What does it take to build a pier? St. Pete knows

While nearly 1,300 people have been involved with constructing the new St. Pete Pier, there are several principle project heads and thought leaders who have helped bring this new landmark to fruition. 

Here’s a look at five of the influencers involved with the St. Pete Pier: 

Chuck Jablon, Skanska VP of Operations 

Chuck Jablon grew up in St Petersburg and fondly remembers visiting the Million Dollar Pier in the 1950s and ‘60s with his mom and siblings.

“It’s a place where no matter your troubles, no matter your worries, they all just melt away.”

He watched the Million Dollar Pier give way to the Pyramid Pier and dreamed of the opportunity to construct a new pier for St. Petersburg when the time came. The construction of the city’s eighth pier afforded him the rare chance to do just that. Jablon heads up his team at Skanska, with the company serving as the project’s main contractor. 

He came into the new St. Pete Pier project as its top leader, with nearly five decades of experience in the construction industry. He has helped transform Pinellas County with his involvement in many projects great and small. Some of his work in the Tampa Bay Area includes various homes and condo towers, buildings at the University of South Florida campus in St. Petersburg, and the Florida Polytechnic University near Lakeland. 

Q. Why is the Pier project important to you, and what will it offer the community? 

Chuck Jablon is the head leader of the St. Pete Pier construction.A. Each and every morning as I get up, I can’t help but think of the Pier and Pier approach because I know I am helping build a part of the history of what has been St. Petersburg’s main attraction and a crown jewel for over 125 years. I know that the finished project will offer what if offered me as a little boy growing up and many other families at that time in my life: a destination, a place of excitement, a pathway into Tampa Bay with a view of the water and all the sea life it brings to its new structure – and it won’t cost you anything to go see and experience it. Although the community’s excitement around this project is palpable, they have no idea what the Pier approach and the new Pier replacement designs and execution of these designs have to offer them and their families -- Mayor Rick Kriseman himself has said that the site cannot be explained without truly walking and experiencing it in person. 

Q. Why are you inspired to work on the Pier?

A. Having been a true St. Petersburg resident my entire life, I am not only inspired but also honored to be able to bring 46 years of my passion, my building experience, my team, and all of the resources of Skanska, a 135-year-old building company, to bear on this Pier approach and new Pier replacement. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and responsibility for me to get it right for the city and community.

Q. What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered with this project, and what are a few of the innovative ways you’ve tackled them? 

The most important challenge and first and foremost is keeping each and every trade worker safe and focused on the importance of what they’re building. Because this is such a massive, multi-dimensional design, the biggest challenge is building and executing in the water and over the water while ensuring all of the elements that make up the whole of the design are built in the exact place they belong. This is critical to the success of the project. The innovative approach my team and I have taken to address some of the major challenges is to utilize three veterans, including myself, Skanska Project Executive for the St. Petersburg Pier project Kenneth Duty, and Skanska General Superintendent for the St. Petersburg Pier project Scott Davis. Together, we’ve applied over 95 combined years of construction experience, knowledge, and past successes to every part of the process, starting from the pre-construction phase and right into the construction phase, and in bearing every challenge that has confronted us. In addition, we attack every challenge as a team. Every worker on our site is a team member, and every team member is allowed input for suggestions, solutions, and concerns. We have a saying onsite, ‘as a team, together we fail, and together we succeed.’ To date, we are exceeding in regards to the quality of the execution that the design deserves. 

Q. What do you hope all who use the Pier in the future will enjoy most about it? 

A. Of course, I feel proud when I think about all who will enter the civic gates of the St. Petersburg Pier approach and new Pier replacement. If there was to be a bronze plaque, it would read something like this: ‘We do hereby attest this day that the tradesmen and workers who built this place did so with the highest level of skill, passion, and respect so that this community may enjoy the Pier and the Pier approach for years to come.’ 

More than anything, this park will consist of 26 acres of wonderful elements that are free to the public. I know this place will spark smiles, laughter, events, celebrations, and opportunities for all ages within our local community. Not only that, but our hope is that this park will be an attraction to visitors from all over the world, spanning from artists and celebrities to soldiers and politicians.” 

