Vivien Li is the new president and CEO of Riverlife, a nonprofit that works to reclaim, restore and promote Pittsburgh’s iconic riverfronts. NEXTpittsburgh caught up with her to discuss how she views our riverfronts now, which of the 20 Riverlife projects has her most excited, and yes, since she brought it up: what’s the next Duck?

You’re a legend in Boston for your work in transforming the Boston Harbor. How did you end up in Pittsburgh?

When a headhunter called about the Riverlife position, it was really the first time in a long time I thought about doing something different. My husband passed away 11 years ago when our children were still in junior high and high school and they were the priority in my life. I wanted stability for them so I knew I would not move from Boston until they finished college.

When I came to Pittsburgh to meet with the search committee, I came a day early so I could explore the city and riverfront on my own. I did a lot of homework and I realized it was an exciting city and an exciting time to be here.

You’ve been on the job about two months – what’s your early assessment of Pittsburgh’s riverfront potential?

Pittsburgh is a city that continues to move forward in a very constructive and innovative manner. And to some extent, it has been overlooked for what has been done and the continuing potential.

Wouldn’t it be great if all our riverfronts were 24/7? To achieve that type of vitality, it means more housing and more jobs. Then we would see more restaurants and shopping follow.

I’d like to see more sustainable and renewable energy projects. There are solar panels on the lights around the Cork Factory that could be done all over the riverfront. I like all the public art and I think we can do more of that.

There is also the potential for water taxis. In Boston, it took several tries to make this idea economically feasible and reach critical mass, but now there are 35 locations where you can be picked up by a water taxi. I think we have the potential for that in Pittsburgh.

One of your success stories is Boston’s 41.5-mile HarborWalk. Do you plan to bring some of those ideas to Pittsburgh?

What made HarborWalk so successful was it wasn’t just the path. It wasn’t just the walkway. It was the amenities that people want to see when they’re on the riverfront. Things like free binoculars, bags for dogs and public restrooms. On a hot day, I’d like to see more places to refill your water bottle or buy a snack, and more places to rent bicycles and kayaks.

Do I plan to try to bring this kind of work to Pittsburgh? Absolutely. I want to work with waterfront property owners on these and other amenities.

Photo courtesy Riverlife
Photo courtesy Riverlife

Riverlife has momentum with over 20 riverfront projects underway or in the pipeline. What has you the most excited?

The Mon Wharf switchback is coming to fruition as well as the Allegheny Landing project. These are really interesting projects that Riverlife has been talking about for a long time. The riverfront park and open space area in the Strip District are also moving forward. I think when people see it they are going to be very pleased. It’s what we hope the riverfronts will be in the 21st century.

What I have also been so impressed with in Pittsburgh is the focus on sustainability.

The mayor and county executive work closely with a shared vision of how to foster what’s going on along the riverfronts. They are talking about green infrastructure and renewable energy. There is a real understanding and appreciation and I’m impressed with that.

Railroads and industrial sites have barricaded communities from the rivers for decades. What happens when you restore public access?

One of the things that comes up a lot is whether we should be thinking beyond the areas where Riverlife traditionally works. How far from the river’s edge should we focus? And how can we better knit the riverfront together with communities?

We’re seeing some good examples of that with the Almono site and connecting with the community of Hazelwood. We’re working on it in the Strip District.

We are starting to think more about it and I’ve brought it to the attention of the board. Foundations are also interested in public access and restoring community connections with the rivers.

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

You had a vision for the waterfront in Boston that many people didn’t share at first. What were you up against and do you think you’ll face similar challenges in Pittsburgh?

Early developers and property owners thought the HarborWalk would go from nowhere to nowhere. They couldn’t envision the revitalization of the harbor.

When I left, the developers were some of our strongest supporters because they saw it made good business sense. Their land became some of the most valuable in New England. And I think that’s what we’re going to see in Pittsburgh as well.

We have to be careful of gentrification, which is one of the challenges Boston is facing right now. The harbor is becoming so popular it’s pushing the rents and the property sales up significantly. The challenge for Pittsburgh is making the riverfronts accessible and enjoyable to all people regardless of income level or ability or disability.

Kayaking on the Allegheny River.
Kayaking on the Allegheny River.  Tracy Certo photo.
Kayaking on the Allegheny River.  Tracy Certo photo.

Pittsburgh has long struggled with sewer overflow and industrial water pollution issues. How important is water quality to riverfront development?

The water quality problems are not as obvious as they were a decade or two ago, but clearly the water quality still has to be improved.

Alcosan is working on a number of things that will improve the water quality under the federal consent decree. I think using green infrastructure is going to be key – and I think the city and county both feel very strongly about this.

As the water quality continues to improve you’re going to see more recreational opportunities along the riverfronts and on the water.

Riverfront development has become a national trend. How can Pittsburgh stay on the cutting edge?

People ask me ‘what’s your next duck?’ What is that next thing that will bring people down to the rivers?

I think it starts with having the amenities that people like. More innovative companies are interested in being in big loft spaces. Pittsburgh has good building stock and our universities want space in some of these riverfront buildings as well. Employees want to be close to the rivers, especially the younger workforce, and they want open space and restaurants.

I’d like to expand entertainment opportunities. The cultural institutions are going to be a factor. I’d like to see more places like the Carnegie Science Center and more performance spaces and public art. As we see more development along the riverfront, people will follow what’s happening.

Also, more people want to live on the rivers. And it’s not just young people who love being in the city. It’s a significant number of empty nesters.

I can see over the next few years Pittsburgh continuing to be the pioneer and to be the model of what other urban centers are going to be looking to.

Michele had every intention of ending up in San Francisco or Seattle but she fell in love with Pittsburgh. Spends most of her time working with nonprofits on planning and communications or running the trails. Believes clean energy is the answer. Dreams of turning her cancer blog into a Broadway show.