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City, downtown association discuss controversial pier art

Andrea Perez

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Early rendering of the Janet Echelman sculpture as it might appear on Spa Beach (image: echelman.com)

At its Wednesday meeting, the St. Petersburg Downtown Neighborhood Association (SPDNA) heard from city representatives regarding the proposed installation of a $2.8 million, 350-foot-sculpture at Spa Beach, part of the $76 million St. Petersburg Pier District Project.

The aerial art piece by Janet Echelman, an internationally acclaimed artist, has gone through a 10-year planning process, according to pier spokesman Chris Ballestra.

To approve the sculpture, the City Council recently passed an ordinance that changes the designations of “active” and “passive” parks, and converts Spa Beach to the latter designation. The new definition of a “passive” park would allow public art installations.

Ballestra noted that Spa Beach remains one the most underutilized parks in the city and the ordinance will allow for positive use of it.

“The adjustments to the ordinance will meet with what the city has already been doing successfully,” added Ballestra, who used the example of Dell Holmes Park, a “passive” park that has a designated water playground. The final public hearing is scheduled for today.

Mayor Rick Kriseman has raised $1.5 million private donations to build the infrastructure, and the Public Arts Commission will also contribute $250,000. Meanwhile, the city set aside $1.3 million in public funds using tax increment financing, which is used for public improvements.

 

Those numbers overwhelmed members of the SPDNA audience, who also questioned the city’s commitment to allocating the public funds, but the panel assured SPDNA members that Kriseman, as well as public and private funders, are “deeply committed” to the completion of the sculpture. It will, they said, be a crucial addition to the Pier District project.

If the City Council approves the contract on Aug. 23rd, Echelman will have three months to design the sculpture and acquire necessary permits. After second council approval, nine months will be assigned for its construction and installation.

One of the most pressing matters raised by the public was the location, which according to Ballestra is a determining factor for the Pier District’s success.

“The project has, to this day, taken the community’s opinion into consideration and it plans to impact families, communities and the environment,” added Kyle Parks, a volunteer who works to promote Echelman’s work to residents.

“It’s all about developing a unique urban park. It’s about activation and aiming to complement the things to do in the new Pier District.”

Residents also questioned the art installations’ maintenance, specifically its longevity and weather resistance. In addressing these concerns, Ballestra said that Echelman’s sculpture withstands 150+ mph winds, will have a 25-year lifespan, a simple maintenance agreement consisting of periodic salt removal and an “occasional tightening of the poles.”

According to Ballestra, Echelman uses colorfast fibers that are resistant to UV light, pollution and high temperatures and are the same material that astronauts use in space suits.

People in the audience exchanged astonished looks.

The design, whose infrastructure will include 60-ft. support pylons and glowing lights at the northern end of the beach, raised concerns on whether it would be safe for birds across the waterfront. According to Kathryn Howd, of the City Public Arts Commision, Echelman – a native of Tampa Bay, and no stranger to local wildlife – makes sure that her work receives necessary legal permits.

“All of these things are being considered,” said Howd. “She’s listening, and is very concerned with the voices of the community.”

Howd added that the original images shown to the public when the sculpture was proposed last year only showcase an inspired design of what the aerial piece could look like. Those images do not intend to represent final results of the art piece or the surrounding areas.

“We’re only showcasing her art – not the actual size of the site.”

A member from the public suggested that Echelman’s team should publish images of various viewpoints of the artwork to “really see what we’re dealing with,” but Echelman doesn’t posess detailed architectural drawings or images of how the final installation will appear. That process is scheduled for the second phase of the project, if it’s approved.

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