A Vision for the Rivers
Fifteen years ago, Pittsburghers pulled together to transform their riverfronts. The resulting public-private partnership — unique among American cities — gave downtown shorelines a 21st-century makeover that has become a national model.
Photos by Dave DiCello
As the sun set on the clear, warm evening of Sept. 27, downtown’s rivers reflected a golden glow — not from the city’s signature bridges, the swooping roof of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center or the mustard-colored seats of Heinz Field, but from a Cultural Trust attraction that brought some 75,000 Pittsburghers to cheer its arrival: a giant yellow duck.
Artist Florentijn Hofman’s whimsical 40-foot sculpture floated into town on a wave of enthusiasm for a riverfront that has been transformed over the past 15 years from 20th-century work to 21st-century play. After a $128 million investment in trails, parks and public art that has leveraged an estimated $4 billion in private development, the shores of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers are both the symbol of a revitalized city and a destination that lures kayakers, cyclists, yachtsmen, sports fans, lunch-hour duck lovers and little kids.
Public improvements on the colossal scale often take a generation to accomplish, so after a mere 15 years, it’s too early to declare the task complete. The long-planned renovation of Point State Park was completed last summer after seven years of labor. The public projects that lie ahead, such as a pedestrian walkway on the West End Bridge, the trail connection to the Mon Wharf and a development near the North Shore’s Carnegie Science Center, likely will require another $100 million to complete.
The plans are ambitious, but the momentum generated by the completed projects has prompted Pittsburgh to raise the riverfront development bar. “We can’t afford to sit on our laurels,” says Lisa Schroeder, president and CEO of Riverlife. Her nonprofit organization, founded in 1999 as the Riverlife Task Force, has been the engine for the transformation, creating the award-winning vision for the redesign of the riverfront and pushing new projects.
“It’s not right to put water before people and keep them away from it,” wrote New York City planner William H. Whyte in 1980. But in the Pittsburgh of that year, the rivers were easy to avoid. Grimy and exhausted by two centuries of hard use, the banks of the three rivers were often ignored, even while downtown added theaters and skyscrapers nearby. It wasn’t until the city broke ground on its two new North Shore stadiums in 1999 that it admitted the waterfront needed a makeover.
“We tend to forget what came before,” says Schroeder.
A few before-and-afters:
The rotting Lawrence paint factory facing the Point is gone, replaced by nearby Highmark Stadium, where Riverhounds fans enjoy pro soccer and a city view.
Rusting barges dumped on the Allegheny’s northern bank by Zubik’s Navy, a marine salvage company, gave way to the well-used recreational trail — part of a 13-mile loop — connecting downtown, upscale homes and offices at Washington’s Landing, and Millvale.
The revamped convention center has added a water-level plaza that links the Strip District and Point State Park.
Acres of surface parking engulfing Three Rivers Stadium were swapped for a promenade that now connects Rivers Casino to the Great Lawn, a waterfront pier, Heinz Field and PNC Park, acclaimed as one of the country’s most beautiful ball yards.
The idea of a continuous public riverfront — a welcoming 13-mile green ribbon that would reconnect Pittsburghers to their rivers — was a new idea for a city that, like many others, gradually had ceded its most scenic views to highways and automobiles. The city’s former overabundance of waterfront parking lots prompted urban planner Alex Krieger to quip that Pittsburgh was “a great place to live — if you’re a car.”
Riverlife hired Krieger, a soft-spoken designer and Harvard professor, in early 2000 to create the master plan to unify downtown’s shoreline through a series of projects. “To have three rivers — six beautiful banks,” he recalls. “It was astonishing to think about it in those terms. And the confluence was amazing. You could imagine the center of the city shifting slightly from downtown to the confluence. The remnants of industrial efforts were a hindrance, but the hills made it more contained — more like a room at a colossal scale. You just needed a little bit of space to walk or sit or bike.”
Krieger, whose firm also directed the acclaimed 2010 renovation of Shanghai’s riverfront Bund, proposed a grand urban river park with four deceptively simple goals.
“What was most important for Pittsburgh was greening the riverfront, connecting [the rivers] to neighborhoods, making the waterfront the front door and lining rivers with spectacular architecture that presented the best of Pittsburgh to the world,” explains Schroeder. “We’d apply those in one situation after another, based on development opportunities that arose. It was brilliantly simple.”
The plan received immediate acclaim, receiving top honors from both the American Institute of Architects and the International Downtown Association. Applying its lofty standards was less simple. The plan covered the waterfront from the West End Bridge to the David McCullough (16th Street) Bridge and to the Hot Metal Bridge to the South Side. That meant forging agreement among 120 individual property owners, pro sports teams, the city, the county and the state, which owns Point State Park. All sides were represented on the task force, along with leaders from the city’s major philanthropies, which would contribute more than $22 million to the effort.
