Shedding its industrial past, riverfront living goes upscale
January 4, 2016 12:00 AM
Gail James, right, a resident of Chapel Harbor at the Water, plays with his dogs Brody, left, and Charlie as he talks with, from left, Rich Kowal, Debbie Sparks and Kiley Shively.
Rich Kowal is a resident of Chapel Harbor at the Water.
Gail James is a resident of Chapel Harbor at the Water.
Debbie Sparks is a resident of Chapel Harbor at the Water.
By Tim Grant / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
After living on the river for two years at Washington’s Landing, Gail James and his wife Gay Fogarty a year ago relocated to Chapel Harbor at the Water where he walks along the Allegheny River with his two dogs at least twice a day, admiring wildlife and witnessing changes along the river.
“There’s a lot of interesting bird life at all times during the year,” Mr. James said.
He and his neighbors in the upscale, mixed housing development in O’Hara are among a growing number of Pittsburgh residents seizing the opportunity to make their homes along the three rivers now that more residential housing developers are recognizing the demand for riverfront living.
Chapel Harbor at the Water is a 48-acre tract that consists of condominiums, town homes, carriage homes and single-family homes ranging in price from $300,000 for a town home to about $1 million for single-family homes and condos. It also has a business office area and UPMC Lighthouse, which is an independent living facility.
Other riverfront communities in the Pittsburgh area that have attracted high-end buyers include Oakmont’s Edgewater development, the former site of Edgewater Steel facility; and Washington’s Landing, formerly known as Herr’s Island, a former meat processing slaughter house.
“Previously industrial sites have been converted to luxury housing, and people can’t get enough of these housing units along cleaned-up sites on the riverfront,” said Vivien Li, president of RiverLife, a Downtown-based riverfront advocacy group.
“People love being on the trail and open spaces, and close to the symphony, museums and the Cultural District,” Ms. Li said. “There are people moving from places like Fox Chapel to live on the riverfront.“
This series examines the ways the Pittsburgh region’s defining waterways help shape its economic opportunities.
Debbie Sparks is one of them. She had originally lived off Pasadena Drive in Fox Chapel when she returned to Pittsburgh from Kentucky two years ago to care for her aging mother. ”I had a beautiful property,“ she said. ”But it was a lot of land to keep up, and I was used to a community.
“When I discovered this down here, I was thrilled,” said Ms. Sparks, who has lived on the river for a year now. “I came from Louisville, Ky., and this was much more similar to the area that I lived in. I liked the sidewalks and I like the neighbors.”
A rehabilitated image
While Pittsburgh’s rivers have become so improved that they are now being used as a source of drinking water, it was not always that way.
By the early 1900s, Pittsburgh’s three rivers were dominated by steel mills, fuel storage tanks, boatyards, chemical plants and railroads, which sprawled for miles and blocking any public access to the water. The rivers were so filthy from industrial waste that not many people would have wanted to go near them anyway.
Generation after generation of industrial abuse rendered the rivers useless for anything but the transport of raw materials to area industries and the carrying away of refuse. The rivers were notorious for being dangerous and foul-smelling.
“In the past, these upscale communities along the river would not have been possible,” said Rob Walters, executive director of Three Rivers Waterkeeper, based in Oakland.
It was excruciating when the steel mills began closing in the 1970s and 1980s, and workers lost their jobs in droves. Yet that would eventually open up the rivers for new kinds of development.
“We are now realizing the rivers are the greatest asset we have,” said Mr. Walters. “And they have been refocused for tourism, recreation and creating desirable communities where people live.”
Two developers — Oxford Development and the Buncher Co. — are planning to build rental housing units along the Allegheny River in the Strip District and in Lawrenceville.
Ms. Li said the RiverLife organization is working with both companies to make sure their developments incorporate amenities such as parks, bicycle racks, public seating and cafes.
“These units will primarily be rentals, but the developers are looking at the potential for condos and townhomes, too,” Ms. Li said. “Empty-nesters along with young professionals are the ones fostering the interest in these developments in the city.
“The empty-nesters will continue to be a major factor in the market for more luxury housing on the waterfront. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met 50 years old and older on bikes on the trail on a regular basis. They love it.”
Rich Kowal, an avid bicyclist and president of the homeowners association at Chapel Harbor at the Water, has lived in the community with his wife Sara for eight of the 10 years it has existed.
Mr. Kowal said the former site for warehouses and heavy industry now provides an upscale living environment for 425 total residents who now populate the development’s condos, townhomes, single-family homes and its senior independent living facility.
“People fish off the pier,” he said. “We also have some boaters who fish on the river.
“We have a lot of diverse types of boats during the summer. We have everything from kayakers to motor boats to barges that float up and down the river. It’s fairly active during the summer.”
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