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Pier pressure

With a $50-million renovation set, the debate heats up over whether the pyramid stays, is remodeled to reflect downtown's architecture or is designed to link the past to the present.

Published April 17, 2006

[Times photo: William Dunkley]
One view from the Pier is of downtown. Detractors say the structure doesn't fit with the design principles of the nearby buildings.

Several piers were built through the years. The most recent incarnation is the 1973 five-story inverted pyramid.

ST. PETERSBURG - The five-story inverted pyramid overlooking Tampa Bay has undoubtedly become a symbol of St. Petersburg in the 33 years since it was built.

The question is whether that's a good thing.

An icon to some and an eyesore to others, both sides will soon get a chance to weigh in on the future of the Pier, which is scheduled for a $50-million makeover.

The city is auditioning consultants to research the Pier and compare it with other, similar tourist attractions.

The consultant also will conduct a series of public meetings to gather comment from the community this year.

While the city's first priority is fixing the pilings supporting the Pier's approach and the base around the building, everything is on the table.

"We're not going into this with any preconceived notions," said David Metz, the downtown enterprise facilities administrator.

The topic prompts a lot of strong opinions.

Detractors say the structure doesn't mesh well with the rest of downtown's architecture. They call the interior drab and the retail stores on the first floor - a blend of T-shirt and specialty shops - too touristy.

"I never look toward the Pier," said Bob Devin Jones, artistic director at [email protected] "There's something about that inverted pyramid that makes me anxious."

A pier has graced St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront since 1889, when Peter Demens connected the Orange Belt Railroad to a half-mile wharf.

Several piers were constructed through the years to charm locals and draw tourists, but the most popular was undoubtedly the Million Dollar Pier. The Mediterranean Revival style building was built in the 1920s and featured a central atrium, a rooftop ballroom with terrazzo floors and an observation deck.

The building was demolished in 1967 and replaced with the inverted pyramid in 1973.

"I would harken back to the (Million Dollar Pier) design because it would tie the structure back to the original Pier," Jones said. "It would fit in much better with our current downtown."

Don Shea, president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, said the inverted pyramid isn't projecting the proper image. The design doesn't really reflect a progressive, modern city and he'd like to see it torn down.

"I think an inverted pyramid is a 1970s vision of the future," Shea said. "It's a little like going to Tomorrowland at Disney World."

But Pier supporters say it's is still structurally sound. Should millions of taxpayer dollars really be spent to replace a perfectly good building?

City Council Chairman Bill Foster said he couldn't justify the expense. "We'd have to look at how far into debt we would want to go," Foster said. "I just think the cost of destroying everything and starting over is going to be cost-prohibitive."

The $50-million earmarked for Pier renovations is part of $95.4-million approved by the Pinellas County Commission to renovate several downtown projects in St. Petersburg. It comes from future property taxes.

The city first began discussing the Pier's future in 2004, when an engineering study showed the annual maintenance was no longer cost-effective. The heavy, reinforced steel beams that support the structure were badly corroded by salt water and the concrete pillars encasing the beams were cracked.

At the time, then-City Engineer Mike Connors (who is now internal services administrator) laid out three options for City Council members:

--Simply replace the Pier's approach and base, which would take up to six phases of construction.

--Build two approaches to the Pier, one on either side of the existing approach. Then the middle approach would be demolished. The proposal would allow workers to rebuild half the Pier's base at a time and would be more cost-effective.

--Similar to the second, but the approach would be shortened to 600 feet from its current length of 1,200 feet. Also, the inverted pyramid would be demolished and a new building constructed.

Connors told council members the shorter pier would reduce maintenance costs, which are about $250,000 a year.

Tim Clemmons, an architect and community activist, is no fan of the inverted pyramid but he's not sure it should be destroyed. He'd rather see tax dollars go to a different use.

While some may complain there's not enough to entice locals to the Pier, Clemmons said he thinks the structure is appropriate for a tourist destination.

"In a way, it makes sense," said Clemmons, who helped design the Peninsula, the tall, slim condo tower slated for downtown. "I don't want to go grocery shopping or something like that in the middle of Tampa Bay." He's also opposed to re-creating the Million Dollar Pier. If a new structure is built, it should look forward, not back, he said.

Randy Wedding was the president of the St. Petersburg Association of Architects when the design for the inverted pyramid was approved. He would oppose tearing it down because it's still a viable structure. But he would change the Pier's approach.

Wedding, who is also a former St. Petersburg mayor, said he would widen the bridge to the Pier into a causeway and line the sides with appealing amenities, such as green space and boat docks.

"You could make it into more of a street market," Wedding said.

City administrators hope to have a recommendation for a consultant by a May 18 City Council workshop, Metz said. A contract will be awarded by early summer, with public meetings scheduled for the fall.

The Pier attracts more 1.8-million visitors a year and is the second-most popular destination in downtown St. Petersburg, after BayWalk, the shopping and entertainment complex.

Craig Sher, president of Sembler Corp., which developed BayWalk, said he'd vote for a major overhaul of the Pier.

"It is surely a landmark," Sher said. "But it is tired-looking and somewhat dysfunctional."

Sher thinks the city should hold a design competition to help create more excitement about the renovation. He'd also like to see something beyond retail at the Pier, such as art galleries, a museum and a hotel.

But it will take more than just a renovation to transform the Pier. More money for marketing and maintenance will be needed once the rebuilding is complete, he said.

"It is not enough to just build it," Sher said. "The ongoing success of the Pier will need to have a realistic budget."

4,422 Posts
IF they build something really nice - great. IF they ebuild the original - fine. If they do some half assed med revival that is not the original - forget it - leave it as is with some renovations.

339 Posts
If the Pier "is" St. Pete, then St. Pete's identity sucks! It could be so much better. It is a terrible layout in terms of a hodgepodge of floors, elevators that are too small. The shops at the Pier makes the old Harbor Island shops seem like International Plaza. It does have the one redeeming quality of matching its third rate baseball facility on the edge of downtown, but then again I'm sure there will be preservationists who will be clamering to save the Trop because its historic character, innovative design, and community identity. Get with it St. Pete instead of setttling for outdated & second rate landmarks.

1,436 Posts
Jahi98 said:
Build a new, modern structure. I like the idea of an art gallery and museum -- maybe a small maritime museum would be a draw.
The gallery space in the pier now is sorely neglected and hidden. Not sure if its open to the public? An entire upper level sits empty with art. In my experiences, maritime museums are nice but usually just fodder for old folks. I don't think it'll be particularly popular.

Those simulator rides they installed a decade ago were popular at one time, but too costly. Either made it a remarkably serene pier to match a serene downtown to attract *that* crowd (think of the costs), or turn it into a bigger family attractive.

The Stratosphere itself ultimately sold itself out to *more* amusements.
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