The group is inviting the public to attend its April membership meeting, which is all about the pier and the future. Mayor Rick Kriseman and Councilwoman Gina Driscoll, along with members of the design and planning teams, will be present for a program called “St. Pete’s Waterfront Transformation” Wednesday, April 11 at 7 p.m.
Admission is free for the event, at the Cathedral of St. Peter, 140 4th Street N.
“It’s a general membership meeting for residents and property owners, but we want you to come and see what a strong and active neighborhood association does, and offers to members of the community,” says attorney Matthew Weidner, president of the association.
The $76 million dollar project, of course, endured plenty of public scrutiny and criticism, mostly because some of the early design proposals were unfeasible, too expensive or just plain ugly or weird-looking.
Now, it’s all about looking ahead.
Weidner and the SPDNA are particularly enthused about the 26-acre pier approach, or the roughly 3,000-foot section of pier between dry land and the pier head (the end). Instead of just a concrete road and parking spaces (as it always was in the past), it’s going to be lush and green. Planned are a family park, an open air market, an open pavilion, a grassy area, an indigenous “coastal thicket” for nature walks and more.
Also in the works are a small waterfront restaurant (there’ll be a bigger one in the pier head building) and an enclosed environmental education center. There’s even going to be a sandy bathing beach – named Spa Beach, in honor of the area’s long-gone historic swimming and sunning area.
“If you go out there now,” says Weidner, “you see parking lots. You see space that’s largely unusable. One of the things the city really worked for was to try and take that existing space and reimagine it; re-purpose it in a way that would draw people out there.”
There’s been a pier in the same location for more than 100 years. The first one was constructed alongside a spindly railroad trestle that carried goods to and from ships coming and going on Tampa Bay.
When the automotive age dawned, the concrete Municipal Pier – also known as the “Million Dollar Pier” – replaced the wobbly wooden one. Built in 1926, it housed WSUN, the area’s first radio station (and later, its first TV station).
The real attraction, however, was the view.
“The pier became an iconic destination for tourists that were traveling from across the country,” points out Weidner, who’s recently been devouring books on the area’s history. “On AAA maps and other travel-marketing materials, it became a key destination – to come and drive your car out into the water.”
This version was leveled in 1967 to make way for the (then) ultra-modern “Inverted Pyramid” pier, which opened in 1973 and was significantly modified and upgraded in the ‘80s.
From Day One, many thought the five-story building was an eyesore.
Retailers and restauranteurs came and went – and by the ‘90s, they weren’t coming so much anymore. In 2004, after learning that structural maintenance on the pier was no longer cost-effective, the City Council voted to put the “Inverted Pyramid” out of its misery. It was demolished in 2016.
Weidner has been reading about St. Petersburg’s founding fathers, businessmen and landowners with familiar names like Straub, Snell and Roser. They were clear-eyed and determined to keep the bayside waterfront clean and green with plenty of parks and recreational areas.
“Back at the turn of the century, they fought long and hard to preserve the character of the waterfront, which is one of the things that makes our city completely unique,” he says. “Along the coast, all around the state, there’s no other city that has what we have: That much waterfront.
“They recognized, even a hundred years ago, that we didn’t have the infrastructure that was going to bring industry in, like Charlotte or Atlanta. They said we have to focus on sunshine, light, tourism – that’s the best thing we have, and frankly that’s all we’re ever going to be.
“And so they dedicated this public land, and wrote it into our city’s constitution, that you can never build out there. We may have dense development in other parts of the city, but what will always keep St. Petersburg special is the very public nature of that most valuable resource.”
Weidner’s group has a saying: What happens downtown affects the entire city.
“As a lawyer, and as a member of the community, I feel one hundred percent optimistic,” Weidner enthuses. “As we enter into a new phase of our city, we’re going to have something that’ll be iconic for our generation, and generations to come.”
St. Petersburg Downtown Neighborhood Association April meeting: At 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 11 at the Cathedral of St. Peter, 140 4th Street N. Free. More information here.
For information on the progress of the St. Pete Pier, visit newstpetepier.com.