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Pier Park is coming — meet its creators

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Now that the St. Petersburg Pier is officially being toppled – cranes and heavy machinery eat away at the inverted pyramid a little more each day – it’s about time to start looking a little further into the team working to replace it.

The groups involved include New York-based Rogers Partners Architects, the Tampa-based architectural firm ASD, Ken Smith Landscape Architecture and St. Pete’s Booth’s Design Group.

The team was assembled by ASD to include a combination of big-name, nationally recognized firms and those local to the Tampa Bay area.

“We were very interested in pursuing this work,” said ASD project architect Ken Cowart. “In order for us to increase our qualifications we needed to find someone and we found Rogers [Partner’s] portfolio and experience and [with] our experience building buildings in Florida, it made perfect sense.”

ASD has experience working in downtown St. Pete. It recently worked for Bill Edwards on renovations to Al Lang Stadium to retrofit the once-Spring Training ballpark into a fit-for-soccer green and yellow palace.

According to John Curran, the ASD project director for Pier Park, he and Cowart have about 40 years of architectural experience between them. And they know Florida architecture.

ASD’s part in the Pier Park project will take on a more public roll when construction gets near. For now, Rogers Partners is taking the lead on fine-tuning Pier Park. But that doesn’t mean ASD is sitting back and waiting.

Curran and Cowart are working with the city’s Parks and Rec department to hone the current concept into a doable plan that fits within the infrastructural and space requirements available at the Pier site.

Those who criticize Pier Park often point to those tweaks as evidence the public was sold on a plan they won’t be getting.

“Any design process goes through various iterations and although we’ve developed the concept, we now have to take that concept and make it reality,” Curran said.

While ASD is serving as a local point of contact for the project and will oversee most of the construction once it begins, Rogers Partners is the firm manning most of the design decisions at this point while consulting with other members of the team.

Rob Rogers, head of the firm, said he doesn’t expect there to be any major changes to the design concept as it is now, but has already identified some areas where minor changes could be made.

Architects are considering the possibility of expanding the proposed space for the education center after hearing feedback that it should be bigger. The original design concept called for about 3,000 square-feet. Rogers said that could end up being more like 4,000.

Rogers also said there have been concerns about the proposed water lounge, but the team is using similar features around the world as a model and is consulting designers who have been successful in pulling them off. He said the shape and size may change from original renderings, but he expects the element itself to remain in the plan.

And that’s sort of the over-arching theme coming from leaders at both ASD and Rogers Partners. A design concept is a fluid plan. It’s a starting-off point, not the finish line. From here members of the team will work to refine plans to ensure they work structurally and functionally. They’ll also hear from the public about any features that should be improved or eliminated.

The goal for the team, though, is to maintain the programmatic elements contained in the concept even if the details have to be altered a bit.

The team is also partnering with engineers and scientists to explore every conceivable area of concern. Seagrass beds are being mapped to ensure there isn’t damage caused by floating docks, for example. Local teams are researching permitting requirements to ensure there aren’t any delays on getting the go-ahead for construction.

“We are under a mandate to produce a really durable, long-lasting, long-lived project and so all of the material selection, energy-use components, all of those things are being dealt with in a really fine way over the next couple of years,” Rogers said.

And the team is prepared for extensive public outreach as the process continues.

“This is a public investment and therefore it needs to be a public outcome, not just a place to eat and shop a little bit,” said Rogers’ partner, Vince Lee.

A good part of the Pier Park proposal includes extensive landscape design. There’s a “coastal thicket” where Pier Park visitors can meander down the Pier approach toward the structure at the end under a lavish growth of Florida-native trees and foliage.

Planned on the other side is a well-groomed garden. The idea, according to designers, was to give visitors not just an option of how the get from the approach to the Pier head, but an opportunity to experience one on the way up and the other on the way back.

But the idea of planting so much foliage over-water and including a huge lawn space near the end of the Pier has gotten a lot of pushback from opponents. Some compare it to planting a big tree in a box. Where will the roots go? How secure will the landscape be during a storm? Where will water runoff go? These are the questions opponents are raising.

But Ken Smith, the landscape architect in charge of those plans, said on-structure landscapes on top of platforms – like Pier Park would be – are an increasingly common element of public and private space.

A glaring example is the High Line in New York City. The city hired designers to refurbish an elevated rail line into an impressive linear park with nearly a mile and a half of plants.

Smaller examples include condos where landscaping is put on elevated locations for outdoor leisure space. Even personal home landscaping around a pool includes this type of landscape where plants are often put into spaces above and surrounded by concrete.

“The key to growing landscape on structures is to really pay attention to having enough soil to support the plant communities,” Smith said.

He explained Pier Park will have horizontal soil mass. That means roots from trees planted will expand out and intertwine with other root systems. When that happens, the trees actually become more resistant against strong wind by becoming one giant piece instead of multiple smaller ones.

Smith said success also depends on smart plant choices. He doesn’t plan to put in giant trees skyrocketing into the air above. Instead they will be understory trees about 18 feet or shorter. Planting smaller trees, Smith said, also minimizes wind load.

And the plants visitors will see in Pier Park will be Florida natives. They’re the ones you might see strolling through Boyd Hill Nature Park or Wheedon Island. One species of tree Smith has identified as being particularly conducive to the planned Pier Park environment is the Wax Myrtle. It’s a small tree that can be planted as either a tree or a hedge. It grows fast, is extremely resistant to drought and can thrive even in poor soil conditions – meaning salt spray from Tampa Bay wouldn’t likely phase this species of plant. Wax Myrtles also bloom in the spring with yellowish-green flowers and they put off a subtle fragrance.

Smith also expects there will be Sable Palms, Palmettos and even some small native oaks.

And he has the help of Hunter Booth to make sure he picks the right plants. Booth, whose office is just blocks from the Pier, knows all about on-structure landscape. He’s completed numerous projects for condos, hotels, private residences and even the Dali Museum. The Dali’s “Living Wall” at the grotto near the entrance is the handiwork of Booth Design Group.

“We have extensive knowledge of doing projects that are on platforms in beach-type communities,” Booth said.

Booth and his group will serve as the Pier Park project’s Landscape Architect of Record. That means they will sign and file all the documents necessary for permitting purposes.

Booth said his firm will be available to answer questions during the public outreach process of the continued design phase and will listen for suggestions from the public that may have gone unnoticed. However, the firm’s messages will likely be funneled through ASD, the company that contracted with Booth.

Booth lives in St. Pete. His office is so close to the Pier it’s serving as a base of operations of sorts for members of the team who need an office and quick access to the site – or even just to walk outside and see it.

He’s perhaps one of the most excited members of the team.

“It’s a place for everybody,” Booth said, remembering a comment made by someone who said Pier Park is a place that could be enjoyed by people whether they had 50 cents in their pocket or $50.

The team is also setting its sights on more design plans. The city recently put out a Request for Proposal to complete the Pier uplands. St. Pete City Council is set to approve a $20 million ask for that project during its meeting Thursday.

The ASD/Rogers Partners/Ken Smith team hopes to earn that contract as well in order to make the entire Pier project a seamless connection between the Pier and downtown.

“I couldn’t see a more qualified team,” Booth said.

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 janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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