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North Hills Monthly

Riverlife Positioning Pittsburgh as Great American Riverfront City

Feb 28, 2018 05:03PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

CAPA students pose near Riverlife's TBD pop-up art gallery. Photo by Maranie Staab

Pittsburgh’s three rivers have long been a source of pride for its residents, and thanks in large part to nonprofit organization Riverlife, the city’s rivers are cleaner than ever. The riverfronts have been enhanced with recreational opportunities, such as the 13-mile loop in Three Rivers Park, as well as residential housing and office complexes. We spoke with the organization’s president and CEO Vivien Li about the work that the organization has done to preserve and beautify the riverfronts.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the background of Riverlife?

Vivien Li (Li): We started off as the Riverlife Task Force, founded in 1999 by Teresa Heinz and a number of community business leaders in Pittsburgh who saw the potential of transforming Pittsburgh’s riverfront from what had been primarily steel and industrial uses to a modern-day, 21st century riverfront. It took two years and more than 100 meetings to develop a master plan for Pittsburgh’s riverfront.

NHM: How does a developed riverfront benefit Pittsburgh?

Li: When you see a photo of Pittsburgh, it always shows our city on the river and our bridges—that is Pittsburgh in the 21st century. It is what distinguishes our city from inland cities, and it is what makes people want to come to Pittsburgh. Our local residents are able to enjoy the riverfront from a recreational perspective because it offers trails on which they can walk or bike or jog. People come for the entertainment, the stadiums and the Carnegie Science Center.

NHM: How about economic development?

Li: What has been done on the riverfront over the past 15 years has helped to catalyze nearly $2.6 billion in riverfront development activity, which is a ratio between park investment and riverfront development of 20:1. Now you see companies headquartering in the Strip. Soon there will be a mix of housing and offices and a dock and marina next to the West End Bridge. We’re seeing more opportunities for mixed usage.

NHM: What about the quality of our rivers?

Li: We used to turn our backs on the riverfront and have industries dumping their wastewaters directly into the rivers—we don’t have that anymore. We’re seeing better pretreatment by industrial users, and we are seeing developers put in things like rain gardens. Overall, we are cleaning up wastewater, and we’re moving toward cleaner water quality. The goal is for the water quality to be of swimmable quality; hopefully it will meet federal standards by 2026.

NHM: What are some projects that Riverlife has undertaken since its inception?

Li: We have worked very closely with public and private property owners—for example, working closely with the Sports and Exhibition Authority to have beautiful, well-maintained trails along the North Shore and by the convention center. In 2010, we partnered with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for a $40 million restoration of Point State Park and its iconic fountain. In 2013, we repaired the dock at Allegheny Landing on the North Shore, and in 2016, we completed additional improvements, including adding a rain garden that will help with water quality.

NHM: What are your future plans?

Li: We’re working with private developers to include public amenities in their projects, such as bike racks, seating areas, phone charging outlets and public restrooms. On the North Shore, these will be available in a new building near the trail and Water Steps fountain. Currently under construction is the long-awaited Mon Wharf Switchback, a downtown bike-pedestrian ramp that will connect the Smithfield Street Bridge to the Mon Wharf Landing and bring trail users directly into Point State Park. We're also looking at possibilities for restoring the upper level of Allegheny Landing now that we've finished the lower level.

Another thing we’re doing and unveiling this summer is “TBD” (to be determined). In 2015, we had a competition for an artist to put a mural, a temporary installation, under the Fort Duquesne Bridge. We had hundreds of volunteers come paint it, like a paint-by-numbers. This summer, we will unveil a new temporary installation that aims to make this underutilized space more of a public destination on the riverfront.

NHM: How are decisions made about what projects to support?

Li: We’re currently implementing a work plan for 2018 to think about areas that need attention. Sometimes we initiate these efforts, such as approaching property owners in the Strip District to contribute toward designing a Strip District Riverfront Park that their tenants will enjoy along with the rest of the public. Other times, entities will approach us, such as the county looking into permanent, artistic bridge lighting of all three sister bridges.

We also partner with the government, private property owners and corporations, and we collaborate with our not-for-profit partners, such as Friends of the Riverfront, to determine new projects and stewardship.

We're very supportive of the city's efforts to introduce permanent riverfront zoning that will help ensure high-quality development and architecture, better ecological conditions along the rivers, and public amenities for all to enjoy. This is something we've pushed for a long time, so that what is developed in the future is high-quality and less of a guessing game for developers. When we think about Pittsburgh of the 21st century, it will be as a great American riverfront city.

NHM: What do you believe is the most significant project or contribution that Riverlife has made to Pittsburgh’s riverfronts?

Li: I think creating—along with property owners—much of the public open spaces and amenities along our riverfront. And of course, restoring the fountain at Point State Park, which is so popular.

NHM: How can people get involved?

Li: There’s going to be a very active riverfront this summer with TBD and the groundbreaking Mon Wharf switchback. Stay tuned for lots of good things ahead.

We encourage people to check out our website; we highlight ways people can volunteer, come and enjoy what we’re doing and help out if they can.

For more information, visit and @RiverlifePGH.