New St. Pete Pier

For the second time in two years, St. Petersburg, Florida, is looking to transform its pier into a destination park.

Is the pier park the new riverwalk?

For years, it seemed that all cities could talk about were waterfront developments. Encouraged by the success seen in San Antonio above all, cities such as Philadelphia and Milwaukee have invested in their own historic riverwalk programs.

Riverwalks aren't going anywhere. (Philadelphia, in particular, is ramping up to build some dramatic developments along the Schuylkill River.) But in several cities—namely New York, London, and Washington, D.C.—the most exciting new water-themed developments are taking a different shape.

In Florida, St. Petersburg has just announced eight finalist designs for the city's proposed New St. Pete Pier, the latest iteration of the historic St. Petersburg Pier. First built in 1889 as a railroad tressle, the city's pier has evolved several times over the last 125 years. The finalist designs under consideration are below.

There's one problem with these pier designs: St. Petersburg has tried to build this kind of pier park before. And only last year, it was struck down by residents.

"Prospect Pier," by FR-EE with Civitas + Mesh. (New St. Pete Pier)
"The Pier Park," by Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers, ASD, Ken Smith (New St. Pete Pier)
"Discover Bay Life," by VOA (New St. Pete Pier)
"Destination St. Pete Pier," St. Pete Design Group (New St. Pete Pier)
"ALMA," Alfonso Architects (New St. Pete Pier)
"rePier," by Ross Barney Architects (New St. Pete Pier)
"The Crescent," by ahha! (New St. Pete Pier)
"Blue Pier," by W Architecture and Landscape Architecture (New St. Pete Pier)

None of these designs is terribly different from The Lens, the pier park designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture and selected by a design jury in early 2012. Or, for that matter, from the designs by Bjarke Ingels Group and West 8, the other finalists in the design competition that Michael Maltzan won. The Lens design was defeated by an August 2013 referendum approved by 63 percent of Pinellas County voters.

"The Lens," by Michael Maltzan Architecture. County voters passed a referendum to overturn the design scheme in August 2013. (City of St. Petersburg)

Yet the Concerned Citizens of St. Pete, the organization that rallied the opposition to the Lens proposal, appears to approve of the next-generation round of finalists currently under consideration. What the latest designs share in common—and what distinguishes the eight finalists from the Lens design approved in 2012 and overruled in 2013—is the preservation of the signature Inverted Pyramid design built back in 1973.

This saga is quite different from the NIMBY-style opposition that's greeted some reuse projects attempted by U.S. cities in recent years. For starters, St. Petersburg was ahead of the curve: Decades before the High Line opened, the city had already converted an aging piece of infrastructure into a cultural amenity. And that's the pier that people liked. The Concerned Citizens of St. Pete disapproved of Michael Maltzan's design specifically, and of changing the Inverted Pyramid scheme generally.

Voters seemed to agree with the Concerned Citizens. While pro-Lens activists complained that the ballot referendum was poorly worded—asking voters to vote yes in order to say no—nearly two-thirds did so nevertheless.

The preservation requirement for the 1973 Inverted Pyramid pavilion may prove to be a burden on the site, limiting its potential as a new landmark destination. After all, the New St. Pete Pier still has to do all the things required of a brand new pier park, such as Pier 44 in New York (designed by Heatherwick Studio) or the 11th Street Bridge Park in D.C. (designed by OMA and OLIN)—just without a fancy design scheme to carry all those new features.

Destination St. Pete Pier (New St. Pete Pier)

Consider Destination St. Pete Pier, one of the eight finalists. The legend for the diagram includes (but is not limited to): a fishing pier, tram stops, a water taxi stop, kayak docks, a "Grand Hammock," restaurants, waterfalls, a small-event lawn, retail, and other kinds of spaces. All of these new uses are anchored to a central design that St. Petersburg has lived with for decades.

This design entry isn't alone in reusing the Inverted Pyramid scheme. (Some of the finalists offer more pronounced adaptations.) Like all the other finalists, this one adds tons and tons of programming to the pier. It seems to be a requirement of off-shore parks that they offer all things to all people. "As you walk toward the Pier Head, you will encounter a new, unique St. Petersburg experience every 60 seconds," the entry promises.

What remains to be seen is whether St. Petersburg can build enough support for what may be, in the end, a pricey renovation of a 1970s design. Now, the city will ask residents to rally around a more modest scheme, one that includes all the bells but none of the whistles, as it were.

This approach might very well work. (And St. Petersburg deserved kudos for pivoting fast to a new plan for addressing the pier, whose pyramid is aging and pier approach crumbling.) If the scaled-down pier park concept fails to inspire people, though, the city might be out of options.

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