Whither The Pier? Renovate or replace? Differing ideas on the future of a St. Petersburg icon

None is more outspoken than Tim Lambdon, a Safety Harbor resident and the founder and chairman of the group savethepier.org. His ardent quest to make the Pier more family-friendly goes back more than 20 years, when he conceived of a rollercoaster to be built entirely over the water, reaching 150 feet out from the pier head.


He's behind an effort to put a referendum on the Pier's fate on this November's ballot. (The group officially needs to obtain 15,648 signatures by the middle of July. Lambdon says he's striving to get 20,000.)


But what does the community want? Depends who you talk to.


In January, the Washington D.C.-based pollsters American Directors Group conducted a survey for Bay News 9 and the St. Petersburg Times that showed the public deadlocked on whether to raze or not to raze: 37 percent said yes, 37 percent no, and almost a third (27 percent) weren't sure.


The only member of Council to vote against demolition, Wengay Newton, says the public deserves to have its say. "This is not like tearing down a small crack house," he told CL at the Columbia, whose owner, Richard Gonzmart, has been one of the most high-profile objectors to razing the structure.


Newton says the situation reminds him what of happened back in the early aughts, when former Mayor Rick Baker tried to close one of Albert Whitted Airport's two runways and sell some land to developers for high-rise condos. After the city council rejected that plan, condo proponents put a measure on the ballot — which went down to a resounding defeat.


"Now if people want to abolish the pier," Newton says, "I'm with it. I'll be the first one in front with a bulldozer."


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Tom Lambdon says that the council's vote to raze the pier without a public hearing violates the amendment to the Intown Redevelopment Plan created in 2005 by the city of St. Pete and Pinellas County. He says that any changes to that plan require county approval, and must have a formal public hearing.


But others disagree. Mark Winn with the city of St. Pete's legal department says that the county has already weighed in, and that demolitions were already included in that interlocal agreement.


As to the argument that council did not hold a public hearing, Winn says the task force held three public meetings, "so the public has had many opportunities to speak."


At least one Pier tenant was unimpressed by those meetings. Nicholas Weathersbee runs the Global Candle Gallery, which is the first retail shop visitors encounter on the bottom floor of the Pier. With his prime location, he serves as a somewhat unofficial concierge of the facility, and is also a critic of tearing it down. He says the task force paid little attention to public input: "All the ideas, they threw them in the garbage, all of them."


Will Michaels, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, served on the task force and chaired the design committee. He also believes it would have been "appropriate" for the City Council to hold a final public hearing prior to making their decision.


One disputed factor is the cost of renovating the pier approach, which has over 1,000 individual pilings. The city has projected a cost of $90 million, but a Sarasota-based company, Structural Preservation Systems (SPS), has said it could fix all of the pilings for less than $25 million.


Mayor Foster and city engineers met with officials from the group before the holidays. Together, says Foster, they deduced that even though SPS's technology can stop corrosion, it cannot reverse the damage incurred by 90 years of wear and tear. (Officials with SPS failed to return CL's phone calls.) "Not even close," Foster said of the $25 million figure. However, he says the meeting with SPS was still productive. He's convinced that he can use the company's technology to prevent corrosion on a new walkway, making it last "technically forever."


Morale among Pier merchants is at a low ebb, given the perception that its last days are inexorable. In fact, even though a refurbished Pier could see a complete exchange of tenants, nothing is going to happen to the current structure until at least 2013.


But that's not the message getting out to the public, complains Susan Robertson, advertising & promotions manager at the Pier.


"No offense to the media, but some of it has not been helpful," she says of reporting on the issue. "With the opening line of 'Any day now, the Pier's going to be going away,' it doesn't help, as some people go, 'Well, I guess it's not there, so there's no need to go out there.'" Robertson says back in the boom years of the economy (2005-2007) the Pier had "record sales" and a record amount of money to spend on marketing events.


But that was pre-recession. Still, supporters say that the Pier has remained viable through the severe economic downturn (though it receives over $1.5 million in subsidies from the city annually), at least when compared to the BayWalk complex, the forsaken mall for which City Council members sacrificed a public sidewalk in 2009.


