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.”

Supporters of the Lens say the Pier process has worked exactly as a republic should work, with democratically elected officials making the tough decisions they’re hired to make.

Neighborhood activist Hal Freedman says that backtracking on the design process now and putting it to a vote would send the wrong message to the world.

“To stop it at this point — and never be able to have a real world-class architect want to do any project in this town, where they can go through a whole independent process and then have a group of people who don’t like it screw it up — that doesn’t make sense to me.”

No one disputes that the issue has polarized the city. The last survey by nascent robo-calling pollsters St.PetePolls.org showed that 48.3 percent of citizens support the Lens, while 51.7 percent don’t want a new Pier built at all.

St. Pete City Councilman Steve Kornell, who supports the Lens, admits that the process hasn’t been ideal. But when people say he needs to listen to the people, he asks, which ones? That’s why he proposed a ballot measure to his council colleagues in August that would ask for four different questions, all with a price tag attached.

Those four would be 1) Keep the inverted pyramid but refurbish it (the wishes of VoteOnThePier.Com); 2) Proceed with the Lens (the official city’s position); 3) Knock down the inverted pyramid but come up with another design — just not the Lens; 4) Knock down the inverted pyramid and create a public park.

He’s sympathetic about the Stop The Lens people wanting to make their voices heard. “I understand, it’s their right to do that.” But he doesn’t hear them offering any constructive alternatives. “I wish they were spending some of their thought process on trying to make what we’re doing a better project because now’s the time for that public input, and I don’t see that happening.”

What rankles supporters of the Lens, as Bill Foster told an audience at Eckerd College earlier this month, is the criticism that it’s simply a “sidewalk to a gelato stand.” Foster begs to differ. “There’s food opportunities, art opportunities, boat opportunities. A dose of theater, “ he told a group of seniors, emphasizing that it will be a dynamic place for visitors and locals.

Council Chairman Leslie Curran also disputes the notion that the Lens is simply a sidewalk to nowhere. “If I hear ‘gelato stand’ one more time,” she laughed, speaking to CL after the workshop last week. “You can’t be specific now. We’re not getting into the nitty-gritty right now.”

The latest redesign for the Lens reflects revisions that local architect Lisa Wannemacher said were a result of extensive feedback from the community. Among the changes is the addition of space for two new restaurants, restaurants that were not in the original plan.

That’s despite the fact that restaurants were prominently listed in the Task Force’s set of recommendations, leading one local architect involved in the process to claim that there isn’t anything in Maltzan’s revised design that hadn’t been called for in the first place.

The architect adds that the restaurant will have to be a “high average ticket,” and questions how many big spenders will feel comfortable taking the tram to the end of the Pier in the middle of summer or during rainstorms. But Leslie Curran says the city will have no problem finding local restaurateurs interested in opening at the Lens. “I don’t think that’s going to be an issue at all, “ she says confidently.

Maltzan’s revised design also eliminates the underwater reef garden. Local marine scientists had blasted him for not consulting with them about that feature. And the canopy surface, one of the more prominent aspects of the design, will now be made out of aluminum and not precast white concrete panels, which caused considerable concern among councilmembers last week.

The Tampa Bay Times editorial pages have voiced strong support for the Lens. But establishment voices aren’t unanimous. In January former Mayor Rick Baker wrote an op-ed in the Times advocating for repairing the approach and keeping either the inverted Pier or some destination at the end of it. Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who served on the jury that selected the Lens and was always a critic of any referendum, admits that he consistently hears unfavorable comments from 70-80 percent of the public about the Lens.

Welch says the process itself limited the kinds of projects the jury could review. He said one of the architects on the jury ruled out a concept put forward by glass sculptor Chihuly because he was just “Chihulied out.”

Lens supporter Hal Freedman says City Council has failed to communicate fully the value of the Lens. As an example, he points to the fact that the architectural model of the proposed structure is on display at the St. Petersburg Museum of History, not at more trafficked spots like City Hall or the Mahaffey.

“I think people have made a lot of assumptions based on ‘I don’t like that,’ or ‘I do like that,’ and there aren’t enough people who know the whole picture.”

Ken Welch agrees that a mere dislike of the Lens isn’t a good enough alternative to change course. “There’s got to be some sort of solution, and that’s where I think we need some leadership to get us to that.”

Council chair Leslie Curran says Mayor Foster needs to be that man. “I think that’s what Lisa Wannemacher is doing, but I think we need to do on a broader scale.”

But is anyone capable of bringing the city together when it comes to the Pier?

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