ST. PETERSBURG — As if representing a new era on the city's waterfront, the youngest generation of one of the nation's oldest, wholly family-owned restaurant operations helped make the big announcement Thursday about St. Petersburg's future Pier.
"You're standing on the grounds of the new Columbia restaurant at the new St. Petersburg Pier," Mayor Bill Foster told a small crowd that included the littlest members of the family that owns the popular venue.
The Columbia, which anchors the inverted pyramid that serves as St. Petersburg's current Pier and offers expansive waterfront views, will open a new restaurant as part of the next Pier. It will be built on the Pier approach, in an area that will be known as the Hub.
Richard Gonzmart, a member of the family that owns the Columbia Restaurant Group, which also owns Cha Cha Coconuts, a rooftop bar and grill at the inverted pyramid, said he plans to make a more than $3 million investment in the endeavor.
"We are proud to make the commitment. … Our family is so honored to be here," said Gonzmart, who sat on the city's Pier Advisory Task Force and initially wanted to save the current Pier.
The new restaurant will hire 135 people, he said. It will have 7,500 square feet of air-conditioned space and seat 220 people indoors. There will be outdoor seating for about 100 and a rooftop venue. The Columbia occupies about 15,000 square feet at the current Pier.
The proposed initial 10-year lease calls for the Columbia to pay a minimum annual rent of $25 per square foot, plus a percentage of annual sales.
Plans also call for the Columbia to operate a smaller facility on the Lens itself, but Gonzmart said those are yet to be developed. He said he needs to work those out with Lens designers Michael Maltzan Architecture.
Thursday's announcement was a major boost to the controversial $50 million Lens project, which has been besieged by a vocal and organized opposition.
TV pitchman Anthony Sullivan, a St. Petersburg resident and pro-Lens activist, called the Columbia announcement "a needed shot in the arm.''
"The concept is becoming a reality,'' he said. "They couldn't have picked a better partner.''
"Ecstatic," is the one word City Council member Charlie Gerdes used to sum up his reaction.
"Awesome," said council member Bill Dudley.
Colleague Karl Nurse, who has criticized the project, was of two minds.
"It's clearly helpful to have a destination at the head of the Pier," he said of the proposed restaurant.
"At first blush, the financial arrangement is a good one for the city, as well. It may be confusing, but I need to work simultaneously to improve the Pier design and surrounding features, and then if the voters want to go to a petition, we'll go to a ballot."
The group Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg is circulating a petition for an ordinance to terminate the city's contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture. Leaders say it has already collected half the signatures it needs.
The city is also facing a lawsuit filed by former City Council member Kathleen Ford and five other St. Petersburg residents seeking to force the city to hold a referendum to amend its charter to save the inverted pyramid.
Council member Wengay Newton, who has worked with the group voteonthepier.com, is concerned that the Columbia was given the opportunity to be part of the new Pier without any kind of bidding process.
"It's unfortunate that others that might have wanted to participate couldn't do so," he said. "What happens with the (current Pier's) other tenants?"
At Thursday's news conference, Foster said Gonzmart approached him with the idea several months ago.
Chris Ballestra, the city's managing director of development coordination, said the city will provide the infrastructure for the new restaurant, including site preparation and utilities. The Columbia will build the restaurant and the city will contribute $500,000 to the construction.
"We had allocated that money in the Lens budget," Ballestra said.
William Ballard, president of Concerned Citizens, said he is pleased for the Gonzmart family, but added that the proposed restaurant "provides a little less than one-third of the restaurant space recommended by the Pier Advisory Task Force.''
Thursday, the youngest members of the Gonzmart family unveiled poster boards that paid homage to the city's piers of bygone years and to the current inverted pyramid. One looked ahead to the Lens, which is scheduled to begin rising early next year.
The piers will be portrayed on souvenir menu covers in coming months, before the inverted pyramid's scheduled closing May 31.
The menu cover for the new Columbia restaurant will feature the Lens.
Times staff writer Mark Puente contributed to this report.