think it fits our history very well.”
Newton was the only person on the council to vote down the measures, and warned of political consequences for his colleagues.
But at this point, it's unclear whether opposition to the proposal will once again mount as it did with the Lens.
Vote on the Pier, another pro-pyramid group, is currently circulating a petition that could ultimately require the city to put any land use decision pertaining to city-owned waterfront land out to a vote — a costly logistical nightmare.
Even with a looming threat or two, the council seemed happy just to be moving forward on something for once.
“This is an exciting day for the city of St. Pete,” Foster said. “Not only do we have the opportunity to do something great, as our speakers mentioned, but we have the opportunity to move forward together.”