The problem with public participation in the planning process is that it’s so … democratic.
Or at least, that’s what I would have been thinking if I’d been an architect in St. Petersburg last week, when the city held a public meeting to discuss the future of The Pier, which has been a St. Pete waterfront icon for decades.
It’s pretty much a given that The Pier has outlived its usefulness and cannot be cost-effectively rehabilitated. The city held a design competition for a structure to replace it, and in January it was announced that the winning design had been submitted by Michael Maltzan Architecture. It’s called The Lens, and I will be writing about it a bit later in the week.
What struck me when I read about this public meeting was the sharp disconnect between the vision of the architects and the preferences of the people who showed up to the meeting. If you’re an architect, it’s got to be dispiriting to sit there and listen as a small segment of the public tries to turn your design – a design you probably conceived as an elegant, artistic approach to a public works project – into just another mall, with air conditioning and chain restaurants.
For example, one resident came with his own alternate presentation:
His version of the Pier would be a simple two-story building with room for people to drive around, shops on the ground floor, a flat roof for viewing and a Golden Corral or an Outback restaurant on the second floor.
Some of the city’s elderly residents had their own concerns, particularly those who have constrained mobility:
“Those of us who are older need some air conditioning. Are there any areas where we could sit, rest for a few minutes and just enjoy? That really has to be put into the mix,” she said …
“I don’t know how many of us are going to be able to roll all the way out there and all the way back,” he said.
Yes, St. Petersburg has changed radically over the last decade or so, but there are still reminders that it wasn’t too long ago that the city was often referred to as God’s Waiting Room. There’s a significant senior citizen population here, and of course they have every right to participate in the development process and expect to be taken seriously.
This is a city. Yes, it’s a small city, but it’s still a city. It’s not a small town or a gated community, where everyone is pretty much the same. There’s a lot of diversity in our population, with different people leading very different sorts of lives. In fact, that’s part of what makes any city such a fascinating place to live.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, sometimes a public project just isn’t for you. For the two senior citizens I quoted above, The Lens is probably a pretty good example of that.
From what I can tell, the whole idea behind the Lens is a participatory one. You walk or bike along it, marvel at the views of Tampa Bay, maybe stop for some gelato. It seems designed for active people, or at least people who are comfortable with the level of activity required for walking, even at a relaxed pace. That may exclude some senior citizens who can’t get around all that comfortably.
And that’s unfortunate, sure – but it’s also okay. The city has plenty of programs in place that are aimed at senior citizens, programs that I’m specifically excluded from. I have no problem with that, because different groups have different needs. As far as I’m concerned, as long as the Lens is completely accessible to everyone, that’s enough. It doesn’t have to be designed to make sure everyone who uses it is cool and comfortable at all times.
St. Petersburg has been getting younger and younger for years now, and we have to continue to attract younger adults if we want our economy to evolve beyond a tourism- and service-based economy. The design of The Lens seems to have been conceived, in part, to attract precisely these people. This city needs more young, educated residents, and those people are simply not going to want to move to a place that puts a Golden Corral smack in the middle of its waterfront icon.
I mean, come on.