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St. Pete City Council seems more supportive of public input than Pier Selection Committee

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

St. Pete City Council members have a potentially difficult decision facing them as soon as April 2. They are charged with voting up or down whatever pier design a committee appointed by the mayor puts before them.

Based on several straw votes placed by the committee during their marathon meeting last week, that design may be Alfonso Architect’s Alma.

The design boasting a narrow tower at the end of the pier ranked 5 out of 7 in the city’s public survey and dead last in another conducted independently through St. Pete Polls. A third survey commissioned by Florida Politics and carried out by St. Pete Polls showed that design had single-digit support.

Compare that to the overwhelming popularity of the design by local architects Wannemacher Jensen, Harvard Jolly and Yann Weymouth, and there could be major backlash if council approves a choice that ignored the will of the voters.

It’s a decision council members are not taking lightly.

Council Chair Charlie Gerdes said the committee should be taking the public’s weigh-in seriously. He said the only way the committee should choose Alma is if its technical pros outweigh its public popularity cons.

“If their recommendation doesn’t justify pretty clearly the choice, than I’ll vote whoever is first down,” Gerdes said when asked if he was prepared to vote against Alma if it comes to City Council as the top-ranked design.

The process laid out by the city included multiple components. Public buy-in was a key part of that. But the city cannot lawfully use public opinion as a basis for its choice. There has to be consideration of technical components like a design team’s qualifications, whether or not the project falls within budget and whether it meets the city’s established criteria.

Gerdes said from what he can tell so far both Destination St. Pete Pier and Alma are pretty even on those components.

That’s why council member Karl Nurse said if the selection committee sticks with Alma, they’d better have a pretty good explanation of why.

“If they spell out clearly that one design carried a lower subsidy, whatever it may be,” he said. “But it needs to be clear – under that scenario, it might be OK.”

There have been a whole host of problems thrust into the spotlight since Friday’s meeting. There are now three polls showing vast support for Destination St. Pete Pier, but very little for Alma.

There are questions about the city’s involvement – behind the scenes finagling in favor of Alma.

There are powerful players on both sides. Former Mayor Rick Baker is on Destination’s side while the Columbia Restaurant Gonzmart family is pulling for Alma.

But the loudest threats of all have come from members of the public furious that the city would even consider rejecting Destination St. Pete Pier when it is the only design polling strongly with residents.

“I certainly don’t want to go through another divisive situation with the pier,” said council member Steve Kornell.

He’s referring to the last time the city was looking at replacing the iconic inverted pyramid. Residents rallied, gathered petitions, forced a referendum and were overwhelmingly united in their opposition of the Lens.

Now supporters of Destination St. Pete are backed by both sides of the 2013 debate. They have Havard Jolly working on their team. That firm designed the current pier. They also have Wannemacher Jensen architects who designed the ill-fated Lens. And to boot, they have Yann Weymouth, the architect behind the well-celebrated Dali Museum.

Kornell said he’s not sure about Alma or Pier Park, the other design left on the table that seems to be consistently left out of the conversation. And he said it’s too soon to weigh in too much.

“But I’ll tell you one thing, I would enthusiastically support Destination St. Pete if that’s what’s in front of me,” Kornell said.

The latest poll asked if City Council should reject any plan before them that isn’t the city’s favorite, Destination St. Pete and the response was clear. More than half said “yes.”

“The most direct path forward without significant delays and barriers is to build what the people want-as long as it can be done by a qualified design team within budget and without permitting concerns,” said council vice chair Amy Foster. She emphasized “build what the people want.”

Those delays and barriers could come in many forms – extended meetings, more public input, rejection by City Council, heading back to the drawing board – but the threat of another referendum remains the most real to those who have followed the process.

“I hope to God that we don’t go down that road,” Nurse said.

The Pier Selection Committee is expected to spend some time collecting more information from teams before having another meeting to finally rank the designs. It’s not clear whether they will be soliciting that information behind closed doors or if they’ll invite the teams to present at another meeting. They could do both.

Council is scheduled to vote on the top-ranked team April 2, but it’s not yet clear when the selection committee will meet to finish its ranking.

That vote could be delayed if the committee doesn’t finish its process in time.

Council member Darden Rice is holding off on publicly discussing the possibilities until council knows more.

“It would be premature for me to offer comments before the Selection committee’s work is finalized,” Rice said. “I think it is vitally important for the city to have a clear mindset to keep its role as a convener and its role as a participant separate.”

Council members Wengay Newton, Bill Dudley and Jim Kennedy did not respond to interview requests at the time of publishing.

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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