A morning must-read for those in the 'burg: Fact-Checking Bill Foster's "Pier Facts"

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Editor’s note: While I disagree with the general thrust of the following post — to preserve the current St. Petersburg Pier — I am hard-pressed not to post such a well-researched article.  Bob Wilson of the Bill Foster Watch has quite a case here

Last Thursday, the St. Petersburg City Council voted to move forward with the Michael Maltzan Architecture “Lens” design plan to replace the current inverted pyramid pier. Most of the people speaking, before the item came up on the agenda, were against signing the contract. When the City Council members had their chance to speak, several had questions about the Lens plans and the process. Councilmen Kornell and Nurse seemed the most on the fence about the Lens contract, aside from Newton of course, who continued his one-councilman crusade to save the inverted pyramid pier. Several council members acknowledged the lack of resident enthusiasm for the Lens design, and the poor communication with the residents on the project. In the end, all but Newton voted to sign the contract.

So what does this have to do with Mayor Bill Foster? After all, he doesn’t vote on council business, since this was council’s job, but he certainly was pushing for the demolition of the inverted pyramid pier, and has been pushing for it for almost 2 years. While the council members were discussing whether to sign the Lens contract, Foster flashed his newly released brochure on “the facts” about the old pier. He condescendingly used the word “facts” at least a dozen times in an attempt to discredit everyone that was against the preservation of the inverted pyramid structure, saying they didn’t know what they were talking about, so he had the “facts” to educate everyone on why the current pier is doomed and should be torn down to make way for our glorious new 90-foot-tall bedpantoilet-bowlsidewalk-to-nowhere,tiara, lens walkway/pier.

As for us, other than being residents and voters in St. Petersburg, we don’t really have a horse in this race. We are not in love with the inverted pyramid pier, although it is a nice place to take visitors or go for lunch or dinner with a great view. We don’t particularly like the Lens design either(see list of unflattering crossed-out nicknames above). But when we see Mayor Foster start barking about “the facts” about the pier, we just know he had to have messed them up somehow. So being only casual observers of the pier project up to this point(other than the piece we wrote about “what we were promised and what we are getting with the new lens pier” a few months ago) we decided to immerse ourselves these last few days into all of the documents posted over the last few years by the pier task-force. In all, there are thousands of pages of documents, including meeting minutes, old newspaper clippings, new RFQs and several studies.

Before we get to the fact-checking of Foster’s “facts”, we wanted to share some of the details we learned after filling our brains with pier task-force information, and other related data on the pier:

– The $50 million that has been earmarked was intended to address the Pier approach and the Pier head, but the not the Pier building itself (City Council instructed the pier task force in 2008 to consider all options, including demolishing the pier.)

– “The Pier” would not be The Pier without a pier (A bit obvious we thought, but it is mentioned in several of the documents.)

– Original demolition cost estimates: $11 million(approach and collar) + $2.4 million(building and foundation)     (Maltzan Lens plans, old pier demolition costs: $4.5 million, no explanation as to why it’s one third of the original quote.)

– “(A) drop-off/front door style experience for optimizing accessibility by way of cars trolleys and/or other public transportation is important” (They seem to have ignored this important recommendation in the case of the Lens design.)

– “It is recommended that any reconfiguration of the existing Pier structure or new structure’s on the Pier or upland be planned to accommodate between 30,000 and 40,000 square feet of restaurant, bar, and banquet space.” (The Lens will only have 6,000 square feet of restaurant space on the upland “Hub” and only a few hundred square feet on the pier itself for a gelato stand.)

– Performance venue like an amphitheater would only be used 12-24 days out of the year (Amphitheater included in the Lens plan for Phase II, seems like it would not be used much, not much bang-for-the-buck).

– Any new pier “will continue to require some level of subsidy support from the city” (to date, no estimate of the subsidy for the Lens Pier has been announced. But…)
– Closing the existing pier would still cost $650,000/year (Having the pier sit closed and unoccupied would still cost the city hundreds of thousands yearly, so a new pier can’t be any cheaper than that to subsidize.)

– Lambert Advisory: Our Goals… Mitigate future requirement for operating and capital subsidy (We believe this was their number one goal overall, looking at all of the documents and minutes together.)

– Council Member Leslie Curran raised concern that the proposed design alternatives need to be reflect what the citizens and taxpayers want. (Interesting that at one point she was actually interested in what the citizens and taxpayers had to say about the pier.)

– “(T)here is little or no negative revenue consequence we believe in bringing development closer into the upland or placing the development on the upland.” (This appears to be one of their big cost-saving measures, less building over water = less money.)

– It would be the goal to lessen the negative financial impact by ‘dumbing down’ the pier – reduce the size to where there is no economic impact. (Again, another long-term cost savings measure is to shrink the pier so it costs less to maintain. It should be obvious though that this would also reduce the positive economic impact.)

– The minutes from the last Design Subcommittee and the last two General Meetings are strangely missing (No explanation for this, we would think those would be the most important ones to put up, since they would contain discussions about their conclusions.)

– 6th floor could be used for retail/restaurant development. (Imagine the view from the 6th floor of the pier)

– 25% of the third floor is used for management offices. (The contract with the management company requires that they have office space, but why does it have to be prime real-estate with a view?)

– The current pier has an economic impact of $74 million per year. (Mentioned several times in archival videos by Councilman Wengay Newton. With reduced size and retail capabilities, the new Lens pier will not have the same long-term year-by-year economic impact on the city)

– Yearly subsidy is $1.5 million per year (That is the average, it goes up and down)

– Just in the last couple of months, the city has paid for brand new roofs on the pier outbuildings and a new ramp to the docks  (Why would you build new things for a pier that is to be demolished in one year’s time?)