Meanwhile, groundbreaking for three massive projects on the Allegheny already was underway. PNC Park, Heinz Field and the new convention center had nearly finalized their blueprints. The time for revisions was limited. But Tom Murphy, then the city’s mayor, believed that Pittsburghers were tired of turning their backs on the rivers.
“My view was always: Where will I take my 6-year-old to ride a bike that’s safe?” recalls Murphy, who served as mayor from 1994 through 2005 and now is a senior resident fellow with the Urban Land Institute. “My interest was to get off the roads, give folks an opportunity to enjoy Pittsburgh in a different way.”
Murphy had co-founded Friends of the Riverfront, a trail advocacy group, in 1991. As mayor, he sent public works crews to pave trails along the shores wherever possible. When in 1998 users flocked to the 2-mile Eliza Furnace Trail, sandwiched between the Mon and the Parkway East and passing the Allegheny County Jail, it was proof that he’d touched a nerve.
“He unilaterally built trails, and he was right — everybody came,” says Max King, former president of the Heinz Endowments who served as a co-chair of Riverlife. “He demanded [that] builders create setbacks for the trail. He used the power of the mayor’s office to get access to the riverfront.”
As Pittsburgh proved that private investment followed new amenities to the shoreline, other U.S. cities followed its lead. Houston, Louisville, Cincinnati, New York and Washington, D.C. are among the river towns racing to complete new projects.
In 1999, Murphy delegated design issues and fundraising to Riverlife. Among the first tasks of the urban design committee was a solution for using the space between the stadiums for green space, rather than car traffic.
“Riverlife was a gap-filler. It still is,” says Edie Shapira, board chair of The Pittsburgh Foundation and a founding member of Riverlife. “At every point, it could have fallen apart. There were no laws that required development to reach high, in keeping with a grand vision. And we’ve had extraordinary leadership: Paul O’Neill, Teresa Heinz, Max King, Grant Oliphant, John Oliver and more. What a dynamic, powerful, colorful, unruly gang that was.”
The group’s first challenge was the North Shore space. “It was an incendiary subject,” says Shapira. “It wasn’t clear where the roads would go. There wasn’t a park, just a strip of grass. We asked, ‘Couldn’t we do better?’”
The solution, a wedge-shaped gentle slope with kid-friendly “water steps” near a promenade with boat moorings, fulfilled the high expectations for community access to the North Shore. It proved, in the blunt words of the former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor John G. Craig Jr., that “public development does not have to be ugly.”
Brash and argumentative, Craig championed Krieger’s ambitious design as co-chair of the Riverlife Task Force while keeping riverfront issues on the paper’s front page.
“He was incorrigible and irreplaceable,” recalls Shapira of Craig, who died in 2010. “It was fun to duke it out with him. He loved to fight.” Craig and Shapira led Riverlife’s campaign to preserve the postcard downtown view from the Fort Pitt Bridge when the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation proposed new concrete barriers. The city’s solution exemplified the all-hands-on-deck style that would characterize later water-related projects. PennDOT, citing safety issues, insisted on concrete barriers that would block the view. Riverlife proposed an alternative that would allow motorists to appreciate the approach to the city. The Heinz Endowments offered to fund a technical consultant to create an acceptable alternative. Carnegie Mellon University faculty crafted the scenic substitute, and state officials gave the green light.
The renovation of Point State Park proved even more vexing. Not only was the price tag of rehabbing the iconic fountain nearly $10 million; the state could not cover the full cost of the park overhaul of some $42 million. The site also was a national historical landmark, adding layers of bureaucracy to decision-making and limiting redesign. Historians protested filling in the reconstructed Music Bastion to create a level Great Lawn. Labor unions briefly attempted to shut down construction.
“We fretted on a daily basis,” says Schroeder. Working with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Riverlife marshaled corporate and individual contributions and supervised improvements.
After the fountain’s reopening in June 2013, the crowds returned: During the three-week duck installation, for example, park rangers estimated more than 675,000 visitors, of a total of 2.35 million at the park during the year.
Photo by Dave Cole
Schroeder likens the increased traffic along the riverfront to the growth of the regional trail network. “The more trail that was created, the higher the number of users was,” she says. “We hit that momentum point along the rivers this year. People realized, ‘Aha — this is a network, and I can go in all directions.’ We’re hitting that with water traffic, too. We now have more than a dozen water landings.”
In October, SouthSide Works added a landing below its outdoor concert stage, and the dock at Allegheny Landing east of the Clemente Bridge will be open — mostly — as trail improvements there continue. “We’re rapidly approaching the critical mass of destinations that could support a water taxi service,” says Schroeder. (A one-season pilot of the service, paid for by a federal grant, has not been revived.)
Gaps remain. The Mon Wharf switchback, which would carry bikes and trail runners from the Smithfield Street Bridge down to the final stretch into Point State Park, carried an original estimated price tag of $3 million; with rising steel costs boosting that estimate, engineering plans are being revised. The West End pedestrian bridge exists only on paper; architecture firm Endres Ware won a 2006 design competition for the concept, but construction costs may top $12 million. Public money for those big-ticket items is limited, and fundraising has not begun.
