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“The subsidy is a balancing point,” Councilman Charlie Gerdes said at an informational meeting he held on the Lens at St. Petersburg College last month. He explained that the “more active” the building — meaning more infrastructure, more plumbing, more electrical, more air-conditioning — the more expensive, meaning more of a subsidy.
A year ago, Nurse joined Newton in being the only councilmembers to support Lambdon’s initiative to put the Pier on the 2012 ballot — a measure that Mayor Bill Foster waffled on but ultimately supported. But the council rejected the referendum idea, even though Lambdon’s Vote on the Pier group had managed to gather 23,000 signatures.
The rejection of the ballot measure triggered the public involvement of several parties who became very public foes of the Lens. Kathleen Ford, who hadn’t yet announced her candidacy for mayor, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lambdon and Vote On The Pier. Bill Ballard, Bud Risser and other prominent St. Pete figures incorporated themselves as Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg.
Ballard, a retired construction and banking attorney, says it wasn’t until the spring of 2012 that he really started focusing on the Lens project. And he didn’t like what he saw.
“Just from having spent a great deal of my life on Tampa Bay, I saw so many elements in this design that yelled at me, ‘This architect is clueless about the Tampa Bay environment, and that cluelessness permeated the design,” he said last week, talking in CL’s Ybor City offices.
He and his colleagues started raising money, opening an office on Fourth Street and hiring environmentalist Lorraine Margeson to run the office four hours a day, and most importantly, hiring L.A.-based PCI Consulting Inc. to gather petitions. Soon volunteers and paid “circulators” in Stop The Lens red T-shirts were ubiquitous, turning in over 17,000 signatures on May 1 and easily meeting the requirement of 15,652 verified signatures by the end of that month.
Risser, owner of the Rally filling station chain, has become Concerned Citizens’ most prominent spokesperson. He says the fault in Maltzan’s design lies less with the architect than with City Council. “I think he came up with a pretty cool idea,” he says. “If it was in L.A. it’d be a home run.”
He’s referring to the underwater reef garden, one of the most highly touted aspects of the original design. Unfortunately, marine scientists determined that a reef garden would be unrealistic with Tampa’s Bay’s dark water.
“So then you begin to start looking more closely, and there are lots of things that won’t work with the Lens.” He says if the city had more closely followed the recommendations of the Pier Task Force, “we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Risser is referring to a passage in the Competition Design Principles document, prepared by city staff for the final three competitors, that appears to be critical of the advisory task force for trying to define the parameters of the new pier too narrowly.
“This desire to identify the purpose and programming uses upon which the competition is defined,” says the document, “was well intentioned, but shortsighted.” The passage goes on to say that the task force analysis “did not look at expanding the possibilities of the Pier, but rather limiting them” — and that the “search for a prescriptive solution stifled the imagination.”
In an op-ed published in the Times last August, two members of the Pier Advisory Task Force, Ed Montanari and Will Michaels, acknowledged that the wording “was disturbing,” but insisted that “a close examination of the document shows that virtually every design principle put forth is grounded and reflective of the task force report.”
Ballard and Risser have gone to war with the Times over the Lens, which the paper’s editorial page has been strongly advocating. A particular object of fury was the editorial printed on the front of the Sunday Perspectives section on July 21, just as mail-in ballots for the August primary were being sent out to over 61,000 households. Entitled “Five myths about the Lens,” it laid out popular objections and answered them. Sidewalk to nowhere? Not true, said the editorial, the new Pier would offer plenty of opportunities for recreation. Just as cost-effective to renovate the old Pier? Nope, renovation would cost millions more. Taxpayers would be on the hook if construction went over budget? No, because the contractors, Skanska, agreed to accept liability for any overruns in cost or time.
But two of the Times’ myth-busting attempts provoked strong pushback. The paper had to run a correction after stating that the over-water restaurant on the east end of the structure, aka the Promontory, would be air-conditioned. (The correction didn’t satisfy Ballard, who wrote a letter to Times publisher Paul Tash and editor Neil Brown complaining that it occupied “only 2.2 percent of the page.”)
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