A discussion: Does St. Petersburg really need a new pier?

At the moment, St. Petersburg has no Pier. The old inverted pyramid came down a year ago, and demolition of the approach finished this month. Construction on the new one won’t begin until 2017. No matter what, we’re going to live without one for quite a while. How does it feel? Not too bad, does it?

When I was running to work the other day along the seawall in North Shore Park, I looked out to where the Pier had been and felt… nothing. Though I liked the new Pier’s design well enough when its amenities were still intact, I began to have second thoughts. Do we really need one at all? Is it an answer in search of a question?

I first lived in St. Petersburg in 1981, and I’ve always felt that its beautiful waterfront park system is its true calling card.

The most appealing parts of the new Pier were the most parklike. Another restaurant? Nah, that’s what Beach Drive is for. And as budget realities collided with the new Pier’s design, many of the best features have been scaled back or dumped altogether.

Then I looked at a map of the entire Pier area and realized just how much actual land remains — Spa Beach, the large grassy park beside it and so on — even after the bridge leading to the Pier was carted off. Curious, I went out and jogged its perimeter and discovered this: Even with the Pier gone, there is still more than a mile of waterfront there. Maybe the city should focus its efforts and money on perfecting this part of the project, the so-called uplands. That is, create a beautiful, seamless extension of the waterfront park system on ground that’s already there — precious waterfront land, some of which is squandered under concrete and asphalt — hidden in plain sight.

Contracts are signed, and millions of dollars are dedicated because of financing rules and cannot be re-directed to a more urgent purpose. So maybe this is just a thought experiment. But let’s indulge it. For if in this period between piers, we look to the future with clear eyes and decide to go forward, we’ll feel much better with whatever we do. Better to allay any pangs of buyer’s remorse we’d feel with every waterfront sunrise backlighting a symbol of the city if it turned out to be miserly instead of magnificent. Whether great or godawful, it will help define downtown for generations. And if the best decision is to hesitate, well, better to make that call now.

We want to hear your thoughts. Write us a letter at tampabay.com/letters or email me — [email protected] — or comment on the Tampa Bay Times Facebook page. We’ll publish the most interesting range of opinions soon. To prime the pump, four of our staffers contribute a few thoughts from their particular areas of expertise.

— Jim Verhulst, Perspective editor

Rogers Architects+Urban Designers and ASD
A clearer picture of the city's new pier emerged on March 17, 2016, when architects unveiled these schematic designs for the $46 million project.

Practically, it’s hard to say no

St. Petersburg has always had a pier. Even before the city was incorporated in 1903. And before its heyday as a spring training baseball mecca.

Give credit, or blame, for the century-plus pier tradition to the esteemed Peter Demens — the former Russian nobleman Pyotr Dementyev and one of the city’s founders. His was the Railroad Pier.

So here we are in 2016, after years of bickering, and St. Petersburg is getting ready to erect Pier No. 7. But at what cost?

The original budget was $50 million, but after a false start and near anarchy in the form of a citizen-forced referendum, just $46 million remained when officials decided to try again.

Then more than a year ago, Mayor Rick Kriseman proposed a $20 million complementary project that would link the downtown core to the new Pier. The vision: a show-stopping, $66 million, 25-acre Pier District.

But as numbers were crunched, it became obvious that some of the dazzling array of features architects proposed, including a water lounge where visitors could dip their toes, wade or splash in a shallow pool of filtered Tampa Bay water at the end of the Pier, would not be financially feasible. Neither would the grand entry, an arts bridge and expensive features for the children’s playground and splash pad. The plan to turn Bayshore Drive into a convertible street for pedestrians and cyclists, with a wider sidewalk and parking moved away from the water, also would be a financial challenge.

Latest plans call for soliciting sponsors to help with expenses.

