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Pier Park comes out on top for St. Pete’s new Pier

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

In a meeting that almost went into the next day, the Pier Selection Committee has finally chosen a top pick for a new St. Pete Pier.

After hours of hearing from design teams and the public and another several hours of debate, Pier Park has nabbed victory from the jaws of defeat. With all but one member of the six-member committee, the public’s number two pick will now face City Council on May 7 for an up or down vote.

St. Pete City Council member Darden Rice tweeted she would be happy to vote for Pier Park.

Committee chair and St. Pete Public Works administrator Mike Connors put aside his clear preference for Alma and voted to approve Pier Park as the top-ranked team. So too did Rays vice president Melanie Lenz.

“It’s by a narrow, narrow margin, but Pier Park comes out on top for me,” said Lenz, who was rushed out of the meeting due to a family emergency. Just before the final voting, Lenz received word that her son was being taken to the hospital.

There was no word on his condition.

Even James Jackson, an architect for the City of Tampa, but resident of St. Pete, shifted his original ranking of Pier Park at number four to support the selection committee’s motion to move forward with plans to build Pier Park.

Jackson did retain some hesitation, warning that Pier Park could face some potential permitting issues.

Committee members Gary Mitchum and Mike Meidel both maintained their original preferences ranking Pier Park in the top spot.

Destination St. Pete Pier nabbed the number two spot that puts it on deck should contract negotiations fail with the Pier Park design team. Alma, the committee’s initial preferred choice, was ranked at number three.

Controversy surrounding that as a top pick emerged almost immediately both during and after the 12-hour meeting last month in which Alma appeared poised for victory.

The public ranked Alma at number five in a non-binding city poll taken in late February and early March. Destination St. Pete was at the top of the pack with Pier Park pulling in second in that poll.

While Connors did shift his support from Alma to Pier Park in a seeming attempt to appease public dissent, he made it clear that being bullied by the public was not advisable. However, given his well-known contempt for renovating the inverted pyramid, it’s possible he was referring less to a vote for Pier Park and more for a vote against Destination St. Pete Pier.”

“I’m not quite sure how the 4.2 percent [of residents who voted in the public survey] can be considered compelling and how we should fashion our decision,” Connors said. “I don’t find it compelling.”

The selection committee spent about three hours following public comment discussing how each of the three final designs fit within the Pier Working Group’s determination of required elements.

There was some concern with Pier Park’s dining option, including “casual” dining rather than “destination” or fine dining. There were also concerns raised about permitting. The design was placed as favorable for environmental appeal and on top for its options for pedestrians and cyclists.

Public comment was a whirlwind of speakers in favor of each of the three designs. Alma emerged as an early favorite among public speakers, but was quickly outpaced by supporters of Destination St. Pete Pier.

Pier Park lacked in support during public comment until near the end when comment cards were read in lieu of comment. Card after card indicated support for Pier Park by people who either chose not to stick around for a conclusion or who simply just chose not to speak.

In the end, Pier Park and Destination St. Pete had nearly identical levels of support from members of the public.

Pier Park saw a surge in support after those backing another design, Blue Pier, put their weight behind it after Blue was eliminated.

Blue Pier was the third pick in the city’s non-binding public survey. Combined with votes for Pier Park, that support narrowly outpaced Destination St. Pete.

Supporters liked Pier Park for its expansion of the city’s already robust downtown waterfront park system. They noted there was wisdom in leaders of the past who worked to ensure its existence.

“At the time, I’m sure they took a lot of heat,” said author Peter Kageyama. “That’s the job.”

But some supporters for Alma and Destination St. Pete Pier argued the city already has enough parks.

“We don’t need another waterfront park, we need a pier,” said St. Pete resident Tobin Young.

All in all the meeting was cordial. Residents and those living in neighboring cities were courtesy to teams outside of their top picks. They praised the work of all the designers and even the selection committee despite harsh criticism in the month leading up to this vote.

The committee itself launched a parade of back-patting for all of the designs, stating over and over that each had good points and any would make a fine addition to the city.

The comments by committee members almost seemed like a rehearsed effort to remind a potentially volatile group of naysayers that the public was heard and their opinions considered.

This follows threats of referendums that could launch the city into another referendum effort the likes of which sent the city back to the drawing board after a 2013 vote to nix the Lens.

There was one heated moment. Pier Selection Committee member Kai Warren, a preservationist who heavily favored Destination St. Pete Pier, read a statement in support of his favorite design. In it he gave glowing reviews to the St. Pete Design Group’s concept and team and even asked the question -– why would anyone want to replace the inverted pyramid?

He speech prompted someone in the gallery to shout, “why did we even compete?” The shouter was quickly hushed and another outburst was avoided.

From here City Council will be charged with approving or rejecting the committee’s ranking. If they approve it, Mayor Rick Kriseman will have the authorization necessary to begin negotiations with Pier Park designers.

If, for some reason, negotiations fail, Kriseman would then move onto the second-ranked team, Destination St. Pete Pier, and on down the line to Alma or Prospect Pier until negotiations are approved.

Until City Council makes that approval – or rejects the ranking – the committee will still be assembled and be subject to Sunshine laws. The reason for that is that should City Council reject the ranking, still having a committee would allow the group to re-rank teams and try again. If they disband prior to a City Council vote, the process could start all over, costing the city both time and money.

Of all the discussion throughout the night, one public commenter wins the cutest speech prize. A little girl named Betsy Johnson confidently approached the podium in support of Destination St. Pete Pier. Her reason – it had fun stuff for kids and Alma didn’t. She made no mention of Pier Park.

Her short comment prompted booming applause from onlookers and was the only time Connors allowed such applause.

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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