RIGHT OF CENTER | Landscape Architecture Magazine
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Angular and lean, the new St. Pete Pier in St. Petersburg, Florida, folds its way for 1,380 feet from land to water. Under a bright, hot sun, even 10 feet may be just a few too many, Alternative Medicine.
The pier’s many shifts, crossings, and cantilevers, made possible by more than 400 concrete pylons, make the journey seem rather effortless, however. This new addition to St. Petersburg’s urban infrastructure is more of a networked arrangement of spaces than a single object, the latter a fatal flaw that compromised the previous pier and contributed to its obsolescence and eventual demolition.
Subtle transitions allow the new pier’s architecture and landscape to take turns and communicate in a cohesive language while surfaces move up and down and laterally in plan and section. The roughly 3,000 feet from the beginning of the Pier District, which begins downtown, to the Pier Head building at the end aren’t all visible at once. Instead, the trip is divided into a series of manageable segments with plenty of respite along the way. Residents and tourists of all ages move along shared walks that begin with gateway elements consisting of an elaborate pergola, an outdoor market, and mature plantings preserved from the previous pier. Visitors quickly transition from downtown speed to park speed. Free trams share a curbless space and pass by varied programs that promote buy-local culture, public art that changes dramatically at night, sculptural play areas that integrate earthwork with native plantings, and a central civic plaza whose grand expanse and water features accommodate programming large and small.
New restaurants and pavilions allow one to pause, eat, listen to live music, people watch, get close to the water, and maybe even help sample it and learn something new about the bay at a nonprofit-run ecological discovery center. The broad palette of experiences leads to the Pier Head, where fishing is allowed and where beer is served (and in demand)—even on Mondays at 11:00 a.m.—at the rooftop bar. One may, in fact, decide to never get to the Pier Head, and the experience would not be the lesser for it given all the new options.
The attraction to and reliance on the edge where land meets water in Tampa Bay was reinforced by St. Petersburg’s original urban plan, which made the pier’s importance to the city both crucial and inevitable. The first platted plan of the city, drafted in 1888, shows broad 100-foot-wide rights-of-way, organized into a regular grid that covered about two-thirds the size of New York’s Central Park in an urban plan that one would have expected for a much larger city. The only interruptions to this rectangular order were a lake, a park, and a pier.
Reservoir Lake, later known as Mirror Lake, provided the city with an essential spring-fed water supply. Williams Park, initially a wily vegetated grove named after one of the city’s founders, became the urban center. The crisp geometry of a single pier, prominently shown in the 1888 plan with its cardinal axis running east–west, however, underscored its importance as an essential artery connecting city and bay. The built structure jutted 3,000 feet into the water and carried the city’s first rail cars. The eponymous Railroad Pier lasted more than 50 years until it was torn down in 1952. Six other piers followed, each with its own claim to St. Petersburg history and identity, before today’s Pier Park opened on July 6, 2020. As a prominent symbol since the city’s founding, it’s difficult to think of St. Petersburg without the pier and the pier without St. Petersburg.
The city’s subtropical surroundings at the time of its founding also played a role in its urban form. The dense ecologies of saw palmetto, slash pine, and cabbage palmettos nearby, and the irregular, water-filled pockmarks of a karst landscape only a few miles away, looked nothing like the city’s Cartesian plan. To city founders who came from as far as St. Petersburg, Russia; Detroit; and Philadelphia, the urban plan must have conveyed an aspirational stability that augured a prosperous future where its connection to the water would be essential. Both Pier District design teams incorporated some of these native ecologies and geomorphologies into their plans, not only to ensure the landscape’s longevity in a tough coastal setting, but also to celebrate it as part of the city’s regional identity.
The Pier District, which is composed of the new Pier Park fronting Tampa Bay and the Pier Approach that leads to it, begins at the eastern edge of Straub Park, a leafy, 10-acre greenway that houses the city’s Museum of Fine Arts and sits on the edge of the city’s downtown waterfront. The Pier District creates a series of interconnected outdoor spaces where the public has an opportunity to speed up, slow down, and stop. The linear experience that one would expect from any other pier is instead one of ample diagonals, grade changes, and shifts in framed views that expand the experience in every direction.
All age groups, ethnicities, and athletic inclinations seem comfortable here. Despite the many activities and people that the Pier District accommodates, the presence of security staff and other public safety accoutrements that are part of almost every public space today seem to fade to the background. Couples lean against one another to catch water views, wedding tents are assembled and disassembled, grandmas keep a watchful eye on nearby tricycles, young parents seem to have enough room to let kids run around without major consequences, and they all seem to fit right in without getting in each other’s way at a destination that asks for no reservations or entrance fees. The district seems to provide for everyone and is a welcome counterpoint to the quiet and more traditional if soporific Straub Park that frames its entrance. Having had an opportunity to experience St. Petersburg before and after the new pier, its social, economic, and environmental center seems to have shifted east toward the water with this new destination.
