The Lens: A bridge too far? 

Debates over the St. Pete Pier and its proposed substitute continue to divide the city.

As architect Michael Maltzan’s hour-long presentation before the St. Petersburg City Council last week neared its conclusion, he unveiled the pièce de resistance: an idyllic two-minute video showing his vision for a refurbished St. Pete Pier, aka the Lens. As the video opens, seagulls cry and ethereal music plays over a panoramic aerial rendering of the St. Pete waterfront crowned by the tiara-shaped Lens. The camera zooms in on sweeping walkways and a futuristic white pavilion alive with visitors enjoying restaurants, a marina and vistas of the bay. There’s a stunning sunset shot, a view of the downtown skyline framed by the Lens, and then the words “The New St. Petersburg Pier” appear on screen before it fades to black.

But immediately after the lights went back up, City Councilman Karl Nurse stomped all over the euphoric mood.

“The public amenities that we actually get are three restrooms, four drinking fountains, three seating areas,” he said, his voice dripping with disdain. He said the only air-conditioned space in the entire facility is a concession stand so small (375 square feet) that there’d hardly be room to keep the gelato cold. “It is stunning.” And he wondered how restaurants could fit into the plan, since the superstructure they’d require is not covered by the new Pier’s $50 million planning and construction budget. “I don’t know where in the world you guys are thinking that money is going to come from.”

Nurse’s criticism was no surprise; he had already voiced his disillusionment with the Lens design after having initially supported it. But two days after the Maltzan presentation, he joined all of his City Council colleagues except one (Wengay Newton) in approving the first stage of funding — $1.6 million of an eventual $4.75 million — to help Maltzan finish his design and allow Skanska, the contractor, to continue its pre-construction work.

But the Council’s vote came after both Nurse and Councilman Charlie Gerdes reminded everyone that, no matter what the tally, the fate of the Pier could still wind up being decided by a public referendum.

Because, even after years of debate and an international design competition, two separate citizens’ campaigns have arisen that could stop the Lens from ever being built.

To recap: Eight years ago St. Petersburg’s engineering department determined that the pilings underneath the Pier approach were in bad shape and would need to be replaced by 2014. Pinellas County Commissioners approved $50 million in tax increment financing for construction/renovations, and in 2009 City Council approved the creation of a Pier Task Force to figure out how to apply those funds. After more than 60 public meetings, the task force opted to look for a new design rather than shore up the old one, as repairs were deemed to be too expensive. Another motivating factor was the city’s desire to reduce the $1.4 million it spends annually to subsidize the current Pier.

Despite all those public meetings, critics who want to keep the inverted pyramid — or at the very least, stop the Lens — say their concerns have never been heard.

But they’re making themselves heard now.

Safety Harbor resident Tom Lambdon of VoteOnThePier.com was the first to marshal opposition forces, setting out to collect the required signatures for a referendum nearly two years ago. A St. Pete native, he mourns the closing of such local landmarks as the 28th Street Drive-In, and says that the iconic inverted Pier structure built in 1973 “represents to me a magnificent representation of a place and time.” As a result, he feels passionately that the St. Pete community should be allowed to vote on whether to destroy it.

Although Mayor Bill Foster said he was willing to have the measure go to a vote, the City Council voted in August to reject Lambdon’s petition for a referendum. And since he no longer lives in St. Pete, Lambdon lacked standing to go to court to stop the city’s plans.

Enter Kathleen Ford, who lost to Bill Foster in the 2009 mayoral election. Sympathetic to the claim that the city was shutting out the citizenry, she became the lead plaintiff in the suit to stop the Pier process. And last week, Circuit Court Judge Amy Williams ruled that the City of St. Petersburg would have to meet with Ford and a mediator within 60 days to come up with ballot language for a possible vote on the Pier’s future.

Meanwhile, a second group has formed called StopTheLens.com. As the name implies, they’re not necessarily against changing the Pier; they just hate the Lens, and want to give residents a chance to vote on termination of the city’s agreement with Michael Maltzan Architecture. Bill Hurley, a member of the group, says he wants the Council to “slow down. Stop and see what the people want. Give them the chance to voice their true opinion.”

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