Allegheny Riverfront Park construction. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust

It’s easy to take for granted now, but there was nothing inevitable about the small, pleasant swath of public land Downtown known as the Allegheny Riverfront Park.

In 1994, it was a bleak, windswept landscape of multilevel highways and parking lots between the 6th, 7th and 9th Street Bridges (now known as the Roberto Clemente, Andy Warhol and Rachel Carson Bridges).

“It was a piece of land no one would think twice about,” said Michael Van Valkenburgh, founder and creative director of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc., the landscape architecture firm hired by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to design Allegheny Riverfront Park in the 1990s. “From the beginning, the site’s limitations — which a lot of people would have been throttled by — were taken by us as strange gifts to be reckoned with.”

The site in the 1990s before Allegheny Riverfront Park was constructed. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

“By relocating the old traffic median on the upper level, a six-foot-wide sidewalk became a fifty-foot-wide upper-level park,” said Van Valkenburgh during a virtual event about the project. “The lower level park was widened by skewing and cantilevering a deck over the river, giving better views of the river and what would eventually become the North Shore. The creation of Allegheny Riverfront Park really was one of the early examples of the city park renaissance that began to accelerate in the 1990s.”

On Thursday morning, Riverlife presented a vision for the park’s restoration during the virtual event, Allegheny Riverfront Park: The Origins and Future of a Cultural Landscape, with Van Valkenburgh and former Pittsburgh Cultural Trust president Carol Brown, who were instrumental in its creation.

Deferred maintenance over the past two decades has led to severe deterioration of the park’s signature bluestone pavers. However, recent projects like the adjacent Allegheny Overlook pop-up park successfully demonstrated the potential for this part of the Cultural District to draw people Downtown — even during Covid.

Allegheny Riverfront Park. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

“Allegheny Riverfront Park, like many well-designed and well-loved parks, nestles into its surrounding environment in a way that makes it feel like it’s been there forever,” said Riverlife President Matthew Galluzzo. “There’s a downside to that familiarity, though. It can lead to us taking for granted the care and restoration that’s necessary to sustain the park for future generations.”

Of course, in creating this park back in the late 1990s, there wasn’t much precedent for redeveloping such a challenging space — and it was hard to predict the challenges it would face.

The approach they used was something Van Valkenburgh calls “hyper-nature.” They planted hundreds of red maples, silver maples, native sycamores, river birches, red buds and poplars directly into the riverbank. This created a dense overhead canopy and worked to visually soften the surrounding concrete.

It’s built to be accessible to people arriving on foot, on bikes, in wheelchairs, and in boats.

The designers learned during construction that the Allegheny River didn’t just flood when it rained. Winter would often bring car-sized blocks of ice floating down the river, and sometimes directly into the park when water levels were high. So the walkway was reinforced, and high-pressure water hoses were added to help with post-flood cleanup.

“I had no idea how quickly a public park can go to hell,” said Van Valkenburgh. “It’s a big commitment and part of partnering for making a park is deciding not who’s going to take care of it, but where is their money (coming from).”

Carol Brown, president of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust from 1986-2001, said the three most important things they learned were: “maintenance, maintenance, maintenance.”

Allegheny Riverfront Park. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

Funding for the planning phase is provided by Riverlife and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Initial capital funding support is provided by the Allegheny Regional Asset District. Additional partners include the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, Office of Public Art together and City of Pittsburgh. Restoration planning efforts have been coordinated with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates with support from Pittsburgh-based landscape architecture firm LaQuatra Bonci Associates.

“Allegheny Riverfront Park was not only a gift of the river to the people of Pittsburgh, but a handsome example for all cities in the challenge of reclaiming more riverbanks in the urban core,” said Brown. “In an era where more people are turning to outdoor areas for recreation and relief, the restoration of the park is as urgent as ever.”

The park is considered a key part of Riverlife’s plans for the ongoing Completing the Loop project to connect Pittsburgh’s 15-mile, 1,050-acre riverfront public space between the West End, 31st Street and Hot Metal Bridges.

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.