Editorial: St. Petersburg waterfront park wrong spot for Echelman art

Courtesy city of St. Petersburg
Rendering of Janet Echelman\u2019s proposed art piece during daylight at Spa Beach.
Courtesy city of St. Petersburg Rendering of Janet Echelman\u2019s proposed art piece during daylight at Spa Beach.
Published June 12 2018
Updated July 6 2018

This much is certain: Janet Echelman is a world-renowned artist whose captivating aerial sculptures are landmarks in cities around the world. St. Petersburg, as a prospering arts destination, would be a natural home for one of her colorful works. But a proposal to install an Echelman sculpture at the end of Spa Beach as part of the new $76 million St. Pete Pier is at odds with the city’s long-standing commitment to protecting and preserving the natural beauty of the downtown waterfront’s open parks.

The new Pier, now under construction and on track for a late 2019 opening, encompasses 26 acres stretching out into the water. In addition to the four-story building at the pier head, there will be a fishing deck, lawn for outdoor events, open air market and children’s play area with a splash pad. Spa Beach, a long-dormant stretch of green space jutting into the bay midway down the pier approach, will become more interactive. Plans include an expanded shoreline, kayak and paddleboard launch, which would be fine and complement the parks’ traditional uses. But they also include — if an ordinance change is approved for all of the additions — an Echelman sculpture soaring above the park area.

Stretching as much as 320 feet long, the $3 million project would be partially funded with $1.3 million in public money to pay for infrastructure, including engineering, support structures and lighting. Mayor Rick Kriseman has raised $1.5 million in pledges from private donors, and the city’s Public Arts Commission plans to contribute another $250,000. The amount of public money involved is not the primary concern. Echelman’s sculptures are expensive acquisitions, and there is a legitimate case for spending public money on public art. It’s even better when private donors step up as partners. The problem with this project is its proposed location.

For more than 100 years, St. Petersburg has fiercely guarded its publicly owned waterfront that covers
7 miles from Coffee Pot Bayou to Lassing Park. The principle behind that legacy is preservation. Not development, not added amenities but savoring the waterfront as a priceless asset unto itself that the public can use and view and enjoy. Regardless of the cachet in adding an Echelman piece, its presence on Spa Beach would be a breach of that longstanding commitment — which has been supported and promoted by the Times editors and its editorial pages for more than a century.

The sculpture can’t be built on Spa Beach without an ordinance changing the definitions of "active" and "passive" parks, and converting the beach to an active one. The City Council has passed the ordinance on first reading and is scheduled to hold a final public hearing Thursday. Council members should keep in mind recent history and residents’ consistent rejection of substantial changes to the waterfront. Plans for a downtown ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays at the site of Al Lang Stadium fizzled in 2008 amid a public backlash. A proposal to allow a private hotel and conference center near the Mahaffey Theater was removed from the city’s Downtown Waterfront Master Plan in 2015. Even the current Pier plans once included a third restaurant that was removed over concerns about too much commercial activity along the water.

Of course, this sculpture would not be as unsuitable as another large building along the waterfront. But it would be out of scale, out of place and outside the general parameters that have preserved the waterfront for generations and made it the envy of cities across the nation. St. Petersburg would be an ideal home for an Echelman sculpture, giving tourists another reason to visit and locals another point of pride. Surely there are other areas in the city that would be better suited for such eye-catching art that could be used as a selling point.

But not the downtown waterfront, which sells itself and has a beauty no artist can match.