But what if the Pier portion of the project were dropped and all financial resources poured into land-side amenities on what is being referred to as the Pier approach? Can the city shift the $37.3 million now remaining from the $50 million Pier budget to the area near downtown? Or, as some are suggesting, could all or some of the money allotted to the entire Pier District be directed to solve the city’s sewer crisis?

The answer is an unequivocal no, said Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn.

“The majority of this money came from bonds that were issued to finance these projects,” he said in an email.

“Bond proceeds are limited to being spent on the specific project identified in the bond issue. Here we issued two series of bonds, one for work on the approach, one for work on the Pier itself and they cannot be spent for other things.”

Attempting to change that could result in severe tax consequences and major expense for the city, Winn said.

As to what would happen with the money if the Pier is not built, he said that’s a complex issue.

And perhaps for countless St. Petersburg residents who have looked to the Pier as a budget-friendly family spot, a place to show off to out-of-towners, or even catch a meal, a void.

— Waveney Ann Moore, Times staff writer

Demolition work continues on the site of the old pier in St. Petersburg on Sept. 6.

Will it be an Edsel or a Tesla?

From a business point of view, where bigger is better and more is marvelous, the question of whether St. Petersburg really needs a new Pier seems easy to answer.

Bring it on.

After all, St. Petersburg is enjoying a muscular building renaissance of new and proposed towers of record heights (and prices). And wrecking balls are removing other structures that can’t pass modern muster or sit on such prime land that modern real estate economics says the old must make way for taller, cooler and inevitably more expensive redevelopment.

After so many decades of treading water downtown, St. Pete’s business community wants to strike while this city remains a bona fide “in” place to be. And a hip, 21st century-style Pier to replace the outdated and now demolished inverted pyramid from the 1970s seems a perfect fit in the eyes of commerce.

But wait. The once boldly envisioned Pier already is falling victim to shrinking budgets. Too much of the originally allocated Pier money was frittered away on repeated studies, consultants and advisory reviews. What’s left? A thinner version of what the city sought. The new Pier’s design must be pruned to cut costs. What remains may now remind us less of a Tesla and more like an Edsel.

An Edsel Pier? That’s not what St. Petersburg wants sitting out in the water, viewable from posh Beach Drive. Worse, city leaders are warming to the sad idea of selling sponsorships — corporate advertising, to be accurate — plastered “tastefully” over the pier to offset rising expenses.

That’s the paradox of the city’s current era of downtown success. After a long and painful process of picking a Pier design that enough city residents could accept, what may now be built with a diminished budget may still satisfy few.

One long-time resident, business leader (he chaired St. Pete’s chamber of commerce twice) and real estate attorney involved in the arduous selection process argues the Pier may not be perfect. But it still should be built.

“Though downtown has seen a tremendous resurgence over the last 10 to 15 years, not having a new Pier would be viewed as a failure,” says David Punzak. He says if he were king — “and I’m not,” he adds — he would try to find more city funds to make a new Pier “spectacular.”

Punzak says he would not rule out re-configuring the Pier project as a public/private partnership with a third-party developer, “and let them propose what they would do for a redesign.”

It’s so late in the Pier process, he admits, that’s not going to happen.

Yet it’s a common thought among some business locals. Nobody wants a half-baked Pier whose design faces cutbacks and the potential splash of marketing slogans. That’s not the kind of offshore landmark the city wants to embrace for the next quarter century.

— Robert Trigaux, Times business columnist

DIRK SHADD| Times (2012)
A view of the old St. Petersburg Pier. One question to ask: Does St. Petersburg need a new pier?

We would miss our town square

If we never replaced the Pier, would we miss it as a town square, as a public space for events?

I keep a close eye on the gathering places around the area in my job as the events editor at the Tampa Bay Times, and yes, we would miss a high-profile landmark.

But first, admit it. The last time you visited the old girl when she was up running was when you had a relative in town for a visit.

Like me, you needed a place to entertain your Aunt Edna when she paid a visit from Buffalo, and the Pier was the easiest spot to look out at the water. You bought a bucket of fish to feed the pelicans and maybe grabbed lunch.

