Pinellas News

One final debate on scrapped Sponge Docks plan

— The project to revitalize the Sponge Docks, after nearly three years of discussion and design, had already been terminated, but city officials provided its creator one last opportunity to publicly defend his plan late last month.

It also served as another debate on a key sticking point that helped ultimately sink the $1.3 million endeavor.

Local architect Ed Hoffman and a collaborator on the Sponge Docks revitalization project from the engineering firm URS Corporation spoke at the May 20 regular meeting of city commissioners for about an hour about the project that was effectively scrapped in April.

Although designs and concepts for the project progressed with mostly positive feedback since its inception in 2011, support began to fade late last year, just as it appeared the city was ready to take steps toward implementation.

As the opposition grew louder and closer to its goal of squashing the project, some public comments directed at Hoffman or his intentions grew negative. The Tarpon Springs-based architect addressed that throughout his project post-mortem presentation to commissioners.

“I’m saddened by the unnecessary anger that’s been expressed in this room that, quite honestly, I just don’t understand,” he said.

Much of the backlash Hoffman’s plan sparked revolved around a sense that it aimed to modernize the docks and add features — such as a small amphitheater — that would diminish the area’s historic appeal. The final deal-breaker was an argument that the plan’s wooden dock expansions would narrow the Anclote River to an extent that it would endanger that stretch’s designation as a federal navigation channel.

Hoffman and a representative with URS Corporation spoke at length as to why their project would not affect the river’s status and how the work would have been awarded permits. Rebutting them with contradictory evidence was Mary Coburn, a local attorney who joined the opposition in fighting the project.

Although both sides continued to defend their arguments, commissioners largely have grown weary of the topic and want to move beyond the debate.

“I have absolutely no desire to revisit the permitting of this proposed project,” said Commissioner Townsend Tarapani. “My main objective is to move forward in a manner that I think is productive.”

The city’s current strategy is to take a scaled-down approach to improving the Sponge Docks. First on that list is installing new light poles and fixtures along Dodecanese Boulevard, the riverfront tourist district’s main thoroughfare.

City Manager Mark LeCouris and other staff members held their second public meeting this past Monday to try and reach a consensus on how the new lights should look.

LeCouris said during the first such meeting he hoped to have a design selected and bids for their eventual installation placed on a June regular meeting agenda. This Monday, though, he said that likely won’t happen until July.