The Lens: A bridge too far? 

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

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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.

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