Pinellas: Lens Pier Requires New Vision

Call this “not seeing eye to eye.”

In a crushing blow to city officials and other proponents of the $50 million Lens Pier replacement project, already underway, on August 27 St. Petersburg voters weighed in. With nearly 50,000 people voting on the referendum, more than 60 percent voted “no.”

Ever resilient, city leaders turned almost immediately to another waterfront project, but the future of the historic pier remains murky at best.

Michael Maltzan, a world renowned architect based in Los Angeles, was hired January 20, 2012, by the St. Petersburg Pier Competition Jury in a unanimous vote to design a new pier. His Lens vision was a futuristic magnifying glass on the water concept.

Known simply as The Pier, it has been an endearing symbol for Tampa Bay since its debut in 1973. The landmark structure featured an aquarium, shopping, dining, nightlife, fishing, boat rentals and weekly festivals. It was closed in May.

With its storied history, the pier enjoys an important relationship with the city. It dates back to 1889, when the Orange Belt Railway constructed the Railroad Pier on Tampa Bay as a railway-accessible sightseeing and recreational resort for locals and tourists, three years prior to St. Petersburg’s incorporation as a city in 1892. The Railroad Pier’s immediate success led to its replacement in 1906 with the Electric Pier, which extended 3,000 feet into Tampa Bay. Next came the Municipal Pier in 1914, but it was heavily damaged by a hurricane in 1921 and the city appropriated a $1 million bond and the new Million Dollar Pier debuted on Thanksgiving Day in 1926. By 1967, the Million Dollar Pier was demolished. Sitting vacant for many years, the current pier with its inverted pyramid shaped design was completed in 1973 by St. Pete Architect William B. Harvard Sr.

With all the discussions now in full swing as to how to proceed with the beloved pier, in another part of the city a very important public meeting took place on Sept. 9 at the USF St. Petersburg Student Activity Center to focus on the big picture—a new downtown waterfront master plan, which voters endorsed two years ago. A group from the Urban Land Institute will arrive to analyze the waterfront, interview stakeholders and offer guidance on the area’s future. The business community raised 80 percent of the institute’s $125,000 fee, signaling private businesses support a vibrant waterfront as much as city leaders and the public.

The members of the ULI include experts in land economics, market analysis, urban design, planning, transportation, business and small-scale development. Among topics to be assessed: the pier, the water basin functions and access, connecting Mirror Lake and Williams Park to the waterfront, Spa Beach’s uplands, the port, Al Lang Stadium and the Beach Drive extension concept.

While the fate of the current pier is up in the air, everyone can agree about the importance of a vibrant downtown waterfront. Now is the time for some consensus-building. Hopefully, all the acrimony surrounding the Lens project will be water under the bridge.