Former St. Pete Mayor Rick Baker has now broken his silence on the pending Pier debate.
Baker, in a column submitted exclusively to SaintPetersblog, has overwhelmingly endorsed the St. Pete Design Group’s Destination St. Pete Pier as his preferred design.
It’s no wonder Baker opted out of sending his column to the Tampa Bay Times after that paper has issued two scathing editorials painting Destination St. Pete Pier or any attempt to reinvent the inverted pyramid as the red-headed stepchild of choices.
In one editorial following the Pier Selection Committee’s previous meeting in which they took a timeout on moving forward with a final top-three ranking, the Times blasted back that it was a good idea to pause, but not to forget to support the all-volunteer committee. That editorial called the public opinion survey Baker so strongly supports in his op-ed “suspect.”
In another editorial published Tuesday, the Times wrote in its headline, “Pier selection committee can’t bow to public pressure.”
“The Pier Selection Committee should embrace the public input required by the mayor, listen to the clear will of the majority of St. Petersburg residents and move forward with the development of St. Pete Pier,” Baker wrote in his column, in stark contrast to the Times’ talking points.
But it hasn’t appeared as though the committee is likely to move in that direction. During a marathon 12-hour meeting on March 20, the committee seemed poised to rank a different design, Alma, as its top pick.
That design ranked just fifth on the city’s own public survey and dead last on two others conducted independently by St. Pete Polls. In one of those surveys conducted immediately after the Pier Selection Committee’s deferral of a final ranking, only 9 percent of respondents indicated Alma as its top pick among the remaining three. Destination St. Pete was again at the top.
Baker’s silence has been shattered by a blatant call to the selection committee to adopt what has emerged as the clear and overwhelming will of the people of St. Pete.
He opens his column with a brief history of the Pier selection process. He notes that in 2013 voters overwhelmingly rejected the previous chosen design to replace the inverted pyramid.
“The resulting citizen backlash ended in the Lens design being abandoned, after the city had spent millions of dollars toward the process and design,” Baker wrote.
That move cost the city $4 million out of its $50 million budget and sent them back to the drawing board.
“Wisely, at the center of the process, [Mayor Rick Kriseman] required that during the discussion, the public be surveyed to give their opinion on what design they preferred,” Baker said. “This element of the process is the key to ensuring that the city will not lose more time and money on a design that the public does not want.”
But the Pier Selection Committee, led by Public Works Administrator Mike Connors, ranked Alma in its top spot regardless of public input during a straw poll on March 20. The vote wasn’t official, but it was symbolic.
“Had this occurred, the action would likely have resurrected past discord in our community and could have further delayed the time when our residents and tourists can once again enjoy visits to the Pier,” Baker said.
At issue is the fact that the city’s public survey is nonbinding. The selection committee can toss it with little regard and there’s not much anyone can do about that.
The city is bound by state law, which requires them to look at professional qualifications and that’s the law they’re sticking to.
But it doesn’t mean they have to discount the public’s will.
As Baker points out in his column, the team behind Destination St. Pete Pier is indeed qualified.
“They are led by internationally known architect Yann Weymouth, as design director, who lives in St. Pete Beach,” Baker said. “Weymouth, a Harvard and MIT graduate, has an impressive resume that includes the design of our Dali Museum and the chief of design for I.M. Pei on the National Gallery of Art East Wing in Washington and the Grand Louvre Project in Paris, among many others.”
Because there has been such strong public support for Destination St. Pete Pier, Mayor Kriseman has said it is important for the selection committee to offer a strong and detailed reason behind choosing whichever design it ranks in the top spot.
The idea behind that is to let City Council and an increasingly cantankerous public know that there were plenty of legitimate reasons at play in rejecting a public favorite if that’s what it boils down to.
“This is more than rooting for the home team. The fact that [the St. Pete Design Group is] from and of our community makes them more sensitive to the values and character of St. Petersburg – and more vested in the long-term success of our important asset,” Baker said. “There is no other group in the competition that has St. Pete Design Group’s combination of deep and long-term ties to St. Petersburg and impressive record of accomplishment. Why would we not pick them?”
The Pier Selection Committee is expected to make its final ranking on Thursday during what is expected to be another very long meeting.
Those rankings will then be sent to the St. Pete City Council for an up or down vote on May 7.
If City Council approves the ranking, it gives authorization for the mayor to begin negotiations with the top-ranked team.
There has been a lot of debate over what happens if City Council rejects the ranking, however. Initially it was expected that such a vote would start the selection process anew. However, new information reported earlier this month shows that City Council may be able to choose its own preferred design.