When longtime Aspinwall resident and entrepreneur Susan Crookston found out about plans to put a 650-car parking lot on the site of the former Aspinwall Marina, she went down to the site to take a look.

Photo by Maya Tuttle.
Photo by Maya Tuttle.

What she saw was the potential that has now become Aspinwall Riverfront Park, an 11-acre community resource with riverside walking and biking trails, an amphitheater and stage, gardens and a wetlands area, and a playground.

“It really is like a dream come true,” Crookston says. “The community rallied and we had 3,000 people get involved, including kids. It was amazing.”

Cynthia Tuthill, 9, and her sister Edie, 6, raised $144 through sales at their lemonade stand. Glenna Van Dyke, 13, made dog scarves to sell along with glow sticks. Che Esch, 15, mowed $5,000 worth of lawns.

All told, the combination volunteer-community-corporate effort raised $2.2 million for the project, including a $150,000 grant from Allegheny County, and donation matching funds from the Colcom and Hillman Foundations, Crookston says.

Photo by Maya Tuttle.
Photo by Maya Tuttle.

The site needed a fair amount of work, which included removing about 100,000 pounds of debris, tearing up concrete, planting bulbs and shrubs, and razing dilapidated buildings on the site.

But Crookston said the driving goal was to turn the project around quickly enough so that the children who had donated their efforts were still young enough to enjoy it, noting that the average  municipal park project takes 10 years to complete.

She started writing a business plan for the project late in 2010, and it was purchased in October 2011. And she notes that Riverfront is a community park, not a municipal one.

The borough of Aspinwall was not able to take on the project financially, and the park drew volunteers from outside the borough’s borders.

“Two-thirds of our volunteers don’t live in Aspinwall,” Crookston says, with most coming from the neighboring communities of O’Hara, Fox Chapel and Sharpsburg.

Photo courtesy of Environmental Planning & Design
Photo courtesy of Environmental Planning & Design

With so many people giving their time, Crookston was adamant about getting input from the community about what they wanted, and reached 1,800 people with a survey. The majority were very clear about wanting a playground and trail access, she says.

Aspinwall Riverfront Park will hold its grand opening this weekend, with the River Rock fundraiser on Saturday night, which raises $100,000 each year for the park, and a family-friendly event on Sunday.

“I have hundreds of pairs of scissors so everyone can be involved in the ribbon-cutting,” Crookston says. The playground includes a much-celebrated giant bronze statue sculpture—created by internationally renowned contemporary artist Tom Ottnerness—of a reclining figure, which children can climb and play on. The weekend festivities will incorporate this “tin man” sculpture in a Wizard of Oz theme, including a hot air balloon and a 40-foot tall rainbow.

Crookston says her long-term goal for the park is to see it become a catalyst for riverfront trail expansion. The fundraising will continue after the grand opening, with future plans for a welcome center with restrooms, and river access. About $1.15 million has been raised toward a planned $2 million endowment for upkeep of the park.

“While we’ve built a wonderful base park, our dream is to create public river access and a fully-funded endowment to ensure that Aspinwall Riverfront Park is as beautiful the day it opens as it will be when our grandchildren enjoy it,” Crookston says.

The staff at NEXTpittsburgh writes about the people driving change in the region and the innovative and cool things happening here.