Proposed riverfront developments show great potential

John Conti
| Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Urban planners don't have an easy time of it. The success of their work depends almost entirely on how well people respond to the streets and spaces they create.

So it is with the super-critical task we face in our region right now of redeveloping our riverfronts. With so many old mill sites now vacant and unused along our three rivers, planners and developers have the daunting challenge of creating attractive, new 21st century cityscapes that will bring people back to the rivers.

Our rivers and hills, after all, are what make us different from most other cities, and that gives us a unique physical and scenic comparative advantage that we can exploit — if we do it right.

Let's take a look today, then, at two current redevelopment plans. They are just plans, and we don't know yet how well they will turn out. But, unlike some of our recent mill-site redevelopments, both are specifically designed to do that one big thing: bring people to the rivers.

Both plans have been developed by the same local design firm, the Rothschild-Doyno Collaborative, which is headquartered in the Strip District.

One plan is for a mixed-use development — offices, light industry and housing along the Monongahela in Hazelwood where much of the Pittsburgh Works of the old Jones & Laughlin Steel (later LTV Steel) was situated.

The other is a housing development fronting on the Allegheny in Oakmont, at the site of the former Edgewater Steel.

The Hazelwood project — called Almono after our three rivers — is being sponsored by four local foundations. It starts near the old Hot Metal Bridge and extends to the existing neighborhoods of Hazelwood, covering about 1.6 miles of riverfront in all. Second Avenue is one side, and the Monongahela the other.

Its big advantage is that it is essentially just over the hill from the universities in Oakland, and the hope is to attract high-tech-related business tenants associated with the universities. One part of the site is already being used by Carnegie Mellon University researchers to store and test robotic vehicles.

There are three characteristics of the plan worth calling out. One is it's careful separation of office sites from manufacturing and manufacturing from residential. In fact, a park spanning the width of the development would separate the residential district from the manufacturing. Additional parkland would permit pedestrian access to the river for residents.

Also, the streets of the residential neighborhood will match the grid of existing Hazelwood streets, and the new residences will depend on the existing commercial main street of Hazelwood for almost all retail services. This will help revitalize Hazelwood, rather than compete with it. This contrasts sharply with, for example, the Waterfront development in Homestead, where a huge retail complex did nothing at all to help the rest of the municipality.

At the same time, the third and perhaps most important feature is a central boulevard designed with pedestrians in mind that will run alongside the river in front of the office buildings, past the manufacturing center and then curve into the residential district. The office buildings will front on this boulevard and can be entered from it. The boulevard won't involve fast-moving traffic. It will be one lane only in each direction with parking on both sides.

This will keep the traffic moving steadily but slowly and, along with parkland and plantings beside and between the boulevard and the river, will make it an ideal walking location, with broad sidewalks, a trail and cycling lanes, as well.

At Oakmont, a different strategy is proposed for a privately funded residential development called River's Edge. Here, a key feature is a broad entrance avenue — it is actually an extension of Oakmont's main street — that bisects an essentially triangular site set on a low bluff along the Allegheny. The avenue, lined with various types of residences, leads directly to a large park at the river. The parkland is below the bluff, on flatland right on the river and sloping lawns and steps through the park would enable residents to walk right to the water's edge.

There's plenty of reason to believe this kind of parkland would attract residents and take advantage of the river. For one thing, a part of the development devoted to four- and five-story condominium apartments would front on the park, creating the kind of population density that is desirable next to parkland.

What both plans have in common — and what is lacking in some of our existing riverfront developments — is that one thing that tends to make any urban environment ideal: easily accessible shared public spaces.

It's a fact that, since time immemorial, great urban spaces have depended on people going to where other people are! (And on foot, incidentally, not in long lines of hermetic automobiles.) It's a simple enough lesson, but one many developers out of expedience have ignored.

Planning revisions on both the Hazelwood and Oakmont sites are continuing. And it will be some years before we will know how well either plan will work out. But you can see in each — in a pedestrian boulevard in one case, in a specially designed parkland that takes advantage of its site in another — aspects of the kind of easily accessible shared public spaces that can potentially make a riverfront redevelopment great.

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

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