No reprieve for St. Pete Pier, despite referendum
ST. PETERSBURG - Demolition of the city’s signature downtown pier moved a step closer Thursday when the St. Petersburg City Council declined to vote to delay its closure. Council Member Wengay Newton said the city should delay the scheduled May 31 closing until a referendum is held on the hotly debated $50 million replacement known as The Lens. Closing The Pier would put about 400 people out of work, he said. But he got no support from fellow council members. His motion failed for the lack of a second. That was despite a crowd of about 50 opponents of the new pier packing the meeting at City Hall, many clad in red “Stop the Lens” T-shirts. They said it would be irresponsible for the council to go ahead with another $1.5 million payment to The Lens designer Michael Maltzan Architecture while an anticipated referendum result is unknown.“To continue to pay Maltzan to move forward is reckless,” said Nic Weathersbee, who co-owns a candle store on The Pier. “Push the pause button and let those people keep working and paying rents.” The vote followed a two-hour meeting in which city staff clashed with experts put forward by Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, which questioned the safety and longevity of the futuristic new pier design known as The Lens. The grass-roots group’s main concern was the design’s unique canopy to be constructed of aluminum panels over a steel skeleton. Carter Karins, a CEO of a local engineering company who specializes in marine engineering, said he knows of no similar structure over saltwater. The canopy would capture salt spray and other debris between the metals, leading to severe corrosion and shorten the lifespan. He also questioned if the structure would withstand strong winds and said there is a risk that architects will discover the initial design is unworkable. “The ability to build this canopy is critical to this project,” said Karins. “To have failed to have done any wind-tunnel testing yet is an appalling risk.” City staffers said wind-tunnel testing would be part of the next design phase. At their request, Michael Maltzan Architects has hired two companies to assess the risk of corrosion. “It has always been planned this canopy will be ventilated,” said Mike Connors, public works administrator. “We are keenly aware of the need to remove moisture build-up in this canopy.” Other criticisms of The Lens included whether fire trucks would be able to make U-turns on the approach path, and the risk to pedestrians of sharing the approach with bicycles, trolleys and service vehicles. Tom Gibson, a city engineer, said the new approach includes a 70-foot area where fire trucks could turn. The city would look to use new eco-friendly, open-air trolleys on The Lens that would travel at a maximum speed of 5 mph, he said. That would make The Lens no different than Disney amusement parks where trolleys mingle with pedestrians on streets. “They have a trolley going down the street and the street is packed,” he said. “That’s where we’re headed at this point.” Leaders of the Concerned Citizens group say they have collected more than 20,000 signatures to force a referendum on The Lens. The date of the vote will depend on when signatures are submitted to the city clerk and verified. City Council members face another tough decision on The Lens on May 2, when they are to consider spending $1.5 million on the next design phase. Mayor Bill Foster said the city will work to inform people about The Lens, adding that if it cannot be built within budget, it will not be built.