Piers that jut hundreds of feet above water are costly to build. Keeping them current, so they attract and entertain visitors year after year, requires a redo every so often. So what people are witnessing in downtown St. Petersburg, the reconstruction of its pier spanning some 3,400 feet above Tampa Bay, hasn’t happened for about 45 years.
“It’s transformative,” says Chris Ballestra, managing director in charge of development for St. Petersburg’s downtown.
Since the first pier was built in 1889 as a railroad trestle, the city has had several piers that served as a major community gathering space. This redo is actually the city’s eighth. It replaces the Inverted Pyramid Pier completed in 1973, which was torn down in 2013.
“The old pier was very nice, but all the action was way out into the bay and there was nothing in between,” Ballestra explains. “We’re activating the whole site.”
The $76 million project features a Lawn Bowl capable of handling crowds of more than 3,000 for special events, plus a Splash Pad, an interactive water play area; Spa Beach, offering a naturalized shoreline for beach enthusiasts; a Marina Lawn for outdoor recreation such as shuffleboard and swings; and a Coastal Thicket, which turns parts of the stroll out to the pier head into a nature walk.
Because it is so expensive, there are very few cities that have these long piers. Which means this new pier can be “a calling card” for St. Pete, he says, along the lines of the Navy Pier in Chicago, Pier 39 in San Francisco or Santa Monica Pier in California.
“We want to compete on a very large stage around the world,” Ballestra says.
Despite its complexity, the project has been going smoothly. “It’s a very challenging construction market right now, a very competitive environment,” he says. “We’re locked in on the numbers. We don’t have any surprises, which is how we need it to be.”
Construction began on the new St. Pete Pier last June, with the activity centering around the pilings and deck above the water. “Building the pier itself is an extremely complex project,” he says. “By example, the old pier had 1500 pilings. ... For everyone one of our pilings, there three of our old pilings around it.”
Construction will go vertical in late spring or early summer, he says. Updates are available through the city’s website; click on “The New Pier” under City Initiatives.
“We wanted to preserve the community’s expectation,” he says. “We are building for a 75- to a 100-year lifespan.”
An estimated 1,000 are being employed during construction, and some 400 are expected to have ongoing jobs when the pier is completed. The main contractor is Skanska, a major project development and construction company with U.S. operations based in New York City.
While approval is still pending, the city has identified two potential pier occupants: Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille, themed on novels by New York Times best-selling author Randy Wayne White, and Tampa Bay Watch, a Tierra Verde nonprofit which would run an environmental learning center open to the public.
When work is completed, the pier district will be connected with the rest of downtown. “Within the district, there’s shuttles that link directly to downtown that are free,” Ballestra explains. “We worked very hard to make sure we had an integrated process.”
A grand opening is slated for April, 2019, so there’s still a lot of work remaining. “You’re going to see a lot of construction activity,” he adds.
The project comes at a time of uncertainty -- and promise -- as the city grapples with what to do with the 86-acre Tropicana Field property following the Tampa Bay Rays’ announcement Feb. 9 that it would be moving to Ybor City. “We’re very excited to get that site redeveloped, period,” he says.
Ballestra calls the pier and Tropicana Field “bookends to a downtown.”
“What we’re doing with the pier is a full rebuild, creating its own district,” he says. “Tropicana is ultimately a bigger project, with clearly long-term implications to the city.”
He expects the results to be positive. “It’s exciting,” he says. “I feel ... very happy for our community given what’s in store in the next 50 years.”