Will the new St. Petersburg Pier look like the Syndey Opera House? Probably not (though it's fun to see what it would look like). But what it will look like, who will design it, and when it will be completed are all still up in the air.
The St. Petersburg Pier has been a primary feature of the city’s waterfront since the early 1920’s, and the piers have always been a source of pride for residents. Since the 1970’s everyone who has visited downtown St. Petersburg is at least somewhat familiar with current "inverted pyramid" design, as it’s an integral part of the waterfront as well as a visible symbol of the city itself. Unfortunately, in recent years there has been a lot of controversy regarding the fate of this historic landmark.
A Bit of History
The first St. Petersburg Pier was constructed back in 1926 and was called the Million Dollar Pier, a reference to its actual budget. The original pier included a casino (a term for a gathering hall), observation deck and ballroom.
After 40 years in service the Million Dollar Pier was demolished to make room for what we know now as the “inverted pyramid” structure, which was completed in 1973. When the new pier opened to the public it became instantly popular as a gathering place and tourist attraction. Later, in 1987, about 70,000 square feet of retail space in a “festival market” style was added.
Repairs on the pier structure date back to 1934. The primary problem through the years has been cracks in the concrete, which allow water intrusion and structural deterioration. Yet even considering these problems the inverted pyramid was built on the foundations of the million dollar pier, which was almost 50 years old at the time.
In 2013 experts determined that due to continued corrosion and deterioration the pier could be dangerous. The pier was closed in the summer of that year and plans for either repairs or reconstruction began. Once it was determined that costs to repair the structure could exceed costs to replace it, plans for a new pier began.
New Design Challenges
A Pier Advisory Task Force was created, who soon came up with a plan to launch a design competition for a brand new pier on St. Pete’s beautiful downtown waterfront. 29 architecture firms participated, and a jury selected three finalists. Firms from Los Angeles, Denmark and New York presented “The Lens,” “The Wave” and “The Eye,” respectively.
Ultimately, the Task Force hoped to create something iconic for the city, like the Sydney Opera House in Australia or the Space Needle in Seattle. Judges felt that all pieces were truly works of art that would be inspiring to visitors. Costs were projected at between $45 million and $50 million for all three designs.
The winner ended up being LA based Michael Maltzan Architecture, Inc. and the design entitled The Lens. Their design had a strong focus on bicycle and walking paths and featured an “iconic canopy” built to shelter visitors on the main promenade. The design also featured views of the St. Petersburg skyline as well as an underwater reef garden.
Yet, almost immediately issues arose, putting the fate of the ambitious Lens plan in jeopardy. First, scientists determined that the underwater reef garden would not be feasible due to the dark water in Tampa Bay. Then came design concerns, with many people having problems with the oddness of the design, fearing it was too modern to fit into the overall style of the city’s downtown area. There were also serious budgetary concerns, with much speculation that the new pier could not be built for under $50 million.
While the new project had been fully approved by the St. Petersburg City Council, and construction plans had begun to move forward, local protesting began led by a group called “Stop the Lens”. While supporters of the Lens said that the new modern design would brand the city as an important tourist attraction on a global level, voters did not agree.
In August 2013, just two months after The Pier was closed, there was a citizen-driven referendum. Approximately 50,000 people voted on the issue, and 2/3 of voters rejected the project. This led to the end of The Lens project, requiring that either the design process begin again or plans to refurbish the pier be revisited.
What Does the Future Hold?
When Mayor Rick Kriseman entered office in 2014, one of the pending issues he had to deal with was the fate of The Pier. He requested that the Pier be opened up again for public access. While the interior still is closed, people can currently visit the Pier to enjoy outdoor recreational activities such as fishing, biking and walking. On May 1st the mayor announced a plan to move forward to establish a new design, with the goal of making the process “fair and transparent.”
A “Pier Working Group” was then established, including leaders from various neighborhoods and local businesses. Throughout the summer of 2014 this group met at City Hall and much progress has been made. The city has now set up a timeline that spans to 2017 (Timeline graphics can be found at http://www.stpete.org/thenewpier), and a new design process has begun. Sixteen design firms are vying for eight spots who would be given $30,000 stipends to begin their designs. From those initial 8 three finalists will be chosen.
Most recently a new group has emerged comprised of Yann Weymouth, architect of the Salvador Dali Museum, as well as the original architects of the inverted pyramid. This group, among others, favors keeping the pyramid design in one form or another as part of the new pier.
What’s in store for the future of The St. Pete Pier remains to be seen. One thing is certain however; The Pier is important to the people St. Petersburg, and they will not allow any project to move forward that will compromise the beautiful and unique downtown waterfront.