But in some quarters, the Pier has a miserable reputation. City Councilman Steve Kornell says he visited the location last summer on a Friday night after a Rays game, and "it was a ghost town." Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said he was driving with friends down Beach Drive as he looked at the inverted structure and asked, "When was the last time any one [of us] came down here?"


Of course, similar facilities, like San Francisco's Pier 39, are famously derided by locals and beloved by tourists. But Mayor Foster and members of the city council say the Pier needs to attract both elements to be successful.


St. Pete City Councilman Karl Nurse says one of the problems is that tourists don't go there. He points to a recommendation from the task force that the city could find a better use for the waterfront land in the upland area that is now devoted to parking spaces. He says that's where entertainment/amusement facilities could be situated.


San Francisco, Santa Monica and Chicago's Navy Pier all have amusement parks of some sort. But Commissioner Ken Welch says to do so here, "It would have to be very carefully executed because the waterfront in downtown is sacred, so it would all be in the execution — but you've got to have something to draw folks down there."


St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster says there is a new "brand in St. Pete that the inverted Pier no longer represents," telling CL last week that, "Whatever we build, I want your readers to frequent."


Which brings us back to Tom Lambdon, who sounds excited yet frustrated when he recounts his vision, saying he sees a lack of foresight by St. Pete leaders, both then and now. He invokes a populist perspective, suggesting the small-town charms of the Pier will be eviscerated to appeal to an upper-income bracket. He wants a "park for the people," not just for those who enjoy "$70 entrees on Beach Drive... I mean, there are people in some demographics who feel they're being cut out if you eliminate some basic things."


The Miami-based architectural design firm Ballestra, Bernello & Ajanill is scheduled to bring back ideas to the mayor this week, and address the City Council next week. (The firm is being paid $418,000 for its services.) From there, the city intends to open up the process to an architectural competition. Councilman Karl Nurse says, "My expectation and hope is that we'll have three distinctive enough finalists for people to get excited about."


When and if the current Pier is struck down, Nurse says the only thing that has been determined so far is that the pier approach will be shorter and narrower (from 1,026 feet long and 100 feet wide to approximately 800 by 50). "The thought is you can still get the same view of the city and they [the consultants] think that's as far as people will walk."


When asked his thoughts about a potential ballot measure, task force member Will Michaels says he wouldn't want a simple up-or-down question about whether to retain the current Pier. He'd also want to see a specific price tag attached. "It doesn't do any good for a referendum to rebuild the Pier if the money isn't there," he says.


Tom Lambdon says Mayor Bill Foster has "blatantly and deliberately" ignored the will of the citizenry by denying them the opportunity to vote through referendum. And he says it would be nothing "short of political suicide" for Foster if he should tear down this landmark and replace it with a less significant Pier.


But Foster is unmoved. He dismisses Lambdon as being "self-interested" because of his plans for a roller coaster, which Foster doesn't envision as part of the Pier's future.


But the fight isn't yet over. Either way, there will be changes to The Pier.


Officials with the consulting firm charged with presenting a new concept for the Pier will give a public presentation at the St. Petersburg Coliseum on Thurs., Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. That's at 535 Fourth Ave. N, St. Petersburg.

"This is a city — and also a national — treasure," says St. Petersburg City Councilman Wengay Newton of the venerable St. Petersburg Pier.

On this Friday afternoon in early January, sitting in the Columbia Restaurant on the Pier's fourth floor with a panoramic view of Tampa Bay, it's hard to argue with him.

But this particular mind-blowing view may be a thing of the past by 2013. St. Petersburg City Council voted 7-1 last August to tear down the 37-year-old structure and start all over with a new Pier. What constitutes "starting over" will be addressed by a Miami-based consultant to the City Council, and by the public, over the next few weeks.

The Council's vote followed the report of a task force that had met for the previous 16 months. Its conclusion: The existing pier head and approach (the base that surrounds the iconic inverted pyramid, and the roadway leading up to it) will need to be replaced in the near future. But the report also found that a "substantial analysis" should be undertaken before the city decides whether to retain the pyramid, which was constructed in 1973.

Mayor Bill Foster supports razing the structure and using the $50 million earmarked for restoration to build a new Pier instead, saying that renovation would cost much more.

But not everybody is embracing that vision.

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