Schroeder says that’s why Riverlife’s tradition of public-private partnerships will be even more critical in helping the new riverfront reach maturity. “Urban development is always a messy process,” she adds. “We view ourselves in the role of keeping the long-term dream but being able to be flexible and respond.”
In 2001, Craig penned a characteristic editorial exhorting the city to demand a world-class riverfront.
“The threat of the second-best will be unceasing,” he warned. “If we keep that in mind and we remain determined to follow the Gospel According to Krieger, 10 years from now we should be able to look around and say to ourselves, ‘Who would have dreamed we could have done anything as wonderful as this?’”
The Next Wave: New Developments
Allegheny Riverfront Green Boulevard
An ambitious plan comprising a wooded riverbank, recreational trails, overlooks, commuter rail and even stormwater management, the Allegheny Riverfront Green Boulevard began with community meetings in neighborhoods from the Strip District to Highland Park. Funded with federal transportation monies, the plan aims to reorient neighborhoods toward the river on two segments. The first tackles the shoreline between 11th and 31st streets. The second, from 31st Street to 62nd Street, pays special attention to boosting reuse of Lawrenceville’s industrial waterfront. Both halves of the plan aim to provide connection to the rivers as well as better transit to downtown.
Residential developers already have created a gold rush in the Strip District. In addition to Buncher Company’s proposals for a project affecting the Produce Terminal, Oxford Realty plans a 299-unit rental property adjacent to the Cork Factory. Schreiber Real Estate will build more apartments at 11th and Smallman streets, and developer Charles Hammel plans million-dollar “city homes” in a warehouse at 25th and Smallman. Riverlife’s Schroeder says the group now is working with the investors to build amenities envisioned in the plan, including fishing piers, playgrounds and river landings.
Allegheny Valley Railroad operates a freight line through the district that could add passenger service. Along the transit corridor, green space, a native-plants landscape and permeable paving would soak up rainfall before it flows into the river. Plan proponents hope that high-quality open space will enhance adjacent property values.
Special emphasis on the blocks between 40th and 48th streets, below the growing retail and dining scene on Butler Street in Lawrenceville, would encourage light industrial use and reuse. The former Heppenstall steel mill at 48th Street now is being used as part of Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center, and related startups have been attracted to the area’s low rents. A public plaza connecting to the Lawrenceville neighborhood could replace the concrete manufacturing plant at the 43rd Street waterfront; the current reconstruction of Heth’s Run Bridge, adjacent to the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, is the first step in linking Highland Park to riverfront amenities.
Ohio Headwaters Development
The 9-acre space on the North Shore between the Carnegie Science Center and Rivers Casino is unique. Most undeveloped downtown riverbanks are rocky ledges battered by decades of industrial activity, but the Ohio River shoreline adjacent to the science center’s U.S.S. Requin exhibit is a soft bank, ideal for a family-friendly public attraction. While no arrangements have been made with property owners, planners envision a future hotel between the existing buildings, as well as a grand waterfront feature that flows into the river.
“The desire of riverfront users is now for places where families and visitors and tourists can go to the riverfront edge and relax and interact with the water — restaurants, shops, paddleboats, a fishing pier — the things that make it possible to touch the water in a new way,” says Riverlife’s Schroeder. “Those are the next focus. I think of them as the next Point State Park.”
Like plans for the Allegheny Riverfront Green Boulevard, the strategy to develop the area near the Ohio’s headwaters includes ways to reduce stormwater runoff into the river. The Pittsburgh region’s combined sewage and stormwater overflow exceeds legal standards, forcing developers to contribute new, environmentally friendly solutions to controlling and reducing the flow.
Rivers Casino was built with those issues in mind. Large underground stormwater tanks capture runoff from its roof. In the future, that stormwater could be transformed into a water feature for the development. Schroeder says she expects the results to become “a national model” for watershed management. Riverlife’s estimate for possible development of this project is five to 10 years.
“We want to set a spectacular example, one that sets the bar for the next wave” of green riverfront development, says Schroeder. She notes that The Yards project in Washington, D.C. and the Discovery Green project in Houston include stormwater collection systems that have become focal features of the ambitious new developments.
Look for this massive redevelopment on the Mon in Hazelwood to be a key riverfront connector for downtown and Oakland. Its name an acronym for the three Pittsburgh rivers, Almono will be a $900 million development on a former steel- and coke-manufacturing site that closed in 1997. It will include 2 million square feet of office space, research and clean manufacturing, as well as 1,200 residential units.
In 2002, four local foundations bought the property for $10 million, protecting it for postindustrial development. The master plan developed by the Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, an architecture and urban design firm, calls for alternative technologies for energy generation and storm and wastewater management, along with 25 acres of parks, trails and, of course, river access. The design also suggests new uses for a few existing structures, such as a rail yard roundhouse and a 1,300-foot-long steel mill. Infrastructure construction is underway.