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Riverlife ramping up green projects in Pittsburgh

Bob Bauder
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Nate Smallwood | Trib Total Media
Jenn Stipec, 22, of the South Side tans near the river front on the South Side on May 27, 2016.
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Nate Smallwood | Trib Total Media
Marco and Marie Spalla, of South Fayette sit under the shade of a tree in the river front on the South Side on May 27, 2016.

Pittsburgh newcomer Caitlin Pomorski took the Three Rivers Heritage Trail marker at face value: Point State Park 3.2 miles.

Pomorski, 31, who moved from Forest Hills to Lawrenceville about a month ago, thought it would be an easy jog to the Point from the 40th Street Bridge. She was mistaken.

“I did make it,” she said. “I had to use the GPS on my phone to do so.”

The trail is incomplete on the south side of the Allegheny River, but plans are afoot to start filling in gaps this year, according to Vivien Li, president and CEO of Riverlife, a Downtown organization created in 1999 to shepherdredevelopment of Pittsburgh’s riverfronts.

She outlined plans last week for “Strip District Park” and other improvements including riverbank restoration along the Ohio River between Heinz Field and the West End Bridge.

“This plan is for the next five to 10 years, and it will take a little while to implement all of the elements, but it’s starting this year,” Li said.

Jay Sukernek, Riverlife’s chief financial officer, said the Army Corps of Engineers issued a draft report recommending the removal of high flood walls between the stadium and bridge and restoration of the riverbank to a natural, gradual slope. If approved, Sukernek said, the project would cost about $10 million, with the federal government providing $6 million to $7 million and the rest coming from a local match.

“People will be able to enjoy the water, and flora and fauna will be able to exist,” he said.

Pittsburgh has plowed $130 million during the past 16 years into trails and green space along 13 miles of riverfront from the West End Bridge on the Ohio to the Hot Metal Bridge on the Monongahela River and the 31st Street Bridge on the Allegheny. Known as Three Rivers Park, the series of projects opened wide public access to the rivers for the first time and resulted in $4.1 billion in development, according to a study by Sasaki Associates, a Massachusetts firm hired by Riverlife.

“Here’s the difference,” said Mayor Bill Peduto. “Twenty years ago when Riverlife was created, it was really more about public projects. … Today, we talk about public-private partnerships with developers who are taking on an added role in helping to fund these projects.”

A 2013 Riverlife study estimates it would cost $50 million in public money to create a “Strip District Park” that includes a trail extension from 21st Street to 28th Street, and four public gathering spaces along the way. Plans call for a plaza at 11th Street, landing with boat slips and dining area at 15th Street, overlook and fishing pier at 21st Street and a “grand stair” leading to a fishing area and dock at 26th Street.

It incorporates historical remnants of Pittsburgh’s industrial past, including a concrete crane platform in the river at 21st Street and an electrical tower at 26th.

“Do we see going to the public sector for $50 million? Not really,” Li said.

Steve Guy, president and CEO of Oxford Development, which is building a $400 million office and residential development in the Strip, said riverfront improvements benefit property owners and the city.

“I think developers are supportive,” he said. “I do think that having the amenity and one of the reasons you pay more for property along the river is because it’s there, and people like it.”

Thomas Balestrieri, president and CEO of the Buncher Company, which plans a $450 million mix of offices, shops and residential development from 11th Street to 21st Street, sees the benefit of providing better access to the river.

“We recognize what (Riverlife is) doing has a long-term benefit to the city of Pittsburgh and will add value to all stakeholders along the river, and we will be working with them and the city as it relates to our property,” he said.

Other riverfront improvements totaling more than $6 million are slated for coming months, including a ramp from the Smithfield Street Bridge to the Monongahela Wharf; a connection from the downriver side of the wharf to Point State Park and a public plaza at South Side Works that will run into South Side Riverfront Park.

Funding is being provided by Riverlife, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312.

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