It was an unexpectedly catalytic moment.

“There was massive public access,” says Riverlife  President and CEO Lisa Schroeder. “The riverfronts were packed with people of all ages, everybody wanting to be part of it.

She is referring, of course, to the debut of the huge yellow duck that floated down the Ohio River,  past the newly renovated Point State Park fountain, and alighting on the Allegheny River in its smashing debut last year.

It was a glorious mob scene along the waterfront in all directions, including the Point and the iconic and much-loved fountain.

“After 10 years, four phases of planning, and an outstanding public-private partnership, this 40-year-old historic landmark became a new place where people could sit and play, with benches, lighting, boat access. Now it’s crowded all the time. Everybody comes and brings a friend. It’s a party.”

“What’s more,” she adds, “the re-opening of the Fountain signaled that not only is riverfront access universally accepted, it is also encouraged. Valued. So much so that when I saw what was happening, I wrote to our original Riverlife Task Force members: ‘This is what you dreamed about.’”

Executive Director of Riverlife, Lisa Schroeder. Brian Cohen photo.
Executive Director of Riverlife, Lisa Schroeder. Brian Cohen photo.

Indeed, when the Task Force was founded 15 years ago, such ideas were mere dreams. Not anymore. Now, in Pittsburgh and many other cities, riverfronts are both highly desired locations and economic development engines of unprecedented, previously unimagined power. And Pittsburgh’s riverfront serves as a national model.

“Now,” Schroeder says, “we’ve reached a tipping point.”

Before we tip, let us cast our mind’s eye back to the bad old days, roughly 150 years of industrialization and its aftermath that separated people from the rivers. Mills, railroads, sewage, toxic dumping all marred Pittsburgh’s waterways. Rivers were inhospitable, unusable. Access was unthinkable. Back then, Schroeder reminds us, “it was a big stretch to conceive of riverfronts as a preferred location.”

By the 1980s, things went from bad to worse. While heavy industry was largely the culprit, it was also the region’s economic base. Then, by and large, it evaporated. Pittsburgh lost 100,000 manufacturing jobs—plus concomitant service-sector support. Things never appeared more bleak.

As it turned out, the collapse of Big Steel was the proverbial blessing in disguise. Because it gave Pittsburgh the opportunity to think. The city had to redefine itself—or go under.

Pittsburgh famously did just that.

Granted, while things began sluggishly, at least they began.

Discussions about land re-use, riverfront parks, two new stadia and a massive convention center fueled development interest. Suddenly, it seemed, there was a Hot Metal Bridge to a South Shore Riverfront Park. Trails along the Mon and Allegheny. And more—13 glorious miles of riverfront essentially shorn of history and ready for a new vision.

By 1999, it was clear that “the public wanted to get to the rivers,” Schroeder recalls. “Designers, planners, historians, business people wanted to make Pittsburgh a better place. They found an umbrella in Riverlife.

“Riverlife combusted into being—and when it came together, it was a diverse group with nothing in common but bold thought and action. All those people dared to think long-term. They dared to think that all riverfront projects could be connected—all the bridges, trails, communities, water landings.”

All this for good reason. Because in the highly competitive 21st Century, attracting and retaining the kind of world-class talent it takes to succeed depends not only on economic opportunities, but also on lifestyle and amenities. These days, people with marketable skills can—and will—move anywhere. They may come for a job, but are attracted by, and will stay for, an amenable lifestyle. Up-and-coming Millennials to retirees require a blend of urbanism and outdoors, one that includes river life: trails, boating, living, working.

“Our riverfronts,” Schroeder says, “capitalize on what is truly unique about Pittsburgh. I love the fact that that Pittsburgh is being discovered for its beauty and unique topography. Its intimacy. We are finally bringing the city down to the riverfront. Suddenly two plus two equals 12.”

It's a great day on the rivers. Photo by Tracy Certo.
It’s a great day on the rivers. Photo by Tracy Certo.
It’s a great day on the rivers. Photo by Tracy Certo.

