St. Petersburg voters reject 'Lens' pier

August 28, 2013 

St. Petersburg voters Tuesday gave a resounding thumbs-down to the Lens and set up a November showdown for mayor between incumbent Bill Foster and Rick Kriseman.

In the much-anticipated primary, voters decided 63 percent to 37 to cancel the city's agreement with Michael Maltzan Architecture to build the controversial $50 million design chosen for the new Pier. And they eliminated outspoken Kathleen Ford, as well as long shots Anthony Cates and Paul Congemi, from the mayoral race.

Foster, with 41 percent of the vote, appears to have his hands full with Kriseman, who collected 39 percent.

"We've taken a great step forward," Kriseman said. "A step toward building a pier we can all be proud of, a step toward resolving our challenges with the Rays, a step toward tearing down the walls that divide us and our neighborhoods."

Foster thanked his supporters and promised hard, but clean fight, until Election Day. "The next nine weeks will be about vision, leadership and our records," Foster said. "I intend to run on my record of public service since 1998. I expect my opponent to do the same."

The referendum vote on the Lens means that, barring a legal challenge, the artsy network of walkways and docks will not be built. It also means the process of replacing or even renovating the 40-year-old inverted pyramid at the end of the approach will be delayed at least several months.

A late push by a grassroots group called Build the Pier did virtually nothing to sway the minds of city residents. St. Petersburg didn't like the Lens a year ago when polls were taken, and it clearly still didn't like it Tuesday.

"The voters were not fooled," city council member and Lens critic Wengay Newton said. "They saw that it was a sidewalk to nowhere."

Fred Whaley, whose group Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg led the charge to bring the matter to voters, said he wasn't surprised by the outcome.

“We did a lot of work, and it wasn’t cheap to get this process done, but it did work," Whaley said at a victory party for his group. "It’s just very difficult to get it done this way. But we’re not surprised. It’s been the same number of people who didn’t like the Lens – about two-thirds - and it never changed the whole year.”

Whaley said the Lens simply wasn't functional.

"They claim function is having kayaks and paddleboards and small boats," he said. "That is not the place for kayaks and paddleboards and small boats. ... You’re not going to go put your kayak in out between two big marinas with 40-foot boats coming out."

“It also doesn’t have any shelter from the elements. I can’t take my mother-in-law out there, who really can’t walk too well, and a storm comes along and you have no shelter."

A newer group called Build the Pier argued that the Lens would be an iconic addition to the waterfront and made financial sense, and that rejecting it now could stall the leave the city with a vacant eyesore for years.

Despite their lopsided losses, Build the Pier members were relatively upbeat at a post-election gathering downtown. The group, younger and hipper than the Concerned Citizens, partied at the trendy Birchwood Hotel on Beach Street and talked about making an impact.

"The group came together," said Chad Jones, a group member and project manager at Harvard Jolly Architecture. "It's been, like, six weeks, so everything has been a whirlwind. I think we made a positive impact on the city. That may not be evident right now, but there's definite repercussions for it long-term."

Whaley disputed the notion that the pier project will be delayed indefinitely. He noted that Foster's 828 Alliance, charged with having an action plan ready if the Lens was rejected, will make recommendations to the mayor Wednesday.

"I think we lose a year," Whaley said. "We've got a design for a new RFP, which is a request for proposals. We want to come up with 30 presentations and proposals, to narrow that down to 10 and to pay those people to expand that and show that to us..

"Then, we want to get the community involved in those 10 and come up with something that’s really what this city wants."

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