Marine Discovery Features in New Pier Designs
It is St. Petersburg’s sunny climate and surrounding rich aquatic beauty and resources that are fundamental in making our city so special. Early city leaders appreciated this and were pivotal in moving our community in the direction of both a world-class destination for tourists and a great place to live which lasts to this day. The first Pier Task Force noted that a new Pier should “speak to our city’s beautiful aquatic setting,” and that the “architecture of the main building should reflect our history and unique identity as a City” and be “a worthy symbol of our great City.” The Pier has served as St. Petersburg’s principal architectural symbol since the ‘Million Dollar’ Pier was built in 1926, followed by the Inverted Pyramid in 1973. Ideally, the New Pier will reflect our city’s uniqueness and special sense of place. This should not only be true of the New Pier’s architecture, but also its functions.
The second task force – called the Working Group – recommended as a requirement for the New Pier “an environmental education element with the potential for an interactive marine discovery center.” It also stated that the City should engage the ‘Ocean Team’ of marine science experts to further develop this, and that “Designs must consider the unique water and environmental conditions of the site, and the opportunity to enhance the public’s awareness of the Gulf of Mexico with a focus on the Tampa Bay Estuary.” The Ocean Team, formerly known as the Bayboro Marine Science District, is a collegium of approximately 20 marine institutions located in St. Petersburg. It is the largest marine science group in the Southeast.Visions of what this might entail were described in an earlier Northeast Journal article (Sep/Oct 2014 at northeastjournal.org/archives). Since then, eight New Pier design concepts were submitted to the city and seven of these remain under consideration. Four seek to re-purpose the 60-foot-high Inverted Pyramid. Of the three that do not, ‘Alma’ builds a new observation tower (perhaps up to 150 feet high) and dance hall/event space in its place. Blue Pier provides for a 43-foot-high sloped lawn with a shade canopy which doubles as a ‘marine screen.’ Pier Park uses the foundation and stair cores of the Pyramid, and adds a new 123-foot-high pier building. All concepts address the environmental/marine discovery theme in some regard. The initial concepts submitted in some cases included features that could not be implemented within the $46 million budget. This article examines the environmental/marine discovery elements of the concepts that may be funded within the available budget. There are, of course, many other criteria for judging the concepts, but this focus is on the environmental and marine discovery requirement. It is also noted that at this stage in the process, ‘design concepts’ are being considered, not complete designs. The design concept ultimately selected will be further modified and enhanced, but major features will remain. Concepts need to be judged on the basis of their major features, rather than lesser issues that could be reasonably remedied.
Generally, the designs address the environmental/marine discovery theme through the allocation of dedicated space for education and exhibits and/or the creation of new habitat. All of the designs make provision for fishing, although some more extensively than others. A few address use of solar power, notably RePier with its Solar Plaza at Spa Beach. But while creating space to accommodate photovoltaic cells, the cells themselves are not included in the budget.
Marine Discovery CenterFive of the concepts specify space for possible exhibit or lab space for an environmental education/marine discovery feature. These include Pier Park, Destination St. Pete Pier, Discover Bay Life, Prospect Pier, and RePier. Pier Park offers an educational center with both a ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ classroom. This mid-pier venue includes an enclosed space (dry) for educational exhibits and instruction about local ecology. The wet classroom is a large cut-out in the surface of the pier bridge. It contains an amphitheater that steps down to the water. The Destination Design Team consulted with the St. Petersburg marine science community and state that their design for the interior of the Pyramid “allows for a creative, unique” marine exhibit space. Up to three enclosed floors of the redesigned Pyramid could be used for an “environmental education element/interactive marine discovery center,” including space for the Secrets of the Sea ‘Science on a Sphere’ globe discussed in our previous article. A related feature of interest is the installation of a glass floor on the first level, enabling visitors to see the bay below. Should the space not be used for a marine discovery center, it is generic in nature and could be used for other purposes. The Discover Bay Life design team also allocates open-air space in the Pyramid for a Marine Discovery Center, however, current funding will only allow a ‘Marine Observation Center’ with “limited interpretive graphics and artwork.” RePier suggests possible future use of the Pyramid for a marine discovery center funded through private investment. The Blue Pier design does not include dedicated space for a marine discovery exhibit, but it does include at the pierhead lawn and adjacent amphitheater a huge marine screen that could project marine life from the bay, the Gulf, or proposed new lagoons, along with interpretive signage. It is proposed the screen and its content would be managed by a local marine science institution. The Prospect design images suggest multi-purpose enclosed space within the Pyramid for a possible marine diversity exhibit and a virtual aquarium.
Native LandscapingIt has been said that the built environment offers nothing to rival the magnetism of the natural one. Beyond the possible use of space for marine exploration exhibits, what do the pier designs offer to actually enhance a marine discovery experience, integrating ecology into the upland and pier? Several proposals call for creating or enhancing the natural flora and fauna habitat. For example Pier Park calls for the creation of a ‘Coastal Thicket’ boardwalk with plantings of cabbage palm, sand white oak, live oak, and saw palmetto. The thicket would vary in width from 50 to 75 feet, and run along the northern edge of the upland, creating a native upland maritime hammock. The Prospect design includes a small live oak savannah and palm grove south of 2nd Avenue. Alma provides a shade arbor south of 2nd Avenue comprised of native Florida hardwoods along with several ornamental garden areas. RePier proposes a ‘Vertical Garden’ of hanging native plants in the Pyramid. Blue Pier is perhaps the most ambitious design with respect to flora. It seeks to partially restore the original eco-friendly habitat to the upland, and includes the extensive planting of mangroves along the shores of one of two newly created lagoons, and also South Florida native gumbo-limbo trees south of the pier entrance.
