The Allegheny Riverfront in Pittsburgh is currently a post-industrial wasteland of warehouses, parking lots, and vegetation overgrowth. Access to the waterfront is not only difficult, but undesirable, and residents along both shores of the river suffer from a dearth of green space.
With an eye to restoring the river, riverfront property, and returning it to city residents, the final draft of the Allegheny Riverfront Vision was presented to a rapt audience of 200 people at the Heinz History Center last week. After a year of design work and a series of community meetings, the plan includes a heavy emphasis on:
• Transit-oriented development
• Restoring the ecological balance of the river
• Increasing the tree canopy
• Making the river and riverfront property desirable and accessible to residents
• Reducing car usage by providing viable alternatives to automobiles
• Providing greater connectivity for residents to other areas of the city
• Ensuring economic vitality of the study area
One innovative element is the “green boulevard” along the river which will be a multi-modal route incorporating a commuter rail, and bicycle and pedestrian paths to connect the neighborhoods of the Strip District and Lawrenceville. The lush, shady, verdant route will provide a safe way for people of all ages to enjoy active transportation: getting exercise while getting around.
Additionally, the Riverfront Vision plan calls for a trolley / streetcar system. This idea seems to have been buzzing around for several years now, but Steve Quick, one of the principals on the design team excitedly pointed out that things were on track to have trolleys operational far sooner than anyone had anticipated. He added that these would be great for the city because “everybody loves to ride trolleys.”
Streetcar enthusiasm is sweeping the nation and at least 22 cities are planning to have working streetcar lines in the next two years. I spoke with Lena Andrews of the Urban Redevelopment Authority who said that Pittsburgh is likely several years away from realizing this technology. Still ahead is a costly and time-consuming engineering analysis before the city can apply for federal funding and tracks can be laid. This is certainly a worthwhile endeavor which will have numerous benefits for the city of Pittsburgh and the region. In addition to reducing dependence on automobiles, streetcars inspire dense, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and spur tremendous economic activity. According to Rick Gustafson, Executive Director of Portland Streetcar Inc., “In ten years, there’s been $3.5 billion of private investment along the Portland Streetcar line.” He added “fifty-three percent of the development in downtown since 1997 has been within a block of the streetcar line.”
Pittsburgh’s geography is unusual and is define by three rivers (the Allegheny, the Ohio, and the Monongahela) and tremendously steep hills which present exciting transportation challenges and opportunities. Pittsburgh’s current public transportation system includes buses, bus rapid transit, limited light rail, and two funicular railway lines. The landscape offers tremendous potential to incorporate other methods of people-moving, including boats, ferries, and an aerial tram like the ones in Portland and New York. Currently a lack of docks and loading ports prevents a ferry system from being realized, but if docks were constructed, ferries and boats could stimulate development along the riverfront. Incorporated into the larger transit system, ferries could do much to alleviate the car traffic that is clogging the roadways, especially the commuters from the suburbs who have few options but driving.
Pursuing a policy of regenerative development will allow the city and people of Pittsburgh to continue thriving economically while creating green jobs that improve the region. Though still a bit bruised from the steel town days, Pittsburgh is improving rapidly and being recognized widely for it: the city was chosen as the U.S. host for the U.N. World Environment Day and was once again named “Most Livable City.”