"This is a city — and also a national — treasure," says St. Petersburg City Councilman Wengay Newton of the venerable St. Petersburg Pier.
On this Friday afternoon in early January, sitting in the Columbia Restaurant on the Pier's fourth floor with a panoramic view of Tampa Bay, it's hard to argue with him.
But this particular mind-blowing view may be a thing of the past by 2013. St. Petersburg City Council voted 7-1 last August to tear down the 37-year-old structure and start all over with a new Pier. What constitutes "starting over" will be addressed by a Miami-based consultant to the City Council, and by the public, over the next few weeks.
The Council's vote followed the report of a task force that had met for the previous 16 months. Its conclusion: The existing pier head and approach (the base that surrounds the iconic inverted pyramid, and the roadway leading up to it) will need to be replaced in the near future. But the report also found that a "substantial analysis" should be undertaken before the city decides whether to retain the pyramid, which was constructed in 1973.
Mayor Bill Foster supports razing the structure and using the $50 million earmarked for restoration to build a new Pier instead, saying that renovation would cost much more.
But not everybody is embracing that vision. None is more outspoken than Tim Lambdon, a Safety Harbor resident and the founder and chairman of the group savethepier.org. His ardent quest to make the Pier more family-friendly goes back more than 20 years, when he conceived of a rollercoaster to be built entirely over the water, reaching 150 feet out from the pier head.
He's behind an effort to put a referendum on the Pier's fate on this November's ballot. (The group officially needs to obtain 15,648 signatures by the middle of July. Lambdon says he's striving to get 20,000.)
But what does the community want? Depends who you talk to.
In January, the Washington D.C.-based pollsters American Directors Group conducted a survey for Bay News 9 and the St. Petersburg Times that showed the public deadlocked on whether to raze or not to raze: 37 percent said yes, 37 percent no, and almost a third (27 percent) weren't sure.
The only member of Council to vote against demolition, Wengay Newton, says the public deserves to have its say. "This is not like tearing down a small crack house," he told CL at the Columbia, whose owner, Richard Gonzmart, has been one of the most high-profile objectors to razing the structure.
Newton says the situation reminds him what of happened back in the early aughts, when former Mayor Rick Baker tried to close one of Albert Whitted Airport's two runways and sell some land to developers for high-rise condos. After the city council rejected that plan, condo proponents put a measure on the ballot — which went down to a resounding defeat.
"Now if people want to abolish the pier," Newton says, "I'm with it. I'll be the first one in front with a bulldozer."
Tom Lambdon says that the council's vote to raze the pier without a public hearing violates the amendment to the Intown Redevelopment Plan created in 2005 by the city of St. Pete and Pinellas County. He says that any changes to that plan require county approval, and must have a formal public hearing.
But others disagree. Mark Winn with the city of St. Pete's legal department says that the county has already weighed in, and that demolitions were already included in that interlocal agreement.
As to the argument that council did not hold a public hearing, Winn says the task force held three public meetings, "so the public has had many opportunities to speak."
At least one Pier tenant was unimpressed by those meetings. Nicholas Weathersbee runs the Global Candle Gallery, which is the first retail shop visitors encounter on the bottom floor of the Pier. With his prime location, he serves as a somewhat unofficial concierge of the facility, and is also a critic of tearing it down. He says the task force paid little attention to public input: "All the ideas, they threw them in the garbage, all of them."
Will Michaels, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, served on the task force and chaired the design committee. He also believes it would have been "appropriate" for the City Council to hold a final public hearing prior to making their decision.
One disputed factor is the cost of renovating the pier approach, which has over 1,000 individual pilings. The city has projected a cost of $90 million, but a Sarasota-based company, Structural Preservation Systems (SPS), has said it could fix all of the pilings for less than $25 million.
Mayor Foster and city engineers met with officials from the group before the holidays. Together, says Foster, they deduced that even though SPS's technology can stop corrosion, it cannot reverse the damage incurred by 90 years of wear and tear. (Officials with SPS failed to return CL's phone calls.) "Not even close," Foster said of the $25 million figure. However, he says the meeting with SPS was still productive. He's convinced that he can use the company's technology to prevent corrosion on a new walkway, making it last "technically forever."
He is a crackhead. Tell all your friends that Florida is being part run by…
Took almost 20 years to execute Oba Chandler. 10 years for Ted Bundy. 17 years…
Hey Rottenslam, sorry, been busy, will provide some video when I get a breather this…
I have a pickup truck and live less than 2 miles from a recycling center…