Talking with ... The Riverlife Task Force's Lisa Schroeder

She's helping to make her vision of city riverfronts a reality

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Lisa Schroeder is executive director of the Riverlife Task Force, a nonprofit organization whose primary mission is to implement plans for Three Rivers Park, a development of continuous trails and green space along the 13-mile waterfront loop between the West End Bridge on the Ohio River, the 31st Street Bridge on the Allegheny River and the Hot Metal Bridge on the Monongahela River.

Q: How did growing up in Baltimore, where the waterfront has become a major tourist destination, impact your career, especially your current role with Riverlife Task Force?

A: In the 1970s, when I was in high school, there was no waterfront development in Baltimore. I had a unique window on it because my father was chief executive of Charles Center Inner Harbor Management, a nonprofit mechanism invented by the city and business leaders [in 1965] to raise public funds to invest in the waterfront edge and lure private development.

Baltimore was in a devastating state of loss of population and industry, and the city was in a very active mode of trying to save itself. It took years to lure the first private developer, the Hyatt Hotel. There was investment in cultural and public facilities including the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center. The turning point was the [U.S.] Bicentennial in 1976 when the Tall Ships came to Baltimore. It was the first time large numbers of people came down [to the waterfront].

Now, the residential and mixed-use development is spreading down the harbor. So Baltimore's story is my seed for optimism about Pittsburgh. In Baltimore, it took seven mayoral administrations and decades.

People were skeptical. When my Dad was working on it, people would pat me on the head and say, "People won't go Downtown."

Q: Do you encounter the same kind of skepticism here when you talk about riverfront redevelopment?

A: Several years ago, we would take people out on the rivers and look at the amazing topography -- and the scale of it is really unique in American cities -- and people would pat me on the shoulder and say, "Good luck with that." But there's another similarity between Pittsburgh and Baltimore: a coming together of a kind of community energy around a moment of crisis. That, I believe, is truly what it takes to seed any urban transformation project. There's no question people in Pittsburgh feel the rivers belong to them. They are a resource and natural treasure that resonate with everyone. All of the plans in the world will not come to fruition without that kind of energy.

Q: What is the status of Three Rivers Park?

A: We have three capital projects going on now: the revitalization of Point State Park, the conversion of the Mon Wharf Landing and the design of the West End Pedestrian Bridge. All of the interior Point Park project on both sides of the portal should be finished for the city's 250th anniversary in 2008. That includes the amphitheater and a water taxi entry to the park at the Fort Pitt Museum. There will be a whole new way to enter the park from the water. Of course, we want the Point State Park fountain to be mile zero [for the 250th anniversary].

The Mon Wharf will include construction of a trail and connection to the Smithfield Street Bridge and Eliza Furnace Trail. That project is going out to bid within several weeks and should be under construction this summer. We are hastening to put this section of trail in and make it ready for the 250th anniversary. At the West End Bridge, there is a gap in the [13-mile] loop on both sides because the bridge soars way above the riverfront trail. So the winning [pedestrian bridge] design is a cable suspended bridge to be hung off the bow-tie arch of the bridge itself with ramps that connect to the riverbanks on both sides.

Of the 13 miles of riverfront within our area of focus, at our last count 61 percent of it was in place with trail and riverfront park along the edge. Twenty percent more is under way very actively. The Convention Center Riverfront Park is in final design. The South Shore Riverfront Park is a remarkable new park that will scale down from the South Side Works to the water: a 30-foot drop with a series of terraces, stairs, ramps, entertainment venues and a marina. That is in its final design. And we're working on plans for future riverfront development from Heinz Field to the West End Bridge and back to Station Square.

We know that $2.5 billion has been invested just along the water along the 13 miles we call the loop right in Pittsburgh. Another $1 billion is in the planning stages now. So we will likely see $3.5 billion invested in Downtown riverfront sites since 1999. Our goal really is to have an unstoppable train moving toward completion by 2010. By 2020, our goal is to have the riverfronts be the economical and recreational center of life, so that will in all likelihood include ... organizing harbor activities and all the things that come with more and more active use and that layer on to the capital investment we are making so that we will come.

Q: How does the proposed Majestic Star Casino on the North Shore fit into your organization's vision?

A: The casino proposal (from Detroit businessman Don Barden) includes one of the highest quality riverfront parks to ever be delivered in a private project. There are questions about how the property owners will best connect that site with other sites so that all the destinations along the north side of the [Allegheny] riverbank have equal and seamless access.

Q: What was your first impression of Pittsburgh and its rivers?

A: The late 1970s was probably the first time I ever came to Pittsburgh [Her husband, Howison Schroeder, was raised here]. My first, most vivid memory of being in Pittsburgh was standing underneath the [Point Park] Fountain, which at that point was a reasonably new icon for the city. It was shooting to full height, so it was an absolutely monumental experience. Because I am an urban development junkie, I think I just had a gut-level response to the bold move of taking a core Downtown and converting it into a green symbol for life in the city. I did not yet know the power of Pittsburgh's particular history and industrial history.

Q: Besides Baltimore, what other cities inspire you in terms of their waterfront development?

A: Chicago, I think, is a wonderful model for Pittsburgh because the Chicago River weaves right through the city, and they have taken a similar approach in putting together design guidelines with the city, as we have done, and adopting them as each unique project comes forward. They add up to a publicly accessible place.

Providence, R.I., is a wonderful example of a small, struggling city that has made a river a signature calling card. Obviously, San Antonio is a terrific example. Camden, N.J., is now turning itself around starting from the water's edge. In Philadelphia, the Schuylkill River projects are very similar to Pittsburgh's in access challenges. The Schuylkill is laced with railroad tracks, bridges and highways, and they are figuring out how to weave them into a series of connections.

Overseas, I think Newcastle, England, is a great example of a city that has applied a standard of timeless urban design excellence as a means of making the riverfronts the place where people want to come for important occasions. And New York City has so many lessons for Pittsburgh. Not only Battery Park City, which is one of the most inspiring urban waterfronts in the world, but Hudson River Park, which is a very similar scenario to Pittsburgh's, where a riverfront park is being built one piece at a time, woven into each neighborhood ... with a state-of-the-art trail system and beautiful landscaping and piers along the way.

Q: Do you ever get discouraged?

A: Yes. But I also have been accused of being relentless. I have to say with all honesty, my moments of discouragement are fewer and fewer all the time. One need only take a boat ride with a group of people who have not been out on the rivers in a while and watch their level of excitement, and that says it all. People can really see ... you can look at the riverbank on the North Side and see people of all ages using it for all possible reasons, and it's easy now to imagine what it will be like when this is fully connected.

Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
Click photo for larger image.
Lisa Schroeder
Job: Executive director, Riverlife Task Force

Age: 51

Hometown: Baltimore; resides in West Shadyside

Education: Bachelor's, art and art history, William Smith College, 1978; master's, planning and preservation, Columbia University, School of Architecture, 1985.

Career: 1983-86: project director, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission; 1986-88: historic preservation specialist, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; 1990-94: manager, Place Economics (formerly Real E Services Group); 1995-98: director of education, Greater Portland Landmarks Inc.; 1999-2002: deputy director, Riverlife Task Force; 2002-03: managing director, Riverlife Task Force; 2003-present: executive director, Riverlife Task Force.


Listen In:
Comments by Lisa Schroeder:

First impressions of Pittsburgh

Encouraging signs for the future



Joyce Gannon can be reached at jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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