Yet that magic equation won’t stem the tide of out-of-town competition. Pittsburgh is hardly the lone American city with water at its core, and so must constantly compete with other urban areas presenting similar amenities. Cincinnati, Chicago, Houston, Portland and many more cities have active waterside developments. It’s a constant challenge to stay on top of trends which, like water itself, shift every day.

“Great waterfronts are becoming centerpieces of great cities,” Schroeder says. “We cannot slow down our pace.”

And they haven’t.

Instead, it’s accelerating, says Schroeder. “The last two years have been pretty thrilling. Things have been evolving, combusting; ideas are becoming reality. We have 10 active projects, $130 million investment along the riverfronts. All told, there’s been $4 billion — that’s four billion — in new real estate development because of riverfront development. Riverfronts have become a front-door location. And the diversity is thrilling. Restaurants, cultural and sports arenas, corporate headquarters, hotels, infrastructure improvements, housing, parks. These investments help knit together other kinds of projects as well.” Schroeder pauses. “So interesting the changes.

“Now our task is to create a holistic vision,” she adds. “While every project is different — architecture, land use, ownership—they’re all tied together by access to water, greening, community, recreation.”

Easier said than done. That complexity can be maddening. But it is also ameliorated by two factors.

Empress II plying the rivers. Photo by Brian Cohen.
Empress II plying the rivers. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Granted, “riverfront projects are incredibly complex,” Schroeder says, “because they take place at the intersection of terrain and the world’s most precious resource. They’re frustrating but intriguing—every project is like a puzzle. And funding has become increasingly difficult.”

So what Riverlife has done is encourage all parties to combine resources, capture value and create partnerships. “While open space projects are always controversial,” Schroeder says, “they bring out what people really want. But that’s to the good. Because that kind of change requires a community to find its voice and create something completely unique.”

Second, in Pittsburgh it’s a highly propitious time for riverfront development—one rarely seen. “There’s this incredible alignment taking place in all sectors,” Schroeder says. “Government, philanthropies, private investment. This is so rare, such a precious moment. There’s an excitement in the air. Pittsburgh’s making the best of it.”

So is Riverlife. “We’re obsessing about the future,” she says. “Truly, the best is yet to come. We’ve got six-and-a-half miles along the Allegheny River, 11th Street to Highland Park. Some 150,000 people live within a mile of that riverfront. So we created the Allegheny Green Boulevard Plan—a comprehensive waterfront plan with playgrounds, fishing piers, boat moorings.”

“Even more important,” Schroeder adds, “is that we’re hitting the high bar in terms of restoring the environment. Stormwater harvesting and re-use. Creating green infrastructure, environmentally viable, sustainable, regenerative. This is so catalytic that we’re already seeing spontaneous development in the Strip, Lawrenceville, and Garfield. And there’s a lot more excitement to come.”

Maintenance along the riverfront. Brian Cohen photo.
Maintenance along the riverfront. Brian Cohen photo.

Like the planned North Shore Riverfront Park’s western extension to the Carnegie Science Center and Rivers Casino, the West End Pedestrian Bridge, and more.

“We have a tremendous opportunity to look at our next set of goals—especially in environmental regeneration,” Schroeder concludes. “We have a high level of aspiration to do better in the future.” She pauses. “In 15 years we went from a plan—purely a dream—to 13 miles of riverfront that is now 75% completed.

If you build it,” she smiles, “they will come.”

Riverlife is celebrating its 15th anniversary with Party at the Pier: Gold & Glam, its annual fundraiser on–where else?–the waterfront. Get all details and join the party here.

Abby Mendelson is a veteran Pittsburgh writer and reporter. A novelist and short-story writer, he is also the author of numerous Pittsburgh-related books, including Arena: Remembering the Igloo, Pittsburgh: A Place in Time, Pittsburgh Prays: Thirty-Six Houses of Worship, Pittsburgh Born, Pittsburgh Bred, and The Pittsburgh Steelers Official History. As a journalist, he has written on countless subjects in a wide variety of publications, local and national, print as well as electronic.