Riverlife had reason to celebrate twice last week when a pair of longstanding riverfront projects each reached a significant milestone.

In the Strip District, the Three Rivers Heritage Trail between 11th and 15th Streets reopened to pedestrians and cyclists. And in Downtown, construction began on a switchback ramp that will connect the Smithfield Street Bridge to the Mon Wharf and Point State Park.

“It’s been a long time coming,” says Riverlife President and CEO, Vivien Li. “We in Pittsburgh love being outside. People are very excited.”

The Strip District portion of the trail had been closed since last year as swaths of the neighborhood are redeveloped into housing. The Buncher Company owns the segment of land between 11th and 15th.

Li says that the trail had fallen into disrepair before Buncher paid for renovations, which include new lighting, benches and landscaping. The trail itself has been widened and repaved, and a new plaza connects Waterfront Place to the riverfront at 15th Street.

15th St. Plaza. Photo by Stephan Bontrager of Riverlife.
15th St. Plaza. Photo by Stephan Bontrager / Riverlife.

“I just took a tour and they have really done a nice job,” says Li, who presided over Riverlife’s Strip District Riverfront Park Vision Plan. Released last year, the plan calls for improvements that will enhance the trail and reconnect the neighborhood to the riverfront. Li is optimistic that the next stretch of trail, from 15th to 21st Street, will reopen in the first quarter of 2018, depending on how residential development progresses.

“As more people move to the Strip District and usage increases, it makes it even more important that we have it open,” says Li.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the Golden Triangle, construction has begun on the Mon Wharf Switchback, which will connect the Smithfield Street Bridge to the Eliza Furnace “Jail Trail” and Point State Park.

Li says the switchback project has been in the works for more than six years. A Commonwealth Financing Authority (CFA) grant of nearly $500,000 secured the last bit of financing needed to make the project a reality.

Eric Boerer, advocacy director at BikePGH, says that the switchback sits at the nexus of two major pipelines for bicyclists: the Eliza Furnace Trail from Oakland and the Smithfield Street Bridge. As it stands now, people get to the end of the bridge and they’re left with no clear path forward. This is especially a problem, he says, for casual cyclists and out-of-towners who aren’t comfortable riding in traffic.

“People come to Pittsburgh to come to the Point and they have no idea how to find the Great Allegheny Passage from there,” says Boerer. “They look down Fort Pitt Boulevard and see it’s a highway and they’re not sure which way they should go.”

The switchback will change that. Scheduled to open by the end of the year, the switchback will allow pedestrians and cyclists to descend down to the Mon Wharf and finish the GAP Trail alongside a riverfront route into Point State Park.

It’s all part of Riverlife’s mission to “reclaim, restore and promote Pittsburgh’s riverfronts.”

“Whenever you see a postcard or image of Pittsburgh,” says Li, “you don’t normally see a hospital or university. It’s always about the rivers, bridges, Point State Park and the fountain. We’re so proud to see it is one of the drawing points for the city.”

Brian Conway

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.