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Wednesday, May 22, 2019
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Grounded: St. Pete City Council rejects Echelman’s aerial artwork

ST. PETERSBURG — One of artist Janet Echelman’s colorful, lighted aerial sculptures will not fly over the downtown waterfront — at least not yet.

The City Council on Thursday night voted down a $1.5 million contract to build the art project, rejecting the signature piece of public artwork Mayor Rick Kriseman had long sought to add to the city’s new Pier District.

The 4-3 vote was made after a 3½-hour discussion, as residents lined up to speak out in support of the project and against plans to install the large, billowing net sculpture at Spa Beach, which is protected by the city charter.

The council, though, sent city staff back to the drawing board and asked for a report to determine whether the sculpture could be moved to another location in the Pier District, or reoriented at Spa Beach.


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Council members Gina Driscoll, Amy Foster, Steve Kornell and Ed Montanari all voted to reject the art project. Charlie Gerdes, Brandi Gabbard and Darden Rice voted for it. Member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman was not present for the discussion or vote.

About 30 people signed up to make their case to the council, speaking eloquently about nature and art. When council started its discussion, Driscoll signaled early on that she was going to vote no.

"Not because I don’t want this art," she said, adding that she felt there was room for a compromise about where the artwork could be installed.

Montanari explained why he voted against it.

"I know it’s vitally important for us to preserve what we were handed down," he said, recalling historic efforts to preserve the city’s scenic waterfront.

Gerdes said he was voting for the project because the chance to land one of Echelman’s sculptures, which have been installed across the world, would have cemented the city’s status as a center of art culture.

"I do not want to lose what to me is the unbelievable opportunity ...," he said. "I do not want to miss that moment."

Rice spoke of the century-old tradition of preserving the city’s waterfront parks. She said the goal of William Straub was to preserve green space, but that she believed it was meant to support human activity.

"To me, the fabric sculpture, the Echelman piece, if it is something that ultimately beckons our citizens, our visitors, young, old, black, white, if it beckons people to wander out into that part of Spa Beach ... to sit under the fabric, to think, reflect, connect ... I think that is consistent with the dream of what Straub had for St. Petersburg."

Kriseman echoed Rice’s words. He said he didn’t think that St. Petersburg’s founding fathers wanted its downtown parks to sit vacant.

Instead, he said, Echelman’s art would activate Spa Beach: "I think it’s an incredibly exciting possibility."

The day was won by opponents such as Marsha Kuhlman, who spoke before the vote. She lives downtown and co-founded a Facebook page, Save Spa Beach Park.

"Our organization has never been against the art. It’s location, location, location," said Phil Graham Jr., president of the Waterfront Parks Foundation, which has been fighting the Echelman project at Spa Beach.

Graham showed a PowerPoint that had a rendering his organization commissioned to illustrate what it believes would be an obstruction to downtown waterfront views.

Bob Carter, chair of the Community Planning and Preservation Commission, said the issue is one of the most important preservation matters he has encountered. Though he likes the Echelman piece, Carter said he was opposed to the Spa Beach location.

"The Public Arts Commission has been working on this for over two years," said Kathryn Howd, a commission member, adding that the Echelman sculpture would transform the urban park.

During Thursday’s meeting, B2 Communications principal Kyle Parks, who volunteered to boost the Echelman project, showed a video featuring supporters such as architect Tim Clemmons, Bob Devin Jones, artistic director of Studio@620, and well-known local artist Katee Tully.

"We are certainly hopeful that a resolution can be reached that can still bring a Janet Echelman sculpture to the Pier District," Parks said after the vote. "I think that in recent conversations that the city has had, the artist has shown a willingness to have some flexibility on things like size."

The controversy has pit those focused on protecting the city’s downtown waterfront parks against others who say parks should be part of a modern, urban environment.

Driscoll, whose district includes parts of downtown, summed up the problem hours earlier at a St. Petersburg Downtown Neighborhood Association meeting:

"This is an important decision that we will be making, because we have an opportunity to bring an extraordinary artist to our city. We also have a responsibility to preserve our waterfront and make sure that we plan in the best possible way what was intended by the founding fathers of our city.

"How do we get both, that’s the question. … How can we make sure that our waterfront and our arts tradition both move forward together in some way?"

The stalled project would cost $2.8 million. Kriseman had raised $1.3 million of that in private donations for the sculpture itself, with 14 groups of donors pledging money for the art. The city has budgeted $1.3 million in public funds to build the infrastructure. The Public Arts Commission had also pledged $250,000 to the project.

The contract would have allowed Echelman to start designing her net sculpture.

"The color hues and patterns I am considering for the fiber are inspired by the vibrantly patterned beach parasols seen on historical postcards, and these colored twines can be seen brightly against the blue sky in daytime," she said by email before Thursday’s meeting.

The current concept called for an aerial artwork that would stretch approximately 200 feet and be anchored by cables to five supporting poles, one at 60 feet, three 25 feet, one at 35 feet.

Chris Ballestra, the city’s managing director of development coordination, said this week that Echelman’s art, which he described as having "an undeniable wow factor" has "shrunk considerably" since its initial concept.

"And all of us are very happy with its size and scale relative to the project," he said.

The $76 million, 26-acre Pier District, currently under construction, is scheduled to be complete by fall 2019.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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