ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - At the end of May, St. Petersburg's Pier — a 40-year-old structure that features a building that looks like an inverted, cubist pyramid painted in primary colors — will close.
The candle shops, flip-flop stores and few restaurants inside will shut their doors, leaving hundreds jobless.
What will happen after that is anybody's guess.
St. Petersburg's City Council voted 5 to 3, to wait two more weeks before making a decision. Council members said they needed more time to review a report on the design before they approved giving an architect $1.5 million to proceed.
"We're going to move ahead even if it's by inches. You take a step forward and one back, but you keep moving the ball," said Mayor Bill Foster.
In 2010, the council voted to replace the current pier, which is along the city's waterfront and near the middle of downtown. City officials say the current structure is unsound and have voted to replace it with a $50 million modernist structure dubbed "The Lens."
A majority of the city council and some residents aim for demolition of the current Pier by 2014.
But fans of the structure, including many environmentalists and citizens worried about spending taxpayer money, have argued that the issue of closing the structure and building a new one should be put to voters. Some folks simply don't like the proposed Lens, which includes a crossed-loop pathway and an 86-foot-high, crown-like structure overlooking the water.
Most city leaders, including the mayor, are attempting to push forward with the project. Added to the mix: a TV infomercial salesman who has started a political action committee because he loves the proposed structure and an aggressive group armed with petitions to take the issue to voters.
It's the most contentious debate to hit normally sleepy St. Pete in decades.
"My biggest concern is that it will be boarded up, right in the middle of downtown," said Anthony Sullivan, a St. Petersburg resident and TV pitchman for brands such as OxyClean, who is a vociferous proponent of the replacement pier. "We can't afford to have a boarded up building."
Yet as the weeks go on, and as opposition mounts, it's looking like Sullivan's nightmare scenario could be a reality while the factions squabble.
The property and the building are owned by the city and officials have ordered the building closed as of May 31. Businesses inside have made plans to move out.
A group called Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg has gathered 21,000 signatures in support of a referendum asking voters whether they want to cancel the city's contract with the architect of The Lens. The signatures haven't yet been presented to the city and a date for a referendum hasn't been set.
But some councilors are wary of spending more money when the entire project could be put before voters.
"We argue that if this were our own money we would not spend this until the determination of the referendum is known," said Bud Risser, one of the Concerned Citizens organizers.
There are also other uncertainties.
The city must also win permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Southwest Florida Water Management District before demolishing the Pier and it also must comply with county regulations governing docks and marinas.
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