In 2014, Ken Smith, FASLA, and Rob Rogers, the principals of New York-based Ken Smith Workshop and Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers, respectively, teamed up with the Tampa office of ASD | SKY to enter the competition to replace the previous pier with their winning Pier Park design. The second key part of the Pier District plan was the 20-acre Pier Approach, led by Barbara Wilks, FASLA, the principal of W Architecture and Landscape Architecture, also based in New York. Wilks, who teamed up with St. Petersburg’s Wannemacher Jensen Architects, connects the city’s edge to Smith’s and Rogers’s Pier Park to the east. The complementary projects transform the Pier District and render it unrecognizable from its former self.
Early iterations of the pier tried to balance the recreational and the functional. Though it met the practical needs of accommodating the flow of goods as part of the city’s first rail line, the pier and its waterfront quickly became a place for leisure. Postcards memorialized the pier’s bathhouses, ballrooms, recreational fishing decks, and civic events that welcomed thousands and defined the St. Pete Pier as a reliably exciting destination. The recreational amenities eventually edged out the loading docks and warehouses, even if the needs of rail cars and private vehicle access remained.
Versions of the pier have come and gone, celebrating the spirit, economic aspirations, and technologies of their time. Hundreds of incandescent lights earned the Electric Pier (1906–1913) its name. The open-air deck of the Million Dollar Pier (1926–1967) fit thousands and served as the setting for lavish celebrations. The Inverted Pyramid (1973–2013) that preceded today’s Pier Park was boldly iconoclastic, designed by the architect William Harvard to maximize unobstructed water views at the ground level, much like the Pier Park design team would be expected to do nearly 50 years later.
An open ground plane was an aspiration that ran its course at the Inverted Pyramid. The temptation to clutter it with kiosks, signs, vehicular access, parking, fish-cleaning stations, and retail proved too hard to resist. What was once a striking architectural object slowly became crowded by a collection of smaller things at its base. Its story is perhaps cautionary given the propensity to look at the open space around carefully designed architecture as low-hanging fruit for misguided retail retrofits. The harsh and unforgiving marine environment took its toll on the Inverted Pyramid soon after its construction, requiring ever-increasing upkeep that created ongoing structural and financial challenges despite renovations. As iconic as the Inverted Pyramid was when it was first built, it slowly became the proverbial cake left out in the rain that no amount of marketplace consulting could save. It was demolished in 2015.
The design of the two new projects—the Pier Park and the Approach—that together make the new St. Pete Pier District was the result of two different selection processes that took place at different times after a previous competition faltered. In the end, the 20-acre Pier Approach cost $20 million, and the 12-acre Pier Park cost $56 million, with a total price tag of $93 million that included ancillary projects such as new seawalls and underground utility infrastructure for the district. Together, the Pier Approach and Pier Park create an armature of spaces that is a departure from the historic linear pier’s singular axis.
The success or failure of an undertaking of that scale and civic import would predictably depend on the ability of potentially disparate landscape teams to work together. Both design teams underwent a rigorous and extended review process with heightened public scrutiny given the history of a previous pier competition, which granted a unanimous win to Michael Maltzan Architecture in 2012 but eventually rejected it in 2013 by community referendum. Given that false start, whatever came from a subsequent competition would likely be seen as a vindication or a fool’s errand.
The integration of substantial public art components, the largest of which was Janet Echelman’s Bending Arc, with an impressive footprint of nearly 50,000 square feet, came after schematic plans were completed for the Pier District. The challenging chronology hardly matters now, judging from how seamlessly the sculpture is integrated by the W Architecture and Landscape Architecture team. Colorful Adirondack chairs are moved about the space below it, and circular berms rise and fall subtly from the lawn to become seating, karst-inspired land art, and unintentional bicycle ramps that probably weren’t expected to be among the mix of planned uses.
Echelman’s ephemeral net hangs delicately overhead, its changing shadows casting softly on the ground during the day and its dramatic colors shifting spectacularly at night. The sculpture was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s words “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” and refers to the role of Spa Beach (on the Pier District’s northern edge) in the 1957 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the rights of all citizens to use the beach without discrimination. The pier’s symbolic and literal embrace of inclusivity mirrors the city’s advances elsewhere on this front given the discriminatory legacy of its waterfront parks and piers. The Million Dollar Pier and thousands of green benches that were once a part of St. Petersburg’s public landscape, for example, were unwelcome symbols of segregation to its Black citizens. Now, for the first time in the city’s history—more than 100 years—two Black women are serving on St. Petersburg’s city council, and the St. Pete Pier has become a proud symbol of inclusivity for the city.