Jason Jensen, Wannemacher Jensen Architecture Principal

The new Pier project has several components, including the St. Pete Pier Approach Park. This promenade serves as a link between the land and The Pier Head building and other attractions that guests will enjoy over the water. The approach was designed by Jason Jensen, AIA, and his team at Wannemacher Jensen Architecture

Q. What are your thoughts on the overall Pier project and what it offers the community? 
 
Jason Jensen, architectA. The Pier district will offer a truly intergenerational waterfront experience. It will be a place for everyone to experience the water, a place to gather, a place to make memories. It will represent to the world that we are a progressive community who values the environment, the arts, the water, and our diverse population.?

Q. What inspires you to work on the Pier?

A. It’s a legacy project. I personally have a long history in St. Petersburg and specifically the Pier with many memories of homecoming dinners, concerts and family outings. Then professionally I worked on the original Pier and was part of every competition. It’s such a unique defining feature of St. Petersburg that I don’t just want to be a part of. I want to make sure we get this right for the next generation.?

Q. How have you overcome the inevitable challenges working on a marine project of this scale?  

A. The two hardest factors to overcome are budget and environment. The salt environment is extremely corrosive and is difficult to design a lasting project within a typical building budget. At the market we overcame this by creative efficiency. Instead of putting solar panels on top of an expensive roof we used the solar panels themselves as the shade structure. This also puts the solar panels on display recognizing the cities dedication to sustainability.

Q. How do you feel about contributing to a community landmark that should stand for generations to come?   

A. My hope is that the community embraces and uses the district in ways that we haven’t even thought of yet. I want it to take on its own vibrant life as the city’s living room. I think people will enjoy it together as a place to go with no specific agenda. We have designed the ingredients of a successful park, but the community will bring the energy and activity. I can’t wait to see it in use.

John Curran, AIA, Principal Architect with ASD|SKY in Tampa

Among the design team responsible for designing The Pier Head, Discovery Center & Wet Classroom, and other structures along the quarter-mile-long Pier is ASD|SKY [https://www.asdsky.com/tampa]. John Curran has been an architect for 30 years, and as principal architect at ASD|SKY, he’s putting his decades of experience to work on the St. Pete Pier, a project he believes is one of the most significant the Tampa Bay Area has seen in years. 

Q. What do you hope the new Pier offers the Tampa Bay Area? 

John Curran, architectA. The New St. Pete Pier project is probably the most important public-realm project the Tampa Bay Area has seen in many decades. Although there are great things happening all around the Bay, in Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater, the Pier and the Pier District covers such an enormous area that it becomes an amazing place for recreation, dining, education, art appreciation, fitness, music, water, fishing, boating and so much more. We have always said whether you have 50 cents or $50, there is so much to do. The beauty of the Pier is that it is for the residents of the community, but it also has such an iconic affect that it will become an attraction for visitors on an international level. It is that combination of attraction and community park that is truly exciting to me. Besides our wonderful structures throughout the Pier such as The Pier Head at the end of the Pier, the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center, and the Pavilion at the main plaza, it is the landscape and green space that will be over water that also lure people to explore. I can’t wait to see everyone’s reaction.

Q. What’s your inspiration for working on the Pier? 

A. It is truly exciting to be involved in a project that will have such a transformative effect on a community. As architects, we are always looking for those opportunities to create places that inspire. The new St. Pete Pier is one of those rare opportunities that does that. I feel both honored and obligated to be sure we deliver the best project and place possible.

Q. What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered designing the St. Pete Pier, and how did you address them?  

