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City Council approves Pier Park for new St. Pete Pier

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Pier Park is one step closer to becoming the new St. Pete Pier. After hours of public comment and debate, St. Pete City Council approved the Pier Selection Committee’s final ranking, giving Mayor Rick Kriseman authorization to begin negotiations with the Pier Park design team.

The ranking was approved 7-1 with only council member Wengay Newton dissenting.

The vote leaves Destination St. Pete Pier and all of its disappointed supporters on deck. Should negotiations for the $33 million construction budget fail with the top-ranked team, the St. Pete Design Group with its Destination concept would be next in line.

Alma is ranked third and Prospect Pier fourth.

The vote follows weeks of contentious debate about what’s right for the future of St. Pete’s downtown waterfront. Ultimately it pit those who preferred preservation of the inverted pyramid over replacement.

Those on the preservation side of the debate showed up in full force to rifle through a host of reasons why Pier Park should be rejected. Those reasons ranged from permitting issues to an expensive proposed subsidy.

One of the inverted pyramid’s biggest fans has been former City Council member and former mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford. Prior to the 2013 Lens defeat, Ford led a massive petition effort to put a referendum on the ballot. Her effort was ultimately defeated based on its language, but was replaced with the ultimately successful ballot language from the group Concerned Citizens.

Ford has not backed off from her opposition to demolishing the inverted pyramid.

“What is so exciting about slanted sod,” she asked in reference to one of Pier Park’s signature proposals, the tilted lawn.

She asked council to either start over or put it “to the people.”

“We will move forward with a petition,” Ford threatened.

That effort has been echoed over and over since before Pier Park was even slated as the top-ranked team. Prior to the final ranking it looked like the Pier Selection Committee was leaning toward ranking Alma in the top spot.

The group Vote on the Pier has already launched a petition drive to force a referendum asking voters to approve a new city mandate forcing all construction or demolition projects on downtown waterfront property to be subject to voter approval.

“If we learned nothing at all from this last fiasco, people love their asset. They should have that asset,” said Newton.

Newton made a ninth-hour effort to give voters the chance to weigh in at the ballot box. He proposed turning the August City Council primary into a citywide election at a cost of about $66,000 in order to let voters decide whether to choose Destination St. Pete Pier or Pier Park.

His motion was soundly defeated with council Chair Charlie Gerdes only offering a second in order to tell him why he wouldn’t vote for it. Gerdes then proceeded to get visibly angry.

“Everyone agreed on a process; there was no election in the process,” Gerdes said.

Newton was warned by City Attorney John Wolfe that though council could step outside of state law mandating a selection committee decision, it would likely end in a lawsuit. Gerdes said he refused to vote on something that was going to violate state statute.

The Pier Park design concept was not without concern among both members of the public and City Council. Gerdes, who grew so angry with Newton’s attempt to table a vote he accidentally voted in favor of that motion, even rifled through a laundry list of questions involving the proposal.

“I need to know about getting a wheelchair on a tram,” Gerdes demanded of the ASD/Rogers Partners team referring to how the team planned to incorporate persons with disabilities into the mobility structure of Pier Park.

Many people argued technical aspects of the plan including the feasibility of planting large trees on a Pier over the water. However, those fears were quickly dismissed by the design team, whose members noted there would not be an immediate presence of mature landscaping in the coastal thicket.

Rather than including 30-foot oak trees in 3-foot boxes, the landscape would more likely include smaller Florida-friendly trees that could thrive in a tight space.

The team was also quick to point out the design is still in conceptual form. What people see in renderings are concepts – they aren’t necessarily going to stay exactly that way from start to finish.

Another major issue facing Pier Park designers is ensuring the proposed floating docks can withstand the potential hurricanes facing Florida on a yearly basis. Critics of the design show photos of shattered floating docks in the Vinoy basin.

Designers argued that was a result of entirely different engineering and they have taken weather conditions into consideration. However, they also noted final decisions about how to best implement floating docks have not been finalized.

As for the subsidy, City Council members agreed that was something to keep an eye on, but weren’t too fixated on the comparison between designs.

While the proposed subsidy for Pier Park was originally proposed much higher than the competing Destination St. Pete Pier design and higher than the current Pier had before it closed, an updated estimate of those costs shows it being only slightly higher than Destination St. Pete Pier.

There were other critics who simply thought the plan was redundant and unnecessary. Michelle Knight was the first speaker during public comment specifically addressing the Pier. She echoed a growing chorus of Destination St. Pete Pier supporters who think the last thing St. Pete needs is another park. Pier Park supporters were quick to dismiss that.

“Do we need another restaurant or a Sundial hanging out over the Bay,” Canaan McCaslin said. “We have plenty of that on Beach Drive.”

But Knight added a new argument.

“It’ll turn into a destination for drug dealers,” she cautioned, noting the inability of law enforcement to travel the Pier regularly.

The city’s public works administrator and head of the Pier Selection Committee, Mike Connors, said the city will work with the St. Pete Police Department to mitigate those risks.

For every critique of Pier Park there were plenty of supporters.

Pier Park supporters were a mostly younger, millennial generation. They lauded Pier Park as an activated space with something for every age and every income level and an extension of the city’s newly released Downtown Waterfront Master Plan.

“You want the young folks to fall in love with this city,” said St. Pete Chamber of Commerce president Chris Steinocher. “They’re the ones that are going to come back and take care of us … hopefully.”

Pier Park creates a park over water with plenty of cycling and pedestrian space, a tilted lawn that can be used for concert and other festival-type venues. It includes a covered observation area in the structure planned at the Pier head. There are also plans for a casual dining bar and grill as well as plenty of shade provided along the promenade under what the team calls a “coastal thicket.”

There were fewer speakers during the City Council meeting to approve the ranking than at the Pier Selection Committee’s meeting last month. During that meeting, more than 100 people signed up to speak or indicate their preference. Fewer than half that number did so at the council meeting.

Many repeat speakers lined up, including the only one Council chair Charlie Gerdes allowed members of the public to applaud. Middle school youngster Betsy Johnson previously supported Destination St. Pete Pier because she said it had activities for kids. Following the committee’s decision she switched her support to Pier Park, noting that it had stuff for kids too.

“If you delay the process, there will probably [be] a while where kids don’t have a Pier and I really want a Pier as soon as possible,” Johnson said, noting she’s already been without a Pier for two years.

Even though it’s clear the backlash stemming from the Destination St. Pete Pier camp isn’t over, Council seemed unwavering.

“I do not have pier fatigue,” said council member Darden Rice. “I am excited about this design. I do not agree that we have too many parks. If anything we have too many parking lots.”

The group of elected officials have been criticized for ignoring the will of the people.

“I wanted people to understand that we don’t take this lightly,” said council member Bill Dudley as he lifted up a huge stack of paper indicating it was Pier-related information dating back to 2008. “Don’t tell me that we haven’t done our due diligence.”

With the City Council vote finalized, Mayor Kriseman now has the authorization necessary to move forward with negotiations with the Pier Park team to begin the $46 million project.

“Today, the Sunshine City took a huge leap forward in securing the future of the St. Petersburg Pier, and our treasured waterfront, for generations to come. The process we implemented more than a year ago continues to serve our city well,” Kriseman wrote in a statement. “The citizens who participated in our public process over the last year, as well as Pier Working Group and Selection Committee Members, are to be commended for their service. Our waterfront park system is the crown jewel of the City of St. Petersburg. I thank the St. Petersburg City Council for sharing that vision and their leadership.”

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email [email protected]

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