St. Pete Pier is a shining addition to Tampa Bay

Old Bay, New Bay

St. Pete Pier is a shining addition to Tampa Bay

The St. Pete Pier’s Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center with the pierhead building, both designed by Rogers Partners, in the background. (© 2020 Rich Montalbano/RiMO Photo, LLC)

The city of St. Petersburg, Florida, has been home to one sort of pleasure pier or another jutting into Tampa Bay since at least the late 1800s. The last, completed in 1973, consisted of a long road with a vaguely nautical (and Soviet-style) five-story inverted pyramid stuffed with shops and restaurants at the end of it. Although locally iconic, the pier in recent years had become unprofitable and underutilized.

A landscaped pier crossing a channel
Looking back at downtown St. Petersburg from the end of the St. Pete Pier, with the Coastal Thicket landscape on the right. (© 2020 Rich Montalbano/RiMO Photo, LLC)

The new $56 million St. Pete Pier, which opened in July 2020, is a far cry from its “deadly boring” predecessor, to quote New York–based landscape architect Ken Smith of Ken Smith Workshop. Tapped in a city-sponsored design competition to revitalize the pier, Smith, along with the New York offices of architecture firms Rogers Partners and ASD/SKY, has created a public asset that is more than just the sum of its parts, offering a rich, varied waterfront experience. There is the requisite pier and a spectacular pierhead designed by the Rogers team, but also a number of landscapes and programs—including an education center and a dining pavilion, both by Rogers—that, per Smith, “stretch all the way to the end.”

Smith oversaw the creation of a beach and four major landscapes at the 12-acre St. Pete Pier, three of them cultural—the Lawn Bowl, the Tilted Lawn, and the Grove at the Pier Plaza—and the fourth, the Coastal Thicket, wilder in nature. An early component of the plan from the competition phase, the Coastal Thicket was briefly envisioned as a mangrove forest, although that idea was eventually vetoed in favor of a lush coastal landscape of native trees, shrubs, and grasses, including wax myrtle, palmetto, sabal palms, and sea oats, lifted up into a platform container. Stretching nearly 900 segmented feet long and 30 feet wide along the northern leg of the pier, the Coastal Thicket features a meandering, generously shaded boardwalk with planks fabricated from synthetic wood decking, which feature an imprinted wood grain on the plank face. The planks were installed by landscape contractor BrightView face side down to conceal the fake grain; they also tilt upward and project out over the edge of the structure to give them a feeling of floating above the immersive landscape, as detailed by Smith.

Rendering of a pier park
Spanning 12 overwater acres, the St. Pete Pier is part of a 26-acre transformation of the once-sleepy St. Petersburg waterfront into a dynamic recreational and entertainment district that responds to the needs and wants of a younger and more active population. (Courtesy Ken Smith Workshop)

The Coastal Thicket is just one element of the St. Pete Pier that gradually reveals itself as one proceeds farther out over the water.

Starting at the Pier Plaza, the landscape lifts slightly and shifts the horizon, forcing the eye level upward and “editing out much of the middle experience,” said Smith. “It’s the seduction of bringing you out part of the way and then opening up and starting to show you something else and then enticing you to come out farther. It’s a subtle thing that I don’t think most people would quite recognize, but it’s actually quite effective in manipulating the special experience.”

Diagram of different bridges
Drawings of the Coastal Thicket area at the northern leg of the pier. (Courtesy Ken Smith Workshop)

Design landscape architect: Ken Smith Workshop
Design architect: Rogers Partners
Location: St. Petersburg, Florida
Executive architect:
Executive landscape architect: Booth Design Group
Design structural engineer: Thornton Tomasetti
Structural and MEP engineers: TLC Engineering Solutions
Civil, marine, and environmental consultants: Stantec (Tampa & Coral Gables)
Coastal engineer: Humiston & Moore Engineers
Geotechnical engineer:
Lighting design: Renfro Design Group
Environmental permitting: Landon, Moree & Associates
Fire protection and life safety code consultant: FP&C Consultants, Inc.
Construction manager: Skanska
Landscape contractor: BrightView