And then you didn’t go back.

You came close, such as the occasional public event like the Jingle Bell Run — the Pier approach served as a starting point. Or you brought a lawn chair and watched the fireworks there on July 4. Or you included it in your own workout as a jogging path.

But you didn’t go inside very often to shop or eat. Still, you likely saw it in the background at some point almost every week.

Iconic landmarks are important for a community’s identity, and often why we value living here. Having a place to gather, our city’s living room if you will, gives us a touch point. Yes, the Pier was goofy. But you couldn’t find it anywhere else.

Cities are an ever-changing organism. They are “alive” because they respond to changing needs, and we clearly have a need for a gathering space. A view of the water is a plus. This is why downtown St. Petersburg, once a sleepy spot that was virtually silent after 5 p.m., suddenly become the hot spot for restaurants and bars.

The Pier was once needed to draw people downtown, but that need is no longer there. Yet we still need public places to find each other, to share a community concert or see the fireworks.

The problem with relying on the business community to supply the gathering spot is it can shut out those who can’t afford to buy a $10 glass of wine. Or like the now-defunct BayWalk shopping center’s brief moment as a gathering spot, ill-behaved teenagers can be bad for business. Remade as Sundial, it’s a different beast now, but not a quasi-public square.

Though there were private businesses there, the Pier was a free place to be entertained. You could find local musicians performing in the courtyard by the bay on Sundays. Nights along the waterfront could be a romantic walk as the custom LED system kicked in and lit up the inverted pyramid at night. And the new pier holds promise to pull people toward the water when Aunt Edna returns from Buffalo, looking for a respite from the cold winter back home.

Yes, we would miss it even if we couldn’t define what was missing.

- Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Times staff writer

The downtown skyline of St. Petersburg can be seen from the parking lot of the old St. Petersburg Pier.

Here’s my preposterous idea

Here’s an idea: Let’s not replace the Pier.

I know, I know.

But I can’t remember a public discussion entertaining that possibility and I wonder why. Having that debate, even if it is at this point hypothetical, might clarify much about this project conceptually.

First, I would banish the word “need” in a dialogue, as in “we need a new Pier.” No, we don’t. We need a well-functioning sewer system. We want the Pier.

Is that because no one can remember a time when we didn’t have one? Or because it’s a point of civic pride to have a high-profile landmark? As for memories, who remembers the glamor of the Soreno Hotel? It’s now the location of the Florencia condominiums. As for pride, it can fast become hubris, and pragmatism usually trumps either one.

Since its demolition began last year, how much have we missed the Pier? As an aesthetic statement, its merits are questionable. The most recent one with its inverted pyramid design wasn’t universally admired. Do we believe a new one will have more positive consensus? In a broader aesthetic context, is our waterfront lacking in its absence? The most striking element is the seamless swath of park land bracketed by the Dalí Museum and the historic Vinoy Renaissance Hotel.

I feel the Pier and the approach will be a disappointment in their current iterations. Already we’re seeing bits and pieces of the most attractive elements being nicked away because of budget constraints. History tells us that those “adjustments” are probably only the beginning. Unexpected costs could surface, the price of materials could go up more than anticipated, problems with the design could arise that require reallocation of funds. And you can bet the subsidy needed to keep the Pier going won’t ever go away or probably ever diminish.

Exploring naming opportunities is attractive. Maybe enough money could be raised to erase any concerns about this under-financed project. But most people in development would say that idea should have been floated long ago; the museums I work with, for example, raise a healthy percentage of corporate and individual underwriting well before ground-breaking on a new bricks-and-mortar project.

So, back to my preposterous idea.

The Pier needs a lot more money to be what we want it to be. Why have we never thought of waiting to figure out if we want it at all?

— Lennie Bennett, Times art critic

Produced by Lauren Flannery