State will provide $25 million for Point State Park

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From the Pittsburgh portal that is the Fort Pitt Tunnel, or the overlooks on Mount Washington, Point State Park is the sylvan celebration of a cityscape ranked among the most beautiful in the world.

But up close, the diamond of green at Pittsburgh's Point, long the most recognizable symbol of the city's first Renaissance, has grown rough and threadbare from overuse and neglect.

The stone on its walkways and river promenade is cracked, broken and poorly patched with asphalt. After a rain, mud and puddles abound. Park benches are peeling paint and its rest rooms are festooned with graffiti. The back of the park stage looks like a junk yard, littered with cut logs, fence posts, rolled snow fencing and plastic drums. Tie-ups for boats are bent and rusted.

And the dug-out trench where the bricks of the Music Bastion mark colonial-era battlegrounds are regularly hallowed only by the bedding of the homeless.

Yesterday, though, state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Michael DiBerardinis announced that the state will invest $25 million in a $35 million Point State Park renovation project to improve the green spaces, recreational opportunities, historical installations and outdated amenities at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers.

The four-year funding commitment from the state's capital budget is in addition to $7.1 million in contracts for general contracting, plumbing and electrical work awarded by the state's Department of General Services last month. The remainder of the renovation costs will come from private sources.

The goal is to restore the 35-year-old park to its onetime splendor and re-establish it as an emblem of the city and a valuable regional asset -- one that reflects not only the site's history but the new recreational opportunities afforded by cleaner rivers and its location at the nexus of major hiking and biking trails.

"This face-lift will give people who visit Point State Park the opportunity to connect with the great outdoors by biking, roller blading, strolling and interacting with the water -- all in the heart of the city," Mr. DiBerardinis said at a news conference in the park. Nearby, more than 50 Canada geese grazed on the lawn between him and the fountain spouting pink in honor of national Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Among the improvements planned for the river side of the park, west of the underpass, are new pipes and pumps for the fountain, a seating area around the fountain and a wading area for children; a restored promenade along the rivers with steps into the rivers; information and concession kiosks; rest room renovations, two water taxi landings and dock tie-ups for boats and kayaks; and new connections between the park and the Great Allegheny Passage and Three Rivers Heritage Trail, the bicycle and walking trails that run along the rivers. Wireless Internet access will be provided.

"I see it all around the state, but Pittsburgh is leading the way in opening up its riverfronts and cleaning up the banks and adjacent land," Mr. DiBerardinis said. "These renovations will make the park more user friendly and appealing in a unique and exciting way."

The renovations will make the park more accessible to the 140,000 Downtown workers and the residents of the region, said Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

"It's a great, great park," he said, "for the businesses and the people who live, work and play here."

Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato said the updates and changes "will create a totally different park, not just along the shoreline or on the trails, but in the different way people will use it."

A park master plan calls for renovation work to occur in two phases. The first phase, concentrated on the city side of the highway overpass that bisects the park, will start soon and is expected to be completed by the end of 2007, in time for the gala celebration of Pittsburgh's 250th birthday in 2008.

A schedule for the second phase of work, where most of the $25 million will be spent, has not been determined. Mr. DiBerardinis said design work for Phase II will be decided by the end of this year.

Lisa Schroeder, executive director of the Riverlife Task Force, said some of the most exciting park renovations will occur along its edges, and especially with its connections to riverfront trails along the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers.

"Construction will begin this year on the greenways along the wharf and they will come together with the park for the 2008 celebration," Ms. Schroeder said. "This announcement of state money is a really wonderful boost for the momentum of the project."

Not everyone is as enamored with all aspects of the project or its progress, especially with the plans to fill in the 8-foot-deep trench surrounding the park's reconstructed Music Bastion, a part of which was excavated in 1965 and the remainder reconstructed to simulate Fort Pitt's original walls. It is one of just two historic remnants of Fort Pitt found in the park --- the other being the Blockhouse built in 1764.

Once the trench is filled, granite slabs will be inlaid on the lawn to mark the location of the walls.

Michael Nixon, an attorney, historic preservation consultant and a leader of a group formed to prevent the burying of the bastion, said he has "concerns about the carnival uses of the park that are inappropriate for a battleground."

The Fort Pitt Preservation Society believes the bastion should be preserved and not buried to create a level lawn for nonhistorical activities like the Three Rivers Arts Festival, the Three Rivers Regatta and music concerts.

"That $25 million is a lot of money for a park," Mr. Nixon said. "Sounds like they're trying to build a version of Six Flags over Pittsburgh."

Gene Comoss, DCNR's chief engineer, said the plans to bury the bastion are the result of many public meetings and a thorough planning process.

"In the past we've adapted to uses that were sometimes to the detriment of the park," Mr. Comoss said. "We're not destroying the bastion by burying it. We're preserving it from further deterioration."


Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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