– The new pier project design phase only allowed 6 weeks, when similar projects usually get one year of planning time. (No explanation was given for this, why the rush?)

– Councilman Newton said about the pier design process, “input” is different than “approval”. There was no public hearing about condemning and demolishing the inverted pyramid pier. (This is the part that bothers us the most)

– August 18, 2010 Pier Workshop: Mayor Foster would like to get a consensus of the Council on removal of the inverted pyramid. Council Member Dudley feels that they need to do something to enhance the current structure; and asked if anyone had done a survey as to whether or not to keep the Pier. The straw poll on Demolition of the entire Pier including the approach. Ayes. Curran, Danner, Polson, Kornell. & Nurse. No. Kennedy, Newton & Dudley. Motion passed. (This meeting, with no public comment allowed, is where the current pier was condemned to destruction by a straw vote at the urging of Mayor Foster. It was non-binding, but it set the stage for the “official” vote which came later)

– Unsolicited bid from Archer Western(AW) and Architectural Design, Inc. (ADI) shows demolition of the pier approach, collar and gutting of the inverted pyramid to it’s frame, encasing the pier head in a seawall and rebuilding a more narrow approach would cost $50 million. (No response from the city on the details of this plan, it has effectively been ignored, even though it is on budget)

– “It is estimated that the MMA(Lens) concept is currently over budget by a range of 15% to 24%… Our current estimated overage for Maltzan and the “Lens” is approximately $10.9 million.” (Maltzan’s response was to say they would shrink the lens pier concept and move it 100 feet closer to land to save money)

We know, that was a lot to wade through, but it is important to know how we got to where we are now, and the above facts do a pretty good job of summing it up. After taking in all of this information, it’s pretty easy to see how we ended up as the Lens plan being the replacement for the inverted pyramid pier. The most important goal for the task-force was the reduction of the subsidy, which would necessitate the smallest footprint over the water, with almost all amenities on land, and the Lens is the only option that fit that bill, the others didn’t stand a chance. That is also why renovating the existing pier was never really considered as a viable option.

Now on to Foster’s “Get the Facts!” Pier Brochure click here to see the brochure: 

Pier Bridge and Head: 
– Structural maintenance program no longer cost effective
– Structural elements continue to deteriorate
– Has exceeded useful service life
– Load carrying capacity continues to diminish

(No arguments here, in fact nobody we’ve heard has debated that the 90 year-old approach is going to last that much longer, this is what the $50 million was originally intended to be used for, this replacement is also addressed in the ADI proposal)

Inverted Pyramid Market Study & Logistical Facts:
– Inefficient floor plans
(Imagine that, an upside-down pyramid has inefficient space planning, but it’s a heck of a lot better than the floor planning on the Lens pier, just look at those elevations, it’s even worse of a mess)

– 1st, 2nd, and 3rd floors unusable with limited potential to generate revenue
(They seem to be plenty usable to us, first and second floors are occupied, third is 25% full with management, and no efforts to lease it after Great Explorations moved out. We can’t find anywhere in the pier task-force documentation that agrees with this “Foster Fact”)

– Lacks of substantial entertainment program to activate the Pier
(Well, that’s what happens when you take away their marketing and event budget, the same thing as when you see a drop in attendance at city pools when you reduce their hours. In the past, there were major concerts with tens of thousands of people on the pier, but since there is no money for those events, they can’t happen now. What do you expect Mr. Mayor?)

– Restaurant space is the only retail oriented use, which might perform reasonably well on upland Pier
(It seems the Mayor is ignoring the retail-sales, boat-tours-and-day-trips, bike rentals and fishing that happens now at the pier. He is most likely referring to the task-force’s conclusion that non-restaurant retail doesn’t make enough money to reduce the subsidy, which is all the Mayor cares about)

– None of the existing ground floor retail will be added back to a renovated pier
(Sounds like Mayor Foster already has plans for a renovated pier if he knows this, we sure would like to see his plans)

– Back-of-house spaces serving 4th floor tenant require demolition
(No mention of this in the CIP report or the PSI report, we can find no document that makes reference to this)

– Logistical complexity of reconstructing a new pier head, below overhang of the inverted pyramid, will increase cost of both the demolition and new construction
(This was one reason the ADI quote builds a seawall around the pier building. Yes, the demolition of less than half of the pier-head only would cost 40% more for that small section only, but all you need to do to cancel that out is find the demolition company that the Maltzan Lens group plan to use, and the total demolition cost will be one third of the Moffatt Nichol demolition quote, so you still save money, if the Maltzan demolition figure is real that is)

– Renovating the inverted pyramid does not solve the design inefficiencies requiring significant annual taxpayer subsidies
(As long as you have a pier, you will have a subsidy. The less impressive of a pier, the lower the subsidy. You get what you pay for Mr. Mayor. Is cutting the yearly subsidy in half for the Lens really worth losing more than ten times the retail space, the great restaurant views and the great economic impact that you have in the inverted pyramid?)

– All existing ground floor, retail and support spaces must be demolished
(This “fact” is a bit redundant, since he already mentions they won’t be added back)

– Images show current state of concrete and re-bar deterioration underside of Pier
(This is for the approach and the collar again, not the five caisson supports for the pyramid building and elevator. Again, these are 90 years old and need to be replaced, nobody is debating you on that Mayor Foster)

Building Deficiencies:
(This is just a list of all of the things that do not meet codes on the existing pier buildings(windows, doors, alarm, plumbing, etc…). The inverted pyramid building needs to be gutted and refinished, and the ADI quote accounts for that within it’s budget)

So there you have it, several of Foster’s “facts” seem to have no factual support that we could find, big surprise, we know.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.