Every member of St. Petersburg City Council except one approved Michael Maltzan Architecture’s Lens design last Thursday, officially ending the design competition for The Pier. But the Council prefaced the vote with a number of pointed questions about the multiple phases of the project presented by Maltzan.
“I won’t vote for something that is $50 million for the first phase,” Councilman Karl Nurse said. “My anxiety is it’ll be $100 million for the rest of the phases... The rest could be interesting and pretty, but I don’t know where the money would come from.”
Even the final presentation Thursday at City Council included the words “first phase” on several slides. Councilman Steve Kornell expressed similar concerns about the budget.
“I want to know if we vote today that it’s a real budget and not theoretical, not a phased budget,” Kornell said. “And I want to know $50 million is the cap. If they go over it, they have to come back.”
Mayor Bill Foster stated there was only one phase to vote on. “Strike the word ‘first’ from every document,” Foster said. “This is the phase. Unless manna falls from heaven, it is unlikely we’ll see future phases in our lifetime.”
St. Petersburg City Attorney John Wolfe said Maltzan’s design must stay at or under $50 million for the contract to proceed. City Administrator Tish Elston noted that funding will come from several sources, including bonds.
“Bonds are being issued on revenue of TIF funds for the full construction,” Elston said.
According to the city, funding for the project was established in 2005 under the Intown Redevelopment Plan. The plan uses Tax Increment Financing or TIF, a public financing method that subsidizes community projects. TIF calculates future gains in taxes, like increased values in real estate, to fund something like a new pier.
Councilman Wengay Newton is skeptical about the funding.
“We are going to float $45 million in debt,” Newton said. “Once you enter into this contract, how will we fulfill it without the money?”
Councilman Charlie Gerdes said he feels confident moving forward.
“If I wanted to buy a home, I’d have to get a mortgage,” Gerdes said. “My wife and I would ask ourselves, ‘Is my income sufficient to support making a decision for that 30-year debt?’ That’s what we are being told has been done.”
Foster had a message for critics of the project who are still asking that the issue be put to a referendum.
“Those seeking a referendum need to be specific,” Foster said.
“A lot of people I talk to who want a referendum don’t want to spend the money. Just tear it down and do nothing… I firmly believe and agree with City Council to preserve the 100-plus-year tradition of having a pier.”
“I’ve got a specific idea," responded St. Petersburg resident Vince Cocks. "Tear down the old pier and build something that costs a lot less than $50 million. We have a police station that needs to be renovated… $50 million is $50 million and that is a lot of money.”
The current subsidy for pier maintenance is under $2 million; the estimated subsidy for the Lens will be less, according to the city. Kornell argued that in the long term, the Lens could potentially put more revenue back into the community.
“A lot of things could be done with the leftovers from that subsidy,” Kornell said.
During the competition, the public was able to take surveys and rank favorite designs. St. Petersburg resident and Occupy St. Petersburg organizer Ariel Fernandez argued that the polls were biased.
“I am familiar with politics and push polling,” Fernandez said.
“You submit questions to people that will be answered a certain way.”
Only Councilman Wengay Newton voted against the motion to approve Maltzan’s design and move forward.“You can’t put lipstick on a pig and make it a prom queen,”
Newton said. “It’s not about the process or the architecture. The people never got an opportunity to vote.”
Michael Maltzan’s Lens is still far from being built. The next 12 to 15 months will see negotiations between the city and Maltzan on finalizing a design. After the design is finalized, permitting and bidding for construction will occur. Construction may not start until 2014, according to the city.
“This isn’t an end,” Gerdes said. “It’s a beginning.”
Referendum supporters don’t see it as the end, either.
“We are learning how to canvass Saturday to get signatures for the petition,” Occupy St. Pete’s Kayla Mallery said. “I’d like to see a referendum accomplished.”
In order to force a public referendum via petition, 10 percent of the city’s registered voter population must sign. Based on the city’s 160,000 residents, that adds up to roughly 16,000 signatures.
“We just want a vote,” Fernandez said. “I just want people to be able to vote.”
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