Most people in the U.S. have spent some part of the last 10 weeks under stay-at-home orders, about 36 million people have filed for unemployment, and more than 90,000 people have lost their lives due to COVID-19. Before this is all over, these numbers may well look quaint. But for now, in mid-May, governors in almost every state are beginning to ease restrictions on businesses and public spaces, opening a new world of design questions around how to occupy space and sustain commerce in a world that, for now, requires physical distancing.
And while governors may set the basic parameters around the reopening of the economy, the specific implementation guidelines are being set by municipal governments in response to their local needs and situations. Recently, I talked with Mayor Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg, Florida, about the city’s approach to reopening and recovery, the new design tools in its portfolio, and the broader generational investment in its public realm.
TS: Trinity Simons
RK: Rick Kriseman
You launched “Restart St. Pete” in late-April, a few weeks before Florida Governor Ron DeSantis initiated Phase One reopening of the economy. What is it, and what were your goals in that launch?
Restart St. Pete is a one-stop shop website where our residents can find out the most recent and relevant information about St. Pete’s restart. It has information for our residents, our businesses, and visitors. We found that the directives coming out of the state weren’t very clear. It was up to us to both translate them and to make sure they made sense for our community. We can’t be more permissive than the state, but we could be more stringent if needed. You can imagine that in today’s atmosphere, that could lead to us being accused of being partisan very quickly. That’s why it’s been so important for us to positively motivate our community to do the right thing from the beginning. We call it “The St. Pete Way.” There’s a toolkit on the website that describes it in detail, and we take pride that it’s well-designed. But it’s something I’ve been working on since I became mayor: changing the climate to be a community that looks out for each other, that celebrates its diversity and embraces compassion and kindness. I like to think our residents have come to expect it from City Hall.
It does feel like this national moment of unity we experienced around mid-March, right as the seriousness of COVID-19 was becoming apparent in the U.S., has started to erode, but that when we still see it, it’s being led by mayors.
Absolutely. Our residents look to us for clarity, but also to listen and to be responsive when they tell us what they need. That just doesn’t happen in the same way at the state and federal levels. For example, the first phase of reopening of restaurants and retail in Florida allowed occupancy at 25%. Some business owners told me that simply wouldn’t be feasible without expanding into their parking lots or onto the streets in front of their businesses, but others said that the expansion of take-out (easy car access) was their lifeblood right now. So instead of creating a new blanket program based on a few conversations, we did a quick survey. About 75% of respondents said they wanted to be able to expand into their parking lots or parking spaces in front of their buildings, but the others did not. So we devised a new program where business owners can apply for a temporary use permit to utilize their parking for dining. They have to submit the application and a sketch—it was important to keep it very simple. We can issue the permit quickly and set up barriers to separate the new dining areas from the street. Other cities have decided to close some streets for dining and physical distancing. After listening to our business community, we decided not to go that route for now.
I’ve loved watching how emerging design needs and responses have their own flavor in every community. I know mayors love to “borrow” from each other, but still translate when they take it home. And this especially: seeing that a sketch is required for your application presents a great opportunity for the local design community to share their skills.
We’ve tried to be very purposeful and anti-bureaucratic. We did the same thing with our “Fighting Chance Fund.” We were the first in the Tampa Bay area to create something like that. We knew our small businesses—restaurants, bars, salons—needed help and needed it quickly, but we had limited funding available, and we didn’t want a situation where we opened the funding opportunity, and it was exhausted in a matter of hours. We were careful to write it very narrowly so that there would be funding available for anyone that was eligible to apply. We knew this strategy might present the potential for fraud, but we had to weigh that threat against the overwhelming need for quick assistance that our businesses so desperately needed.
How did you fund that?
Well, we would have loved to use CARES Act dollars, but Congress only sent money to local governments with a population over 500,000. In Florida, that’s only Jacksonville. The state “expedited” FEMA reimbursement dollars from Hurricane Irma—which, yes, hit in 2017—that was unrestricted use. We are also raising private dollars.
There is always a great story to how cities piece together funds when they need it the most. I want to shift gears a little and talk about something else that has required some creative funding strategies: The St. Pete Pier. This is a generational project that’s nearing completion [it was originally scheduled to open on May 30], one that kicked off while you were on city council. What are you most looking forward to with its opening?
St. Petersburg was founded in the late 1800s alongside the pier, originally servicing movement between freighter ships and the railroad. There have been numerous iterations, but we’ve always had a municipal pier. The version when I was growing up in St. Pete was the “Inverted Pyramid.” It was controversial when it was designed, but very iconic. By the mid-2000s, the pier had deteriorated beyond repair, and City Council appropriated $50 million for new construction. Fast-forward through a couple of administrations, and there had been a design competition, a winner selected, and a design unveiled—and the community hated it. There were some meager attempts at engagement and addressing those community concerns, but ultimately, there was a petition and a ballot initiative to terminate the contract with the designer, and it passed. When I took office as mayor, we started the entire process over. By the time we selected the new design, I’d already gone through the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, and I think one of the huge takeaways was that design at all scales—from the texture of the pavement to the big lawns with dramatic views—can have such a positive impact on your community. Instead of focusing our efforts on something that was iconic, worked with the community on a design that included something for everyone. Our community has embraced it because they already feel like it belongs to them.
It isn’t just a pier; it’s an entire district of 26 acres. There are three restaurants at different price points, there is a great lawn, there is a beach, there are teaching landscapes, there are performance spaces, but there are also places where you can just sit and watch people or the water. People used the back of the “Inverted Pyramid” pier as a fishing dock, and we kept that in the new design. There are so many more elements, and they all fit together seamlessly, like they were always meant to be there. It’s unlike anything our city has ever had or has ever seen. Of course, the price tag changed from 2005 to 2020, so we had to get creative in finding additional funding sources. The original price tag of $50 million landed somewhere near $90 million, but when you’re investing in your city for the next generation, people aren’t going to look back and ask how much it cost. We hope they see such a significant investment in the public realm as an investment in themselves, their community, and their future generations. We just can’t wait for people to be able to gather again so they can experience it!
Editor’s note: Design firms involved in the St. Pete Pier include: W Architecture, Landscape Architecture; Wannemacher Jensen Architects; ASD Architects; Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers; and Ken Smith Landscape Architects. The pier will also feature a Janet Echelman sculpture. Featured image: Mayor Rick Kriseman, at the St. Pete’s Pier construction site.