W Architecture and Landscape Architecture’s Pier Approach strives to create spaces for all, and the project carefully integrates public and vehicular access to parking areas that are accessible yet largely screened from view. The Pier Approach project includes a stormwater management strategy that overlays paths, bridges, swales, and ponds to encourage wandering and exploration, a cantilevering pedestrian deck where egrets, herons, and ducklings can now be observed, and a popular shaded playground that is nested into a berm and, judging from the decibels of a few site visits, is quite successful. New shade elements are most dramatically on view at the entrance Market Plaza and Pavilions, where a solar canopy defines the space. Existing oaks that suffered through years of soil compaction in the former parking areas are given a new life on the north side of the Pier Approach, where a ferry terminal is planned. Large circular retaining walls protect their roots while doubling as seat walls. The Pier Approach sets the stage for Pier Park to the east while keeping the consistency of the rugged material palette of concrete, metal, wood, and native plantings of both projects and the geometry of diagonals that links them.
Pier Park’s winning move to eliminate cars from the pier was a bold departure from all previous pier iterations. Highly controversial, the move nearly caused the team to be eliminated, they said, and the risky decision was berated by the public for being insensitive to visitors looking for easy access to the Pier Head. “The tram was a good response to that…it was complicated to figure out how to not have curbs [for fire trucks and emergency vehicles] and make it feel narrow and shared,” says Ken Smith. “[The city] did have a design to put a traffic circle,” adds Wilks. “Luckily it was also more expensive.” The other two finalist schemes [ALMA/Alfonso Architects, Inc., and Destination St. Pete Pier/St. Pete Design Group] both kept cars.
While the convenience of being able to drive to the end might seem like an obvious advantage, it would have meant negotiating and interrupting an otherwise panoramic experience of the water, free from the unpredictability of drivers. The argument for cars is hard to understand today when one sees people of all ages using the entire length on weekends and weekdays and exceeding all expectations of user counts. “We forget how much we have advanced in the last six years societally about cars and shared spaces,” says Rob Rogers. According to City Architect Raul Quintana, Pier Park is on track to far exceed the Inverted Pyramid’s visitation record, with almost 69,000 guest visits during opening week alone and despite the COVID-19 pandemic’s challenges.
The beginning of the pier where the ground starts to peel up and over Tampa Bay is anchored by a space called the Tilted Lawn, which has a dramatic oculus cutout and a grouping of large, hand-operated umbrellas. The lawn accomplishes multiple goals through its monumentality. Not only does it elevate the ground plane to create a vantage point in an otherwise flat surface that defines most piers (and Florida), but it is large enough to accommodate the oculus whose shadows animate the space underneath throughout the day and create one of the pier’s more dramatic if minimalist stopping points. As the backdrop of two fountain splash pads with angular shapes that rise from the ground to the west, the Tilted Lawn works at the urban scale of the pier’s central plaza by creating an edge that complements a broad flight of stairs leading to Spa Beach to the north, a restaurant pavilion to the west, and a vegetated area known as the Cultural Grove to the south. The water features serve as playgrounds as well as angular geometric forms that foreground the horizon and serve as a counterpoint to the billowing passing clouds. When dry, the fountains become land art, their long triangular forms tapering to the ground. The exterior faces of the fountain’s perimeter berms are pigmented to define the grade change around them, which creates a noticeable boundary that highlights their footprint and provides a visual cue for the downslope that helps people navigate its edges.
Beyond the central plaza, Ken Smith Workshop’s overwater planters called Coastal Thickets on the northern edge of the pier provide a dramatic and refreshing pause that immerses pedestrians in native ecological habitat. Consisting of four 30-foot-wide segments that stretch for almost a quarter mile, the elevated (and labeled) planting beds constructed on structure over water incorporate a zigzag path that at times extends over the edge and provides another key vantage point to view the city and understand the ecology of the region. Had they been smaller, perhaps they would be more vulnerable to the elements, but their sheer scale has so far ensured a lushness whose green is a pleasing contrast to the pier’s many concrete surfaces.