A. As with any project of this scale and complexity, budget constraints must be respected and adhered to. The new St. Pete Pier is no different. Besides what some reports say, the project is within the prescribed budget. Our team is very proud that the driving concepts of what was once called ‘Pier Park’ have been maintained and carried through the entire project. The most challenging of these potential obstacles has been the design of the Pier deck itself. In other words, the new structure over water. Please note that that structure represents almost half of the project budget and we needed to carefully design all of the components to minimize its effect on the budget and assure the driving concepts are carried through. At the same time, we needed to monitor the new Pier’s effect on the ecology and the environmental impacts in the bay. We have been able to manipulate and tweak the shape of the structure to minimize the amount of concrete piles that have ultimately been constructed in the water. We currently have around 430 new concrete piles in the water and the new Pier extends out as far as 1,275 feet over water, almost a quarter mile. Additionally, we utilized the existing caissons that were already in the water for the new fishing deck at the end of the Pier. These caissons were the primary supports of the old inverted pyramid structure. This approach helped keep the project on budget.

Q. What do you hope those who use the St. Pete Pier in the years ahead will enjoy most about it? 

A. I am truly proud to be a part of this amazing project. The one thing people will enjoy most about the Pier is the variety of activity. The beauty of the new St. Pete Pier is that you may spend an afternoon doing a few activities at the Pier Plaza or kayaking off of Spa Beach and end up not seeing the entire place. This gives people endless reasons to come back and experience other aspects at their new Pier on a daily basis. I feel it will become that place that people will want to be and there are so many things to do that make the experience so transformative. As I said, I am so honored and proud to be a part of this community landmark and can’t wait for my family and friends to utilize the district. I hope I am here to see what’s happening 25 years from now and fully understand the impact this project will have.

Chris Ballestra, Managing Director of Development for the City of St. Petersburg 

The St. Pete Pier may be a masterpiece of architecture and engineering, but it’s also a public works project that needed approval from the city of St. Petersburg and is made possible because of synergistic efforts between city officials and the architects, contractors, and others putting their boots on the ground (and in the water) to help build the Pier. Chris Ballestra is a city leader who is working hand in hand with many others to help turn the new St. Pete Pier from an imaginative concept to a long-awaited reality. Ballestra, who has long ties to the community, says the project is the culmination of many long days and nights working with citizens, community leaders, design teams, and others to arrive at a landmark the community can be proud of. 

Q. What can you say about where the new St. Pete Pier is today, both in terms of its physical scale and how the project has come along so far? 

A. First of all, it’s an astounding project when you look at the history and the vision of a project such as this. The amount of help we have had not just from the city of St. Pete but Pinellas County has been very helpful as well. All of the hands and the great minds that have touched the project have really put together a flexible platform that will go to the end of the 21st century. So, we couldn’t be more pleased with how things are going, and we’ve still got a long way to go, but we can see the finish line. So, we’re very happy with how things are going at the moment.

Q. How has the collaboration unfolded between the local government and the private firms involved with the Pier? 

Chris Ballestra, City of St. PetersburgA. I’m very proud of our team. We have such tremendous assets both within the city and all the consultants that have participated in this project. We’ve got four architects, dozens of consulting engineers and professionals out there working on it. It’s special, and I think everybody knows that. And now that some of the heavy lifting is done, the pilings are driven, the decking is done, you’ve seen the buildings up on top of the platforms starting to come together. It’s real, people can see it, and it reinforces that sense of pride that we are just blessed to be a part of history here.

Q. What type of landmark do you hope the new St. Pete Pier becomes for the community? 

A. While it’s an active park, there is some commercial activity at the Pier. But it’s still a very active pedestrian-friendly environment. At the end of the day that’s what makes St. Pete so special is its waterfront, and this is going to buttress all of the other assets we have downtown. Even if you were to cut that number in half, it’s an astounding amount of impact for the community. Locals, tourists, visitors, and the beautiful part of the Pier is it’s been designed in a flexible way so that for people of all ages, it doesn’t cost anything to go to the Pier. A tagline we used for many years is, ‘whether you have 50 cents or $50 in your pocket, you can have a great day at the Pier.’ 

Q. Many will remember the objections from some in the public and business community to tearing down the old Pyramid Pier and building anew. How did St. Petersburg overcome these and other early challenges to provide a solution that so many have come to embrace?  

