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Pier District brings proposal for new park designation for Spa Beach

ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council on Thursday unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance to change Spa Beach from a passive to an active park, a change made to accommodate several features planned for the Pier District.

The move is opposed by the Waterfront Parks Foundation, whose stated mission is to "support preservation and enhancement" of the city’s historic downtown waterfront parks.

Logan DeVicente, the great, great grandson of William L. Straub, known for his legacy of protecting the city’s waterfront from development, spoke out against the change in the Spa Beach designation at the council meeting.

"My concern is that the whole success of the park system has been preserving it," he told the Tampa Bay Times. "I think we are in fast-forward mode here and we’re cutting into the parkland and we’re changing the original purpose of preserving the green space that we have had for more than 100 years."

The Spa Beach change would clear the way for such Pier District amenities as a 54,000-square-foot paved plaza with a pavilion and snack shack, an interactive playground and a soaring net sculpture held aloft by towering poles.

While the plaza and playground encroach on Spa Beach’s southern edge, the net sculpture by noted artist Janet Echelman would rise over the beach itself, which is a charter-protected park.

Phil Graham Jr., president of the parks foundation, said after the vote that he and members of the group will try to speak with individual council members about its concerns.

"We’ll do what we can to save the parkland. We are looking at the long-term impacts of this approval making this an active park," he said.

"Spa Beach is one of the most valuable view sheds we have in the city. It’s one of the remaining pieces of open space that you can see from Beach Drive."

City Council member Steve Kornell asked the city’s legal staff to research whether it would be possible to make the change to accommodate the Pier District elements for their duration, then revert Spa Beach back to a passive park once they are no longer there.

Assistant city attorney Michael Dema said he would look into the matter.

In a letter to Mayor Rick Kriseman and the council, the foundation said the net sculpture by Echleman is too large for the area and "inconsistent with the great vision" of the city’s founding fathers "when they purchased and mandated a downtown waterfront primarily reserved for green space."

The new ordinance would amend the definitions of active and passive parks and a section of the city code relating to charter-protected parks like Spa Beach, where restrictions govern the lease, sale or other permanent disposition of park property.

The city says making Spa Beach an active park would be consistent with the guidelines of the Downtown Waterfront Master Plan approved in 2015.

"Some of the things envisioned in the downtown waterfront master plan are active uses," Dema told the Times earlier this week.

A report prepared for council members notes that the city code, as it relates to definitions of active and passive park uses, "does not reflect a St. Petersburg that has evolved in many ways, including as a City of the arts."

Former Mayor Bob Ulrich, who held office from 1987 to 1991, doesn’t want to see the Echelman sculpture raised over Spa Beach.

"There is some evidence that our demographics have changed and that there’s not the same commitment to keeping our waterfront pure and pristine," said Ulrich, who is a member of the parks foundation but emphasized that he was not speaking for the group.

"I’m favorable to the arts (but) ... I’m opposed to the scope and the placement of this art piece. If we’re not very, very careful, we are going to lose our most valuable asset by having it crowded with things."

Former Mayor Bill Foster held office from 2010 to 2014, a term dominated by the struggle to replace the St. Petersburg Pier’s old inverted pyramid. He is not a fan of the Echelman piece, but has no problem if it is installed at Spa Beach.

"It’s city property and the city can put art where it wants to put art," he said. "The city council and the mayor are responsible as the stewards of public property. If they want to put a piece of art there, then go for it."

As part of the new $76 million, 26-acre Pier District, Spa Beach will also be the site of kayak and paddleboard rentals and a large vessel docking area along the south seawall of the North Yacht Basin. Kayak and paddleboard rentals are already permitted active park uses.

The new ordinance recommends that interactive playgrounds and docks for large vessels be included among the uses in all active parks. "We feel that those uses are compatible with active parks," Dema said.

Additionally, the ordinance will clarify that passive parks can include shade structures, public art and playground equipment such as splash pads.

Council members also approved the first reading of an ordinance that would allow the city to use a small portion of South Straub Park to accommodate a vehicle roundabout at Second Avenue NE and Bayshore Drive for the Pier District’s "gateway." Similar "substantial change of use" ordinances were used to allow a temporary fire station at Boyd Hill Nature Park, an injection well near playing fields at 31st Street S and 54th Avenue S and a firing range at Woodlawn Park.

"Those are more nontraditional park uses that don’t fit neatly into active or passive park definitions," Dema said.

A public hearing on both ordinances will be held July 12 at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 175 Fifth St. N.

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

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