Reinvent, Rinse, Repeat: The St. Pete Pier Tradition
Written by: Jonathan Kile
Here in St. Pete, we reinvent ourselves once in a while. It’s fitting. Whether you’re Peter Demens reinventing a quiet backwater, William Straub reinventing the waterfront, or Bill Edwards reinventing… everything. It’s a St. Pete tradition. I think the visible layers of our history are what make St. Pete a great place to visit and live.
When I was a growing up in California, our piers were erector sets of heavily turpentined wood, with cold Pacific waves crashing through their spindly legs. There, when a pier falls down, they don’t spend a decade trying to decide what to replace it with because they know the ocean will reclaim it. Here, a little rust (and an operating deficit) and we’re ready to rip the thing out. We needed something new, something not so – triangular, something with a business plan, something we can all love!
It was just a couple years ago when the buzz on the street was, “Which pier are you voting for?” And I didn’t really have a good answer. Sure, there were a few concepts that I liked better than others. But how many times does an “artist’s rendering” end up looking like the end product? Most of the renderings had sweeping aerial views with dappled light casting long shadows on a gleaming architectural treasure. The renderings did not depict 93 degrees and 89% humidity. They did not feature the ground level view we’d see 99% of the time. They are like 1950s pictures of the future – the only thing missing is flying cars. I doubt the renderings of the old inverted pyramid showed the dozen or so missing awnings that lined the approach, leaving roofless huts on the long, hot walk to the end. Nor did it come with the disclaimer, “This pier will be sturdy in 40 years, but you really ought to build a new road to get to it.”
So, yes, I had a couple of favorite designs, but I really wasn’t in the business of trying to sway people to my opinion, like I might on other important city issues (ahem, don’t even think of tearing a historic building down until you have the money, the plans, and the permits). If the question were pier or no-pier, I was on the yes-pier side, but we’re not a giant HOA that needs to vote on every detail. I figured I’d trust the designers and council-members to do the heavy-lifting of picking something. I would be content with anything they chose. What do I know about piers? Honestly, at this point, I can’t even remember what I voted for. But I can say that as a parent, I was pleased when the winner included a splash pad. The world needs more of these. My kids don’t care for the playground. A slide? Ooooh. A rickety bridge? Ahhhh. Throw some water in, and I’ll just pick them up at the end of summer.
I like that the point of the new pier seems to be that first and foremost, it’s a pier. When you think of a traditional pier, you think fishing, boats, marine life and views. I don’t really think we need a shopping mall at the end of it. The concept seems to connect intuitively with the character of our waterfront parks. I like the fact that a waterfront restaurant is included in the design because for all the water here, we have all of one truly waterfront restaurant downtown. Mostly, I’m just excited to get a new pier.
Oh, I suppose that in thirty or forty years someone will decide that Pier Park is falling apart, only to find – again – that it’s harder to tear down than they estimated. And the next generation will create a new pier in their image. The St. Louis Arch is rusting, but they’ll be keeping it. The Washington Monument needed some structural work, so it got a face lift. The Eiffel Tower was supposed to be a temporary exhibit, and it’s not going anywhere. But in St. Pete’s it’s “rinse and repeat.” The salt and sun will claim another victim and new names and faces will decide what we stand on to look back on our skyline.
Legs of the new pier are beginning to sprout from the bay, and we can now see the progress. St. Pete’s piers act as backdrops to the city’s eras. They allude to the city’s values and priorities and we clearly value our public spaces. If you see me dining over the water at the new restaurant, give me a wave. If you see my kids playing on the splash pad, toss them a hot dog.