Careless development could cut off riverfront

John Conti
| Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, 9:00 p.m.

Just a little more than 15 years ago, there were vast tracts of barren, bull-dozed land along our riverfronts — all places where industry used to be.

There was no Waterfront development yet where U.S. Steel's huge Homestead Works once were, no Washington's Landing on Herr's Island where stockyards used to be, and no SouthSide Works or Pittsburgh Technology Center to replace the old Pittsburgh Works of Jones & Laughlin Steel, situated on both sides of the Monongahela for almost 100 years.

Most industrial uses on the near North Side (including a huge scrap yard opposite the Point) had been cleared away in the 1960s for Three Rivers Stadium and its endless parking lots. But what we now proudly call the “North Shore” was still something to be imagined. There was no Heinz Field, PNC Park or Rivers Casino.

But with so much having been done in such a short time – and with other formerly industrial riverfront land still awaiting development, how well have we been doing? Have we taken good advantage of our newly accessible river and valley terrain — certainly one of the most unusual and dramatic urban settings in the world?

The answer, in fact, is complicated. Our results so far and our plans going forward are very much mixed.

Yes, we have done amazing things — particularly when you consider the scale of the giant, old steel mills that were torn down and scraped away. New development along the North Shore is exemplary; shoreline development on the South Side is attractive; and sophisticated land-use plans have been developed for abandoned industrial riverfront at places as varied as Hazelwood and Oakmont.

But, at the same time, much of what we've done and plan to do ranges from bad to blah — poor development where we basically turn our backs to the vistas along our rivers and fail to create the kind of shared public spaces along the riversides that would make our city truly great.

Consider first what's good along the North Shore. Aside from several significant monuments and memorials, the shoreline is distinguished by broad walkways designed for strolling at or near the river level all the way from the Sixth Street Bridge on the Allegheny, past the new ballparks and Carnegie Science Center, to the Rivers Casino on the Ohio.

This entire area displays broad lawns, generous building setbacks from the rivers and stylish landscaping. The casino, which was designed to face the Ohio, has, interestingly enough, some of the best landscaping — mixing colorful brick walkways, artful street furniture and a riverfront amphitheater with sophisticated plantings.

Moreover, another outstanding feature not too far away is a long, brick-paved promenade that runs along the top of the embankment overlooking the Allegheny. It's set in front of the new office buildings and stretches from PNC Park almost the whole way to Heinz Field. With sidewalk seating space for restaurants along the way, it is the kind of grand public gesture that you expect to see in Europe, not in the United States.

On the South Side, work underway near the Hot Metal Bridge promises to create a smaller-scale but accessible and urbane riverside park contiguous with the commercial development there.

But not everything is quite that good. The Pittsburgh Technology Center, on the opposing bank of the Monongahela, is much vaunted as a brilliant mill-site reclamation project. Fair enough. But, in design, it is simply a row of office buildings that don't relate to the river or to each other. They could be anywhere. Several are very high-quality architecture, but given the simplistic planning of the site, they might nevertheless be considered the 21st-century equivalent of “little boxes all in a row.”

To find something that's much worse, though, you need only go a little further up the Mon to Homestead.

One part of the Waterfront development in Homestead features a pleasant village-like cluster of small-scale stores built around a pedestrian-friendly “town square.” But a five-lane access road between this town square and the Monongahela effectively isolates it from the river — despite a pedestrian bridge little used by shoppers. Worse, the rest of the Waterfront consists of an equally isolated and unwalkable nearly one-mile-long string of parking lots bordered by “big box” stores.

The river might as well not be there. Except for some of the townhouses, none of other restaurants and office buildings “front” on the river and the access road makes them nearly impossible to reach except by automobile. An attractive trail winds along the river in a very narrow space behind the buildings, but getting there is anything but easy, and you can count no fewer than 11 parking lots fronting the river and trail.

In part, these kinds of problems are also what's objectionable in the Buncher Co. plan for the Strip District, between the Strip's shopping areas and the Allegheny.

Given plans today, the setbacks from the rivers are stingy; there will be too much surface parking for what should be a very urban space; some of the residential buildings are envisioned with parking facing the river; and there will be no public feature running alongside the river other than an existing trail. Just as at the Technology Center, buildings will simply line up in a row, dully turning their backs to the river.

And just like the Waterfront's pedestrian bridge, the lone pedestrian feature planned by Buncher — walkways along a street leading to an overlook at the river – is likely to be rarely used by shoppers.

So we've done some good things in recent years. But if we're not careful, we'll waste some of our region's best assets going forward. Where we were once blocked from the rivers by mills, we run the risk of blocking ourselves off with insipid and uninspired commercial development.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.


Show commenting policy