ST. PETERSBURG — A few weeks before the city is set to discard its 40-year-old Pier, plans for a multimillion-dollar, avant-garde replacement faced a new, potentially debilitating setback.
Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ken Welch got the unsettling news as the weekend approached. County staff told him that the design of St. Petersburg's new pier, known as the Lens, could not be approved. Its soaring, iconic canopy would have to be scaled back, along with the walls that added to its support.
Without those changes, the $50 million project — already rife with controversy — would not meet the requirements of the county's water and navigation code.
"It could be a game changer," Welch said late Friday night.
By Saturday afternoon, though, the problem appeared close to being resolved.
The county had been working with outdated figures submitted by the city's consultants, according to St. Petersburg public works administrator Mike Connors. New figures would be forthcoming, he said.
County administrator Bob LaSala was told the same thing.
"They said that the consultant was submitting new data. And we will evaluate it against our standards," he said.
"It is very good to hear that the city's stand is to meet the requirements and not have to go to a public hearing. That will make the process much more streamlined if that could happen," said Kelli Levy, a manager in Pinellas County's department of environment and infrastructure, who discussed the issue with Connors Saturday.
"I believe if everything comes in as discussed, then the county could issue a permit for our piece of the pier," she said.
This latest snag typifies the problems that have beset the project from the outset. For instance, a nearly $900,000 underwater garden was dismissed early on by local scientists as not feasible in Tampa Bay. Also, the decision to demolish the 1973 Pier and build the contemporary Lens has generated passionate reaction from opponents and supporters. The issue has set politicians on edge.
Anticipating a problem with the pier permit, Levy quickly approached her superiors. "You don't want them to be blindsided," she said.
Welch contacted St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and council Chairman Karl Nurse. "I don't think the commission or the mayor or council anticipated the county having to approve a variance," Welch said.
Whatever the issues are, they have to be resolved, Foster said.
"I've always said, if we can't built it within budget, then it doesn't get built. If we can't build it within agency approval, then it doesn't get built," he said.
Levy said the city submitted its permit application several weeks ago.
"Right now, the way the design sits, our county code does not allow any type of canopy or roof structure over the pier itself and it also does not allow for vertical walls," she said.
The inverted pyramid that serves as the city's current Pier was built before the current code was in place, Levy said.
St. Petersburg's yet-to-be-revised application indicates the current Pier has about 50,000 square feet of roof canopy, while the Lens would have about 80,600 square feet, she said. To be approved, the new pier canopy would have to be reduced by about 30,000 square feet.
Actually, Connors said, the inverted pyramid's roof area is closer to 70,000 square feet, while the proposed replacement will be about 65,000 square feet.
According to the county, the canopy walls are 350 feet. Connors said that figure is incorrect, adding the Lens is about half the size of the current Pier.
The inverted pyramid is scheduled to close on May 31.