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No, City Council can’t hijack the pier selection process by voting on an ordinance

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The pier debate has grown loud since the selection committee indicated last week that the design known as Alma may be the group’s top pick to replace the inverted pyramid.

That choice would ignore three separate polls showing high support for another design, Destination St. Pete Pier, and very low support for Alma. Destination renovates the current inverted pyramid and adds a series of layered decks surrounding it. Alma builds a narrow tower and replaces the current structure.

In the most recent poll, fewer than 9 percent of those surveyed said they supported Alma.

The Pier Selection Committee, headed by city public works administrator Mike Connors, currently has Alma in its number one spot, but isn’t finalizing a ranking until committee members hear more from design teams to answer some looming design and programmatic questions.

But the expressed preference has led to numerous calls for City Council to reject Alma if that is the choice put before them for an up or down vote.

They can do that.

But one critic, Bill Ballard, has taken that a step further. Ballard was the president of Concerned Citizens, the group that gathered petition signatures to force the referendum that ultimately killed the previous design for a new pier, the Lens. In a three-page letter to Mike Connors, the Pier Selection Committee and City Council, he points out that City Council has the ability to not only reject Alma, but to start its own process to begin building Destination St. Pete Pier.

“The city’s elected leaders may decide to let your committee’s process run its course. If the committee ranks the design team, which offered the Alma concept number one, Council will have the option to reject the committee report. If that occurs, Council could adopt whatever resolution or ordinance may be required to select the Destination St. Pete concept as the pier project they wish to have built and to direct the issuance of an RFQ for design services to implement that specific project,” Ballard wrote in his letter. “A mirror image of this scenario is also possible.”

But that’s simply not true.

According to Ben Kirby, communications director for St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman, the only thing council can do is vote whichever design is top-ranked by the selection committee up or down.

Yes or no is the only power they have in this process.

If council votes yes, that authorizes the mayor to begin negotiations with the chosen design team. If, and only if, negotiations fail does the second ranked design team get a shot at building the city’s new pier.

Now, if council rejects the selection committee’s choice things get a lot more complicated. That’s a question that hasn’t entirely been answered, but there has been a lot of speculation.

In Ballard’s assertion, council would have the chance to basically take whatever plan they want and vote on it. Even if they could do that, which they can’t, that would mean a process would open to allow other design teams to bid on building a design they didn’t create.

Ballard admitted he used his own knowledge, and it is extensive knowledge, of city processes to come to that conclusion. The city owns the designs. They paid for them to the tune of $30,000 each. That was the stipend given teams to create a concept.

Others have speculated that perhaps the whole process would start all over.

None of these is really the case.

Kirby said instead the process would go back to the Pier Selection Committee and that group would re-evaluate the six remaining proposals and deliver a new ranking.

Theoretically a team eliminated earlier on like Blue Pier or Prospect Pier could be back in the game.

Or the team could just throw their hands in the air and put Destination St. Pete Pier before council.

Based on interviews with half of them, that move would likely lead to approval.

“I would enthusiastically support Destination St. Pete if that’s what’s in front of me,” council member Steve Kornell said.

Others indicated they are worried about a divisive decision leading to another referendum like what happened in 2013 with the Lens.

“God, I hope that doesn’t happen,” said council member Karl Nurse.

Just because Ballard’s notion that City Council could somehow gain control of this process was off the mark, doesn’t mean his clearly well-thought out “wake-up call” to city leaders and the selection committee was not without merit.

It pointed out several flaws in the Alma design.

“As for the tower, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. The Alma Pier is a reminder that you get what you pay for, rarely much more,” he wrote.

Ballard questioned whether a ballroom would be a useful function in a design. That’s one of the features Alma proudly boasts.

And he goes a long way in answering some of the committee’s concerns about Destination St. Pete Pier. Ballard notes that he is obviously biased and blatantly admits support for Destination, but makes valid points nonetheless.

“The environmental argument against automobile access to the Pier head, as proposed to some extent in the Destination St. Pete concept, is weak. The runoff water from our streets and parking lots near the waterfront runs into Tampa Bay. My guess is that the Grand Prix in three days this week will put more burnt rubber and petroleum particulate into Tampa Bay than the automobile traffic on the pier did in the last two decades. Particulate emission from road use automobiles has been greatly reduced thanks to good environmental legislation and great engineering.”

“I hope each of the committee members has revisited the drawings for Destination St. Pete and noted the bump outs which will keep traffic moving during vehicle unloading and loading.”

Ballard goes on to quell fears that Destination St. Pete Pier is not transit-friendly. It’s not, really. But that’s the point.

“I publicly and tangibly supported the Greenlight Pinellas public transportation initiative. It failed. Our pier is to be built for the transportation culture that exists today and will likely persist for the next decade or two. This is not nostalgia; this is reality. Vehicular access to the Pier can be controlled inexpensively and easily to balance all needs.”

The entire letter can be read here.

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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