It came down to a choice of risking taxpayer dollars on a project that may never be built or putting the city’s flagship waterfront project on hiatus.
So City Council members on Thursday asked for more time.
After a heated three-hour debate, council members delayed for two weeks a decision on spending $1.5 million on the next design phase of the city’s new pier, known as the Lens.
Officially, the delay is to allow city staff to provide the council with details of future maintenance costs for the Lens and a breakdown of the $1.5 million city officials were asked to approve for the next part of the design. There was also concern that council members only had three days to review a 464-page design document.
The drama, though, that played out at City Hall Thursday showed how the Lens project, once envisioned as an iconic centerpiece of the city’s rejuvenated waterfront, has split the council and could become a key issue in electoral races for mayor and four city council seats this summer.
The dilemma for the city is whether to invest more in the Lens when a public vote likely to be held in August could kill the controversial project to replace the city’s aging pier.
Council members split 5-3 on the two-week delay, with council members Jeff Danner, Leslie Curran and Wengay Newton opposed. Newton, a vocal critic of the Lens, wanted an up-or-down vote on whether to spend the money and said he would have voted not to.
Danner and Curran, who served on the Pier Advisory Task Force, expressed frustration that the delay would send the wrong message to the architect and to voters.
Completing the design phase, which includes wind-tunnel testing of scale models, would address concerns raised by residents before they vote on the project, Danner said.
“We should have a vote to show that we want to move forward,” Danner said. “The more information we get, the more answers there are.”
Leaders of Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, a group of residents opposed to the Lens, say they have verified more than 17,000 signatures on a petition calling for the city to cancel its contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture, the project’s designer.
The group is waiting to file its petition because it wants to guarantee the referendum is on the Aug. 27 primary election ballot. The city charter requires special elections to be held within 90 days of petitions being verified but also gives the City Clerk 20 days to verify the signatures against electoral rolls.
The group may wait until the end of this month before submitting its petition, meaning council members will still not be sure there will be a referendum when they revisit the $1.5 million payment to Maltzan in two weeks.
As expected, both supporters and opponents of the Lens showed up in force Thursday to argue for and against continued support of the project.
TV pitchman Anthony Sullivan, who founded the WOW Our Waterfront St. Pete political action committee backing the Lens, did not attend Thursday’s meeting but addressed council members in a video. Sullivan compared the Lens to Paris’ Eiffel Tower and the St. Louis Arch, both controversial designs that in time were accepted as iconic symbols of their cities.
“The fact the new design is controversial is not good - it’s great.” Sullivan said in his video message.
Ahead of Thursday’s meeting, St. Pete Polls released the results of a poll conducted Wednesday that found two-thirds of respondents were opposed to the Lens.
That trend was somewhat reflected at the meeting, despite the ranks of people wearing T-shirts reading “Make Lens Not War.” Opponents of the project slightly outnumbered its supporters, as did the people who addressed the City Council.
Supporters of the Lens said it would drive more tourists to visit St. Petersburg’s waterfront and boost the city’s profile.
“We’re a city of art and a city of culture,” said St. Petersburg resident John McBennett. “The Lens is a piece of art that will look great on a postcard.
Opponents, who describe the Lens as a “sidewalk to nowhere,” countered that it would be irresponsible to spend taxpayer money when the project is in doubt.
“What you are offering is form without function,” said Hani F. Mata, a St. Petersburg architect. “I suggest you go back and cut your losses and cut the nonsense.”
The Lens design was selected by a panel after an international competition aimed at finding a replacement for the inverted pyramid structure built in 1973 and the pier approach, built decades before.
The futuristic design includes a crossing-loop pathway that leads to an 86-foot-high crown-like structure. The project would include a gelato store, small restaurant and viewing balconies. The dual pathways would be used by pedestrians, joggers, bicyclists and a slow-moving trolley service. A new Columbia Restaurant is planned for the base of the pier.
The project includes the demolition of the old pier deck and removal of badly corroded concrete pilings, which will be used to reinforce the seawall at nearby Albert Whitted Airport.
The city has spent roughly $3 million on the project so far, two-thirds of which is specifically tied to the Lens. The other money went for predesign work that could be used for another project, city officials say.
Maltzan has indicated that a long delay could raise the costs and that it may be impossible for him to keep his current design team together, said Mike Connors, the city’s public works administrator.
Both Michael Maltzan Architecture and construction firm Skanksa have indicated they will continue work on the project for now, despite the two-week delay, Mayor Bill Foster said.
The controversy and uncertainty surrounding the project, though, is affecting the city’s reputation, said Chris Steinocher, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.
“My heart burns today,” he said. “This is crazy; this is sad; it’s not good for anybody.”