The St. Petersburg (Florida, not Russia) Pier is coming down, and the decision is eyebrow raising.
The pier, built in 1973, replaced a 1926 Mediterranean Revival pier at the same location, just off St. Pete’s downtown in Tampa Bay. The Modernist, upside-down pyramid at the end of the pier is among the city’s most recognizable structures, along with the Sunshine Skyway bridge (which is actually outside of city limits), Don Cesar hotel (also outside the city) and Tropicana Field (the Walmart of baseball stadiums).
The five-story, mixed-use building features an observation deck, shops, restaurants, and–until recently–a small aquarium. Its businesses have struggled for years as the number of visitors fails to meet expectations. The city decided to do something about it when it was faced with up to $15 million in repairs to the concrete supports. Instead of remodeling the pier and holding a charette to come up with a more economically viable use–A boutique hotel and conference center? A museum?–the city council quickly voted to tear it down and build a new pier. Last month, the city began a design competition for a new pier. It’s attracting big names in the architecture world.
I find this whole ordeal troubling on multiple fronts.
- St. Pete, like just about every municipality in the country, has faced severe budget cuts in recent years. The city claims a new pier will only cost $50 million. I doubt it. Retooling the pier would save millions of dollars. It would also prevent construction materials from being thrown into a landfill and negative environmental impacts to Tampa Bay.
- For such a public landmark, the lack of public input on the project is baffling. After two years of studies and discussion, at the mayor’s urging the city council voted 7-1 on Aug. 26, 2010, to demolish the St. Petersburg Pier. The one dissenting council member, Wengay Newton, wanted residents to have a chance to weigh in on the demolition. Newton also wanted the issue to go to referendum at the next elections. His requests were denied. One group, VoteonthePier.com, has continued Newton’s mission to put the pier’s fate in the public’s hands, not the eight city council members. As I wrote about in my thesis, preservation decisions are not democratic processes, often coming down to a handful of individuals. For such a highly visible public building, the St. Pete Pier should be decided by the people, not the politicians.
- Finally, like its appearance or not, the pier is a St. Pete landmark. Imagine San Francisco tearing down the Golden Gate Bridge, D.C. razing the Washington Memorial, or New York ripping up Central Park. Critics may argue that the proposed new pier will be an even better icon for the city. But landmarks are not made overnight, they take years of presence–years of memories. The residents of St. Pete deserve a say in where their memories are made, not to mention how their taxes are spent.