Pittsburgh is a city with a seemingly infinite amount of rivers (OK, there are three), but for many decades, its waterfronts were occupied by industrial buildings, factories, railroad tracks and freeways.
That’s still the case for many parts of the city, from Chateau to the west along the Ohio River, along both sides of the Allegheny, and on parts of the Mon.
But in areas from the South Side to the Strip District, that’s slowly changing.
“Other cities would kill to have the amount of riverfront we have,” said Stephan Bontrager, director of communications for Riverlife.
But that didn’t stop developers from constructing the “building turning its back to the riverfront,” as Bontrager put it, as opposed to opening up and allowing for interactions with the water.
With multiples partners and design experts, Riverlife created guidelines for an ideal riverfront development project. And they’re starting to see developers take the best approach from the beginning, rather than getting halfway through a project before approaching the nonprofit for assistance. There were years when Riverlife had to “fight and twist arms to get basic concessions,” Bontrager said. Now developers are doing these things voluntarily.
Here’s a rundown of the waterfront developments you should keep your eye on.
Station Square East
Developer Trammell Crow presented the plan for Station Square East, which is currently a parking lot near the Smithfield Bridge, at a Pittsburgh Planning Commission meeting in March.
“The goal is to encourage pedestrian interaction through the use of site furniture such as outdoor seating/dining and event space, lighting and amenities,” according to a project statement. “The focal areas will incorporate an accessible pedestrian promenade to safely draw people into the site from the Riverwalk and allow views from Station Square Drive to the river.”
Bontrager said Riverlife worked with the developer to improve the experience for cyclists and pedestrians through “lighting, better access and retail along the trail.”
North Shore office building
Continental Real Estate Companies plans to replace a North Shore parking lot next to the Fort Duquesne Bridge with an office building. At Riverlife’s request, the development will include “public restrooms next to the Water Steps and bike storage.” That’s great news for people who use the Three Rivers Heritage Trail and have bladders that need to be emptied.
“The market is driving it,” Bontrager said of the amenities. He said property owners competing for tenants know that an “active, lively, well-maintained riverfront” can make a difference.
Riverlife’s President and CEO Vivien Li also has a particular passion — and proven track record from Boston — for providing public bathrooms.
Rivers Casino hotel
Rivers Casino wants to build a 221-room hotel on a piece of riverfront land between the existing building and Carnegie Science Center. Bontrager said Riverlife is working with the casino “on trail access, building transparency to create better visual connection to the river, trail activation and user amenities.” There’s already a public outdoor amphitheater.
Carnegie Science Center
A major renovation and expansion of the Carnegie Science Center is underway on the North Shore. Bontrager said they are working with the center to increase “riverfront access, signage and trail activation, including interaction with the building’s cafe.”
With all of this development on the North Shore, Bontrager said he expects these types of projects to spread. In the midst of industrial buildings, the state plans to close SCI Pittsburgh prison along the Ohio on the North Side. What happens next with the riverfront land there is unclear, but Bontrager said he expects this area to be the “next frontier as you see the North Shore continue to grow.”
Bontrager is particularly excited about this one.
In 2016, McKnight Realty Partners purchased the Terminal building on the South Side with plans to turn it into “The Highline,” which will include a rooftop park and public space along the riverfront.
Bontrager said Rivelife recently met with the developer to discuss “amenities, public restrooms and retail.” He called the plan “pretty phenomenal,” adding that there are plans for top-notch amenities for the public.
“They really have put a lot of thought into how the space will be flexible for public events,” he said. (McKnight hasn’t yet publicized other details or presented to the planning commission.)
Like in other cities, it only takes “one good example project for everyone to say, ‘Ah-ha!’ ” Bontrager said. He imagines once The Highline is finished it will become a destination and will be an added benefit for places like Station Square.
Of course, one project can’t solve every problem. A big one Bontrager points to: how to incorporate more dining into riverfront development (that’s a different story).
Strip District riverfront
Riverlife has a grand vision for this area, and private developers are already playing a role.
Oxford Development Company’s Three Crossings spans 16 acres from 25th to 29th streets. The developer opened part of the project, the Burns White building, last week and added a temporary trail extension and landscaping improvements, Bontrager said.
The Buncher Company plans to turn parking lots and land between 11th and 21st streets into a massive housing development. Bontrager said the developer paid for improvements on the riverfront trail between 11th and 15th streets, including widening the trail and putting in new lighting and benches. That section of the trail reopened this week.
Last year, Riverlife released an overarching vision for the Strip District waterfront that includes a public plaza, an overlook constructed from a crane and a riverfront landing with a pop-up space for restaurants.
Different developers working in the Strip each paid money to help create the plan, Bontrager said, calling the partnership “remarkable.”
“It doesn’t happen all the time in other cities,” he said.
Bontrager said Riverlife has taken the lead whenever possible with public and private riverfront property owners to bring together resources so the land can be accessible to anyone.
Like Riverlife’s 2001 vision plan for Downtown, the Strip District plan doesn’t include a timetable or cost estimates, but instead encourages property owners to develop the riverfront in ways that are connected, Bontrager said. “Each of those private parcels is moving forward at own pace,” he said.
“At least the vision is there for everyone,” he said. “It’s a wonderful investment in the public riverfront.”