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St. Petersburg: Are the Pier's days numbered?

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Are the Pier's days numbered?

St. Petersburg explores what to do about the declining Pier approach and base. One option is to start over.

By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer

Published May 13, 2004

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ST. PETERSBURG - In the 31 years since it opened, the inverted pyramid at the end of the Pier has become a city icon.

It graces postcards. ESPN used it as a broadcast studio during the 1999 Final Four. Thousands of spectators crowd onto it every year to watch offshore boat racing.

Now the landmark's days may be numbered.

The Pier's approach and base, built in the 1920s, are badly deteriorating and must be replaced within the next 10 years at a cost of $25-million to $40-million. One option the city is considering involves tearing down the structure and building an approach half the length of the existing one.

A new building probably would not resemble the current one.

The City Council is waiting for a consultant to study the options and hasn't begun a serious discussion. But council chairman James Bennett said he's keeping an open mind.

"The pyramid hasn't been there since the beginning," he said. "If you go back in history, you'll find it used to be something else. And I think that was a beautiful pier."

A pier has graced St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront since 1889, when Peter Demens connected the Orange Belt Railroad to a half-mile wharf.

Several piers were constructed through the years to charm locals and draw tourists. But it was the Million Dollar Pier, built in 1926, that won the most acclaim.

The popular Mediterranean-revival building that crowned this pier featured a central atrium, a rooftop ballroom with terrazzo floors and an observation deck.

The building was demolished in 1967 and replaced with the space-age inverted pyramid. It attracts more than 2-million visitors each year and is the second-most popular destination in downtown St. Petersburg, after BayWalk, the shopping and entertainment complex.

A recent study showed the annual maintenance on the Pier was no longer cost-effective, said Mike Connors, the city's engineer. The heavy, reinforced steel beams that support the structure are badly corroded by saltwater and the concrete pillars that encase the beams have cracked, Connors said.

"The Pier is safe," he said. "There's no concern with the pedestrian or the vehicle traffic, but we won't be able to say that in 10 years. It's just nearing the end of its useful life."

The city likely would borrow the money to build a new pier, Connors said.

The city's plan is to keep the Pier open during construction. Connors gave the City Council three preliminary scenarios.

In the first, and most expensive, the Pier approach and base would be replaced, which would take six or more phases of construction.

Cost for this plan is estimated at $40-million.

The second plan involves building two approaches to the Pier, one on either side of the existing approach. Then the middle approach would be demolished, Connors said.

This proposal would allow workers to rebuild half the Pier's base at a time and is the least expensive option, estimated at $25-million. But it doesn't address some of the problems associated with the inverted pyramid building.

"The inverted pyramid has some limitations in the vertical movement of patrons," Connors said. "If you were to start from scratch, you probably wouldn't build an inverted pyramid with the number of elevator banks we have now."

The third option is similar to the second, but the approach would be shortened to 600 feet from its current length of 1,200 feet. Also, the inverted pyramid would be demolished and a new building constructed.

Cost for that is estimated at $30-million. A shorter pier would reduce maintenance costs, which are estimated at about $250,000 per year, Connors said.

Among the factors still to be considered include the effect on the flight path from nearby Albert Whitted Airport and the mooring of boats next to the Pier.

The city has solicited bids for a consultant and is developing a plan to gather input from the public. Connors estimates it will be at least six years before construction begins.

Meanwhile, the Pier's tenants are experiencing the highest sales levels in recent history. Susan Robertson, the Pier's marketing manager, said April sales were up 19 percent from a year ago.

Pier tenants credit a rebound in tourism after 9/11 and a flood of visitors from the Chihuly exhibit at the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts.

But many of the small shopkeepers fear construction will end the boom.

"It will be bad for business," said Colleen Ford, manager of Just Hats, a store on the ground floor of the Pier. "A lot of people won't want to deal with the mess and the noise."

The Pier underwent a major renovation in 2001, when the city repaired the approach's three expansion joints.

Tenants said sales dropped to record lows.

But store owners interviewed Wednesday said they wouldn't object if the city decided to do away with the familiar inverted pyramid.

"The water is the attraction," said Dave Dahms, who owns DD Collectibles and Peppers on the Pier. "Not the shape of the building."

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The pier is severely cramped and highly outdated. The approach doesn't need to be shortened, but a larger building that makes a bigger statement needs to be built. Maybe we can recruite Santiago Calatrava to design us a new Pier. ;)

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Yes, St. Pete should definately build a new state-of-the-art pier building. I also agree that it shouldn't be shortened. How do the locals feel about the pier situation?

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I think most would hate to see it go. It's a big part of the tourist industry in the city, and for a long time it was all we had downtown. I don't think there's much of an attachment to the building itself. As long as there is a pier to go to, I think the residents will be happy.

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