SeagrassA number of designs seek to enhance the seagrass surrounding the pier and along the upland. Seagrass provides food, habitat, and nursery areas for a myriad of adult and juvenile vertebrates and invertebrates. As stated in the Pier Park proposal, “The concept of a living ecosystem integrated with the proposed pier structures with seagrass enhancement provides many ecological benefits, including water quality improvements and marine flora and fauna habitat, as well as improving shoreline stabilization.” All of the proposals benefit seagrass merely by reducing the size of the current pier footprint over the water, thus allowing more sunlight necessary for growth to reach the bottom. Pier Park reduces destructive wave action caused by storms and power boats in the vicinity of Spa Beach, and permits the adjacent seagrass bed to expand naturally with the building of an artificial reef and breakwater, starting at the pier bridge and running the length of the beach. Blue Pier anticipates the proposed lagoons will “support the natural recruitment of seagrass” and help triple the amount of seagrass on the overall site. RePier states, “If piles from the current pier are left in place, they will become home to a myriad of wildlife. Bay-level and below-bay-level shelves can be attached to provide growing places for mangrove trees and seagrasses. In subtle ways, RePier will become a richer environment for bird watching, fishing, and marine observation.”
Reef BuildingUse of the existing piles for reef building is included in two concepts. Blue Pier proposes saving a portion of the old pier pilings to create an artificial reef and reef-viewing area on the new pier bridge. These would be enhanced by the addition of structures which will provide surface areas containing limestone for the establishment of marine flora and fauna. Artificial reef balls would be added. Pier Park proposes to use remnant pilings at its wet classroom, in addition to the creation of the new artificial reef breakwater off Spa Beach. The breakwater will help protect the beach from erosion as well as protect the nearby seagrass beds.
Another major feature of three proposals is the reshaping of Spa Beach. Destination St. Pete would return the sand above the current seawall and triple the existing beach size. Pier Park removes the seawall at the northeast edge of the beach and greatly expands it. Blue Pier plans to extend the beach west to create a dune landscape using the sand removed from new lagoons. The bulkhead (the wall separating the park from the beach) will be removed and replaced with a naturally vegetated ‘coastal dune community’ and a ‘living shoreline.’ Living shorelines provide ecological benefits including water quality improvements and marine flora and fauna habitat as well as improving shoreline stabilization. Dune over-walks will be designed to provide pedestrian access to the beach. The dunes will provide habitat for native plants and birds, and “a more ecologically sensitive and aesthetically pleasing approach for storm protection over the existing hard structures.”
LagoonsSeveral references have been made to Blue Pier’s lagoons. These are certainly one of the most dramatic environmental features of the design concepts. Blue Pier proposes to create over three acres of new lagoons on the upland, a landscape or habitat that existed there prior to the land being filled in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The lagoons will be much like the Weedon State Preserve just north of the city, but weaving together natural and more urban features. Aside from the recreational boating aspects, “these lagoons are expected to attract and support a variety of native water dependent plant and animal species that typically inhabit coastal waters.” The South Lagoon will be larger and more traditional in its landscape. The North Lagoon will be populated mostly by mangroves on either side. The interconnected lagoons will be tidally linked to the bay through two openings along the west side of the north lagoon, a single culvert on the east side of the north lagoon, and an opening on the south side of the southern lagoon. It will be possible then, for example, to kayak from near the mouth of the Vinoy Basin to the Central Yacht Basin.
The City contracted with an independent expert to assess the permitability and feasibility of the design concepts. Based on the Selection Committee’s action to allow the current concepts to move forward in the process, it may be presumed these concepts have a reasonable chance of overcoming any permitability or feasibility issues, and being constructed within a reasonable period of time.Al Hine, professor at the USF St. Pete College of Marine Science, is enthusiastic about a marine program at the Pier. “It has been said there are three jewels in the St. Pete crown… health, arts, and marine science. We have enough aquariums. Let’s think outside the fish tank. Let’s bring out the marine technology.” Walter Jaap, recently retired from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission where he served as senior project leader of the Coral Reef Studies Program, also embraces the idea of a marine discovery program at the Pier. But, he cautions that, “We can’t expect to accomplish a full marine discovery program right away, and it costs a lot of money to maintain a marine educational program. The St. Petersburg Ocean Team will likely do its fair share but more will be needed to sustain a high-quality program.”
Taken as a whole, the Pier design concepts are very receptive to inclusion of environmental education and marine discovery features in the New Pier. Several have redesigned the Pyramid building with a marine theme in the forefront, although the space described may be used for other purposes as well. A few concepts have gone beyond the allocation of space by seeking to enrich the ecology of the pier and the upland itself, shaping it in a manner that may be better understood by the public. Whatever design is ultimately selected, it is likely to have significant environmental and marine features. It will then take the St. Petersburg marine community to lead the way in activating the potential of these features and making this dimension of the New Pier a success, and it is understood they are ready to do so. But, help will need to come from the greater St. Petersburg community as well. It was that community which made our outstanding university marine research program happen. The same effort will be required for a successful and enduring marine discovery feature at the New Pier.
What do we really want in a New Pier? Can we have a purpose beyond amusement, recreation, and economics as important as these are? Can the New Pier, in a larger sense, enrich our appreciation and understanding of our city’s special ecosystem and our sense of place? Will it contribute to our quality of life in all its aspects? Hopefully our current vigorous public pier debate will result in an even greater icon than what we now have – whether built or natural, or a blending of the two. Hopefully our city will be the better for it.