Pittsburgh’s riverfronts were very different in 1999, when the nonprofit Riverlife began to envision their future. After decades of neglect and abuse by heavy industry, they began to be seen in a new light — as thriving, lively places where people wanted to congregate.

More than 20 years later, Riverlife estimates that 85 percent of the land between the West End, 31st Street and Hot Metal bridges has seen some sort of improvement and/or the addition of trails and public open space.

But that final 15 percent is going to be the hard part.

After soliciting public input from more than 3,600 Pittsburghers, property owners, developers and community leaders, Riverlife presented a preview of its Completing The Loop Technical Report on Thursday, February 25 via Zoom.

The biggest proposed changes are for two new parks — one located under the very pedestrian-unfriendly West End Bridge, and another at the longtime city tow pound in the Strip District.

“There are so many reasons to be excited about the future of the city’s riverfronts,” said Matthew Galluzzo, Riverlife president and CEO, during the presentation. “The riverfronts are teeming with economic activity. And folks, as we’ve learned over the past six months, are demanding a world-class experience. That’s emboldened us to think really strongly about our future.”

Photo courtesy of Riverlife.

Riverlife worked with evolveEA, a Pittsburgh-based design firm, to lay out the plan.

At the city’s former tow pound below the 31st Street Bridge in the Strip District, there’s a massive piece of land adjacent to a thriving neighborhood. There’s room for both a park and affordable housing with ground-floor commercial spaces.

“There should be some sort of an active commercial space like a cafe or a kiosk that brings people to the river but also encourages people to come off of the river and into the park … a real destination,” said Christine Mondor of evolveEA.

Mondor imagines “outdoor rooms” of quiet spaces to gather with trees and shade and for hosting activities from playing beach volleyball to simply taking a nap. There could be a dog park as well. The site would connect to the trail system and feature a switchback ramp from the bridge to the riverfront.

“Many people have been talking about for years the opportunities to be able to get on the river and swim, maybe not in the river but on the river,” said Mondor. “And so this would be a great place to have a public mooring for a seasonal amenity like a swim barge.”

Plans for the former city tow pound near the 31st Street Bridge. Rendering courtesy of evolveEA and Riverlife.

Below the West End Bridge, there are plans for Saw Mill Run Park, with improved, pedestrian-friendly connections to the bridge and the trail system on the north side of the Ohio River. The bridge could have overlooks for views of Downtown and widened pathways for pedestrians, bikers and strollers.

Getting on the West End Bridge as it is now is “tough, but worth it,” said Mondor.

The area around this section of the riverfront is equally uninviting at the moment.

“If you haven’t been to this place, it’s not a surprise,” said Mondor. “Not many people go to this place. This is the Loop’s most remote location.

“The big moves for Saw Mill Run Park are to celebrate the West End Bridge, to light it to make that incredible piece of bridge architecture into a focus more than it is now, and to create Saw Mill Run as a gateway park and a portal catalyzing the future trail connections to the West End of the city that don’t exist today.”

The plan could include public docks, a trailhead, a public plaza and/or a cafe along the riverside.

The project was funded by the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, Riverlife and the Environmental Stewardship Fund, a grant program of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Recreation and Conservation.

The public is invited to provide input on the Completing the Loop Technical Report here. Community feedback will be collected through March 21.

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.