ST. PETERSBURG — Water taxis, kayaking and courtesy boat slips all made the short list for the city’s new pier, reflective of a community eager to turn its signature waterfront into a maritime playground.
But those plans may be unrealistic, according to a consortium of about 50 local boat builders and nautical firms who are warning that the unprotected waters around the pier would damage moored boats and often are too choppy for activities like kayaking and paddle-boarding.
Although attention has been focused on the high-profile pier project, behind the scenes, leaders of the Tampa Bay Marine Industries Region have been telling local leaders they need to invest in breakwaters to calm the waters around the city’s downtown.
“None of this is going to work without a breakwater,” said Jopie Helsen, group chairman.
The group, with members from Catalina Yachts and Mastry Engine Center, has been meeting to draw up a proposal to transform the city’s waterfront. Now the group is going public and looking to gain support for its proposal.
Breakwaters would help protect the city’s downtown from storm surge in the event of a hurricane and calm the waters in the city marina and other moorings. That would attract yacht and power-boat owners who shy away from tying up expensive vessels in St. Petersburg because they fear wave damage, Helsen said.
“St. Petersburg should be the No. 1 boating destination in the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico,” Helsen said. “But it’s a lousy boating destination. When it’s rough, there’s no protection.”
A preliminary design produced by the group shows 1,200 feet of breakwaters including a submerged breakwater west of the pier and two above-water structures extending from Vinoy and Lassing parks. Those could become extensions of the parks, giving walkers, joggers and cyclists a fun trip out into the bay, Helsen said.
Rubble from the demolition of the old pier approach could be used to construct the structures that would then be overlaid with lime rock. Over time, the underwater breakwater would become like a reef and attract marine life, Helsen said.
Such a project would not be cheap. Industry estimates run between $15,000 and $25,000 per foot, which means construction costs could run up to $30 million. Any such project also would have to navigate a host of permitting and environmental hurdles.
“There is a lot of environmental and cost issues,” said Dave Metz, interim administrator of city development. “The city has listened. As we develop the pier area and the Downtown Waterfront Master Plan, those ideas will be looked at closer.”
Some of the cost could come from federal funds. President Barack Obama recently signed into law a bill that makes more money available for dredging, ports and harbor projects.
Helsen and other leaders of Tampa Bay Marine Industries Region have shown their ideas to several local groups including the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.
Ross Preville, who is chairman of the chamber’s Downtown Waterfront Master Plan Task Force, said the idea was well-received at the chamber and that he would be pushing for its inclusion in the waterfront plan that is being developed by AECOM Corp.
He said the results of the public meetings and online poll conducted by the Pier Working Group show residents want more activities on the new pier than just a place to fish and stroll.
“My understanding is in order to accomplish this we do need to add protection, and I don’t know any other way to do that than a breakwater,” Preville said.
Catering to boaters may make economic sense. More than 47,000 recreational boats are registered in Pinellas County, the most in Florida. Add Hillsborough and Pasco counties, and there are more than 111,000 registered recreational boats within a day-trip of the city.
But few boaters visit St. Petersburg because of a lack of available courtesy boat slips and because easterly winds often kick up strong waves that slam boats against their moorings.
On ActiveCaptain.com, boat owners leave reviews for other boaters. Reviews of the moorings in St. Petersburg rave about the city and its downtown but frequently leave warnings about conditions.
“Pass it by if winds are E or NE above 10 knots,” wrote Apollo Beach resident John Stocksdale, reviewing moorings in the Vinoy Basin. “Surge gets in the basin and makes it feel like the inside of a washing machine.”
Those same conditions would likely play havoc with boaters trying to tie up at a new pier or navigate a kayak, said Nancy Frainetti, who for seven years ran The Electric Marina Boat Rentals in the North Yacht Basin renting out kayaks, pedal boats and 21- and 24-foot electric boats. She shuttered the business when the pier closed.
“There were at least 100 or more days a year I had to close the business because the wind was blowing out of the east and the waves were just crashing,” she said. “It wouldn’t be safe to send out people, plus it was damaging my boats.”
Boat slips and kayaking also were part of the ill-fated Lens pier design that voters soundly rejected in a referendum last year.
That may have been a blessing because that pier would have suffered from the same buffeting, said Robert Weisberg, distinguished university professor at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, who specializes in physical oceanography, which is the study of ocean circulation and waves.
Weisberg said the pier design was unrealistic for Tampa Bay conditions and likely would not have stood up to a Category 1 hurricane. The activities proposed for the new pier also may not be practical in some weather conditions.
He said he hopes this time around the city will take advantage of the world-renowned marine research institution it has in its backyard.
“For the Lens debacle, I don’t think anybody consulted with anybody in my college,” he said. “That was a serious error. It remains to be seen how much we get consulted on any new projects.”
The son of a boat builder, Helsen has been involved in yachting all his life. Once a yacht designer, he now runs Sailor’s Wharf, a boat servicing company in the Salt Creek area.
For St. Petersburg, he envisions students taking water taxis from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg to go out in the evening, and yachts docked in transient slips so the passengers can dine along Beach Drive and sleep in calm waters on their boat.
But he worries that most leaders and planners do not understand boating. The group’s video that was released Friday claims most planners view the downtown area from the land looking out.
“We see it from the water side looking in,” the narrator says.
BY CHRISTOPHER O’DONNELL