At the Pier Head, the building at the very end of the St. Pete Pier designed by Rogers, a 30-foot cantilevered roof floats over an equally large terrace as if it were an urban-scale porch that serves as lookout, event space, and dining destination. The building accommodates a breezeway and stairs in the middle of the core, which lets in a constant breeze. The structure prioritizes panoramic views to both bay and city, east and west, and slightly twists its axis to emphasize a wider view that doesn’t just look back at the pier’s main alignment but includes views of the beach to the north and a broader swath of a city that is now Florida’s fifth largest since its founding more than 130 years ago.
The Pier Head building relies on a relationship to the lawn and event space at its base to complete the experience of the pier’s terminus. Fishing now happens on a generous deck on the east side of the building—an improvement from the previous pier, where visitors had to dodge anglers and stomach fish-cleaning stations before arriving at the end. Together, the landscape of the ground plane at the Pier Head creates flexible open spaces that can accommodate a few dozen or a few thousand.
Unlike previous iterations of the pier, the complementary language of landscape and architecture contends with the threats of climate change and storm surge while providing ample space for public gathering, whether it faces city or bay. Along the north side of the pier, a breakwater reef structure made of native lime rock and oyster shells dampens the erosional effects of onshore wave action and allows the natural formation of a sand beach. In a place where hurricanes continue to shape the ecologies and landforms of the region and are capable of carving gaps in barrier islands like one did in 1848, the new St. Pete Pier sets a standard for resilience in one of its more visible and popular public spaces. A prominent emblem of 21st-century urban infrastructure, the St. Pete Pier embraces the city’s primordial connection to the water as an opportunity and looks to shape the future of the region and beyond for many years to come.
Ken Smith, FASLA, Ken Smith Workshop
“I love all the big moves that we did, but what really makes them work is paying attention to the grading. I did most of the grading on the site, and I did it several times because it kept changing over time. When I’ve been teaching and practicing, it’s very common for landscape architecture practitioners to say grading is a real art form, and I believe that. Engineers do functional grading, but landscape architects do grading that is actually expressive of place. At St. Pete, the landscape is flat, so we had to pick up the grade a bit because the new pier is lifted up higher than the old pier for sustainability and storm surge reasons. We had a landform that is one elevation, and we had to lift the pier up to a higher elevation, so part of the plaza and the Tilted Lawn is about how you lift that up and do it in a way that is actually interesting and really expressive of creating spaces. It’s a little bit weird, but I was thinking of the French garden and André Le Nôtre, who would lift up terrains to change your perspective and perception of space.”
Barbara Wilks, FASLA, W Architecture and Landscape Architecture
“I’m really proud that we saved almost all of the trees and they are sitting in a landscape and really look like they belong there. We built an oak pine forest that is one of the habitats of Central Florida. We had a lot of pine, which people seem to like; providing that landscape was a nice contrast to the mostly hardscape of the pier, and people seem to enjoy it.
I’m pleasantly surprised that people adopted it. The client called and said they are doing drum circles on the lawn! It’s great as a landscape architect to design a place that people respond to and enjoy. The sculpture had a lot to do with it. We got people to the water’s edge—that was a big one. Combining the two sections and creating the circulation pattern that fit Rogers’s scheme, I think we did a good job on that. It really all works as one thing.”
Client The City of St. Petersburg, Florida.
Prime Consultant W Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Brooklyn, New York. Architect of Record Wannemacher Jensen Architects, St. Petersburg, Florida. Civil and Structural Engineers Kimley-Horn, St. Petersburg, Florida. Playground Consultant Earthscape, Wallenstein, Ontario, Canada. Lighting Consultant/Structural Engineer for Art Arup, New York. Electrical Engineers and Security VoltAir, Tampa, Florida.
Design Architect Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers, Houston and New York. Executive Architect ASD | SKY, Tampa, Florida. Design Landscape Architect Ken Smith Workshop, New York. Executive Landscape Architect Booth Design Group, St. Petersburg, Florida. Lighting Design Renfro Design Group, New York. Design Structural Engineering and Marine Engineering Thornton Tomasetti, Tampa, Florida. Structural and MEPS Engineering TLC Engineering Solutions, Tampa, Florida. Civil, Marine, and Environmental Consultants Stantec, Tampa, Florida. Coastal Engineer Humiston and Moore Engineers, Naples, Florida. Geotechnical Engineer Terracon, Tampa, Florida. Fire Protection and Life Safety Code Consultant FP&C Consultants, Inc., Kansas City, Missouri. Environmental Permitting Landon Moree, Palm Harbor, Florida. Construction Manager Skanska, Tampa, Florida.
Roberto J. Rovira, ASLA, is a landscape architect and educator based in Miami, where he chairs the landscape architecture program at Florida International University and runs Studio Roberto Rovira.