St. Pete's New Pier Turns Page on the Past
Designers and builders are closing in on a happy ending to the city of St. Petersburg’s long-running saga to replace its former pier—known best for its inverted pyramid building—with something much more functionally useful.
Now, nearly 15 years since the project was first budgeted, more than 10 years after the launch of an ill-fated international design competition and roughly seven years since the city closed the old facility, contractors are just months away from completing the dramatically different replacement.
Despite the early twists and turns in the saga of the new pier, the resulting project has proceeded more smoothly since construction began in 2017, says John Curran, principal with ASD Architects and the overall project director.
“The beauty of the design is that it’s maintained every concept, which has really been fantastic,” he says.
A main driver of the design was to be “sensitive to the ecological system” of the area, which includes both Tampa Bay as well as sometimes scorching sunshine. The old facility, which featured a mostly empty lot with a long, unshaded road leading up to the inverted pyramid building, paid little attention to the latter, Curran says, with a complete lack of shaded areas making the experience “brutal” for visitors.
The sections were designed separately, with a partnership among W Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Wannemacher Jensen Architects responsible for the “pier approach,” the second section awarded.
Taking over from there was the design team for the pier itself, a partnership between ASD Architects, Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers and Ken Smith Landscape Architects.
Altogether, “instead of the destination being at the end,” says Curran, “there are a number of activities throughout this entire campus.”
The goal, then, was to “make sure that these two concepts merge together,” he says.
In all, the new facility will extend roughly 3,065 ft from its landside entrance to the end of the modest fishing pier, located on the easternmost section of the pier head building. In between, the emerging city park will be comprised of two sections, being built in separate contracts, both held by Skanska.
Unlike the old pier’s approach, the W Architecture/Landscape Architecture/Wannemacher Jensen team filled the area with numerous features, such as event spaces, a sloping tilted lawn that overhangs a waterside walkway below and an all-natural play area. A colorful, seemingly airborne sculpture comprised of engineered fiber tied together in knots, designed by artist Janet Echelman, will sprawl above an open lawn. The pavilion building, featuring concessions, provides more shade.
A parking area on the south of the park features solar photovoltaic car canopies provided by Duke Energy Florida that the city estimates will produce between 400 kW and 650 kW of electricity.
The work of the ASD/Rogers Partners/Ken Smith Landscape Architects team begins with a newly constructed beach, positioned behind breakwaters added just offshore for erosion protection.
Crews also built a new seawall, with the structure rising nearly 3.5 ft taller than the old one.
The pier structure extends out into the bay via a newly constructed 148,000-sq-ft concrete deck, supported on 426 concrete piles, that in turn supports a 2,000-sq-ft education center building and a three-story pier head building. It includes a 6,800-sq-ft restaurant and a 4,500-sq-ft rooftop observation deck.
A small fishing pier, built on caissons left in place from the old pier, extends east into Tampa Bay.
The first challenge in building the pier was finding and working around the existing pilings, says Chuck Jablon, Skanska’s project leader.
Early on, before Skanska began construction, demolition of the existing pier and its 1,195 16-in.-dia concrete piles was starting under a separate city contract. The plan called for the demolition contractor to cut the existing piles to 2 ft below the mud line. From the shallowest areas to the deepest, Jablon says, that required cutting down piles by between 4 ft and 15 ft each.
Jablon says it quickly became apparent that the Skanska team would need to know the location of each pile to engineer and ultimately build back the new pier head structure, which would in turn require installation of 425 new piles, each measuring 24 in. by 24 in.
Though not part of the original plan, Skanska scrambled to get to work on the task. The contractor hired George F. Young Inc. to locate and document all the existing pilings and ultimately document the as-built conditions for the design team. For much of the work, the subcontractor had to go out into the bay in a small boat to measure each piling.
Further, because the piles were located under the existing pier building and concrete deck, the contractors couldn’t use GPS to locate any of them, except the ones on the perimeter.
“Establishing each perimeter piling enabled us to establish grid lines, thus enabling us to locate and dimension the interior pilings,” Jablon explains. “It was an unbelievable feat.”
“We located and measured every single existing pile and gave that info to the architect and their engineers so they could locate the new piles and they wouldn’t be in conflict with the existing piles,” he says.
While the old concrete piles measured roughly 45 ft to 50 ft long, the new piles average nearly 75 ft in length. With a strength of 12,000 psi, the new piles are estimated to be about three times as strong as the old ones, which were in place for about 98 years.
Some piles were left uncut, such as those left above water near a floating dock near the education center and others that were left in place to support the new fishing pier.
One of the new park’s more striking elements—and a major engineering and construction challenge—is artist Echelman’s knotted fiber sculpture. A Tampa Bay native, Echelman has designed similar installations around the world, but this one reportedly will be her largest to date.
Titled “Bending Arc,” the undulating structure will sprawl more than 425 ft in width across an open lawn in the pier-approach section. Reaching a peak height of 76 ft, the colorful sculpture will be comprised of more than 180 miles of material, along with more than 1.5 million knots, according to Studio Echelman.
Near the first of the year, Skanska began erecting the sculpture, which will be held in place by four large, tapered pylons. Due to the tension of the sculpture, the pylons will require drilled-shaft foundations ranging in scope from 36 in. in diameter and 30 ft deep, to 66 in. in diameter and 40 ft deep, each tapering into a cone at the top. Due to the nature of the piece, crews will have to erect it in stages in order to allow the sculpture to stretch for roughly 30 days after the first lift, says Jablon.
The project’s biggest champion has been St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who helped shepherd the pier rehab in his first days in office.
“What makes the difference and what attracts people to St. Pete is quality of life, and that’s our park system,” Kriseman told ENR during a recent project tour. “This is going to be a huge draw.”
1/15/20 — This article was updated to correct information about the project's sculpture.