Citizens and city leaders debate future of Lens pier project in - WFLA News Channel 8

Citizens and city leaders debate future of Lens pier project in St.Petersburg today

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With city leaders poised to commit another five million tax dollars, the decision to rebuild or replace the iconic St. Petersburg Pier—a structure designed to look like an upside down pyramid--is the talk of the town.

City leaders decided last year to forego a voter referendum on demolishing the city landmark and replacing it with a futuristic design for a looping promenade ascending over the waters of Tampa Bay known as The Lens.

But today at City Hall dozens of citizens with passionate opinions on both sides of the issue lined up sway a crucial city council vote on whether to proceed with the $50 million project.

"You're throwing money away," said Lens opponent Tyler Mitchell. The Lens is "the best thing that can happen," responded  Robert Ward.

"Let the people of St. Petersburg vote on it," urged Patty Gassner. It looks neat, but it's not for St. Petersburg," said George Gowey, one of may critics still clamoring for a citywide referendum.

By the time two hours of public comment concluded inside the city council chambers, more than 70 people had weighed in with verbal statements or comment cards on the biggest financial decision to face St. Petersburg City leaders since the council vote to build a baseball stadium a quarter century ago. 

On Wednesday, Pinellas Circuit Judge Amy Williams ordered the city to begin good faith mediation with critics who have filed a lawsuit to stop the project lead by former city council member Kathleen Ford.

City attorneys told council members Thursday they can still move forward with the Lens contract and commit $5 million in design funds for the architects, without violating the spirit of that court-ordered mediation.

Architect Michael Maltzan has recently submitted changes in the project that replaces concrete shading structures with steel and aluminum and detailed recreational activities centers on kayaking and paddle boats.

Both of those changes came under fire from critics as ideas that won't work. Some question whether the steel and aluminum will hold up in a saltwater environment. "Who pays if it fails," questioned pier critic Bill Ballard.

Other critics say the Pier is an impractical place to launch kayaks and paddle boats. Carol Gray warned that visitors would be "swept out to sea."

City council members adjourned after the public comment. They are expected to take a vote on moving the Lens project forward or putting it on hold after discussion this afternoon.

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