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Pittsburgh's riverfronts will continue to attract investment

| Tuesday, April 13, 2010, 12:00 p.m.

About $4 billion has been invested in Pittsburgh's riverfronts since 1999, and at least as much will be spent in the next decade, an environmentalist predicted yesterday.

"We don't see it slowing," said Lisa Schroeder, executive director of Riverlife. "There is still a great amount of developable property in the city."

Schroeder spoke after a seminar, "Philanthropy's Role in Revitalizing Pittsburgh," that was part of the national conference of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations in the Hilton, Downtown. About 500 philanthropists, representing $150 billion in assets, attended.

Schroeder served on a panel with Caren Glotfelty, director of the environment program for The Heinz Endowments, and Brian J. Hill, a program officer with the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

They detailed the history of Pittsburgh's "renaissances" that improved the quality of the city's air and water, revitalized the Downtown and developed its riverfronts.

Between the 1920s and 1940s, the city averaged 165 tons of soot per square mile in a month, Hill said. Some areas averaged 600 tons per square mile in a month.

He said city leaders, Jack Heinz and Richard King Mellon recognized the city had to clean up its air, to prevent people and businesses from leaving and to attract growth.

The foundations later worked together to create Pittsburgh's Cultural District.

"In the 1970s and '80s, Pittsburgh was relatively seedy," Hill said.

He said the city and foundation officials used a top-down approach that did not always work. He cited malls developed in the North Side and East Liberty, and the uprooting of residents in the Hill District to build Mellon Arena.

In contrast, the city and foundations encouraged public participation when gathering ideas for riverfront development. The eventual construction of PNC Park and Heinz Field pushed the boundaries of Downtown across the river.

Schroeder said $113 million was spent on riverfront infrastructure and $90 million on roadways around the rivers. Glotfelty estimated that local foundations gave a total of $50 million to develop the riverfronts.

As a result, more people are using the rivers. Schroeder said there were 15,000 kayak rentals on the Allegheny River last year, compared to 2,500 a few years ago.

The next phase includes development of 13 miles of riverfront, called Three Rivers Park, from the West End Bridge to the 31st Street Bridge and to the Hot Metal Bridge. That is expected to be completed by 2020.

A remaining issue, though, is the release of sewer overflow into the rivers by 83 municipalities, Glotfelty said. That is expected to cost between $5 billion and $10 billion to fix.

One of the convention goers congratulated Pittsburgh on its improvements.

"I never realized the amount of effort that went into the reclamation of these lands," said Les Phillips, board chairman of the Alberta Real Estate Foundation in Calgary, Canada.

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