A. I think of critical importance is listening. We worked very hard to listen to the community. It was a challenge on the front end because there were such disparate opinions from everybody, particularly local folks in St. Petersburg. Many have different opinions on what the Pier not just means to the community but should mean for the next 100 years. So, that’s normal for folks not to agree, but I think getting past that hurdle to arrive at a design that took the best ideas of things that everybody had put out on the table and all of our different design teams had put out on the table really put us in a position that the community no longer discusses ‘What does it look like?’. What they want to know now is ‘When can I go out there?’ We turned that corner a couple years ago, and that was really refreshing, frankly, people working together and moving forward and again we’ve been very inclusive. Groups that were against things the city had done tied to the Pier and Pier design, we sat down with them and listened very closely, and I feel comfortable we’ve got a product that is going to make this entire community very proud when we open this very shortly. 

Kanika Tomalin, Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg 

Overseeing a project as large as the new St. Pete Pier isn’t easy, and many of the challenges associated with planning for and building this massive landmark have come through the mayor’s office. Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin has worked strategically with Mayor Rick Kriseman and many others working within the framework of the city, countless individuals and organizations in the community, and the firms involved with the project to help ensure the St. Pete Pier is a success. Deputy Mayor Tomalin shares some of her thoughts on the importance of this project and what it means for the community here. 

Q. What does the Pier project mean to you, and what do you hope it offers the community you serve? 

A. The St. Pete Pier is a generational project that is a transformational recreation opportunity for the City of St. Petersburg. It is a wonderful gift to our community and visitors, from our community, conceived and designed with our beautiful city and its people in mind. An extension of our iconic waterfront, the Pier will amplify the excitement of our downtown center with entertainment, stunning views, world-class art, great restaurants and family activities that range from water fun to innovative play. 
 
Q. Why are you inspired to work on the Pier? 

The Pier will serve as a great connector for people from every corner of our community, while also welcoming visitors to St. Pete in an innovative way that reflects our city’s soul. It is the professional opportunity of a lifetime to help lead the process that is bringing the Pier to life. It will serve the people of our city far into the future in ways not yet imagined. The thoughtful way it has been designed ensures the people of St. Pete will make and celebrate many memories at every stage of life: play dates to prom, first concerts to first dances at weddings will all unfold at the Pier. It is an honor and privilege to steward this project on behalf of St. Pete’s citizens.  
 
Q. What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered with this project and what are a few innovative ways you’ve overcome them? 
 
St. Pete Deputy Mayor Kanika TomalinA. The complexities and nuances of the Pier are significant in scope and number. St. Pete's citizens dreamed big and bold when visioning the Pier and we’ve worked hard to bring that vision to life with innovative practices that exceed expectations while upholding our uncompromised standard of excellence in service. Many of the realities of the Pier project could not be fully contemplated or mitigated prior to actual construction. We’ve had to carefully balance public expectations and feedback, resource constraints, unforeseen complications and the rising costs of construction over time, all while continuing to effectively and efficiently operate everything else that is unfolding in our city; this includes the construction of another generational project: the new St. Pete Police Headquarters and Emergency Operations Center. We have been able to address challenges as they emerge by remaining focused on the strategic imperatives of the project, employing flexible and innovative solutions, and confidently calling on the subject matter expertise of the committed servant leaders on our team; empowering them to execute ably in the face of challenge, no matter how daunting. 

Q. What does the new Pier mean for the city in terms of new jobs, and retail and commerce opportunities? Are there any big events in the works to be held at Pier once it opens?
 
A. The city will create many new opportunities, including jobs, retail, and commerce. We were pleased to be able to include our commitment to opportunity creation in our contracts with vendors at the Pier. Specifically, we’ve included incentivizing provisions for job creation and career growth with one of the main restaurants, with a targeted focus on residents in South St. Pete. There will be a series of celebratory events once the new St. Pete Pier opens. 

Q. What do you hope all who use the Pier in the future will enjoy most about it? 

A. I hope that everyone who enjoys the St. Pete Pier in the future is able to see themselves and their family in it. Existentially, the Pier is a celebration of St. Pete’s people and all that is great about our city: marketplace, art, food, music. All will come together in a unique way to create an engaging experience that is designed by the user, each time he or she comes.

Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

 Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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