They once powered steel and commerce, but now Pittsburgh's riverfronts are just as likely to provide a smooth ride for a bicyclist, a workout for a jogger or a front yard for a resident.
It's a renaissance that has been years in the making, and one that advanced on two more fronts yesterday with groundbreaking for a $10.5 million riverfront park on the South Side and conversion of an old steel mill bridge into a bike and pedestrian crossing.
Coupled with two Allegheny County council members' announcement Tuesday of plans for a countywide park running along four rivers, yesterday's events capped a good week for riverfront enthusiasts.
"It's clear that people are looking at the riverfronts in a totally new way, that the riverfronts are a place where environmental reclamation and new recreation and economic development are all coming together," said Lisa Schroeder, executive director of the Riverlife Task Force.
Ms. Schroeder said the renaissance has produced far more than trails and park space. Since 2000, more than $2.5 billion in investment has occurred on the rivers in the Downtown area alone, she said, with $91 million of that representing green space and infrastructure.
Part of the investment has involved riverfront housing. Ms. Schroeder said there are now 800 residential units under development in the city alone.
"It really represents a new kind of growth for Pittsburgh," she said.
The $10.5 million South Shore Riverfront Park will be one of the newest additions.
By its completion, the park, extending from the SouthSide Works complex, will feature trails, fountains, water taxi access, boat docking facilities, benches, a stage, and five acres of green space.
The first phase starts this fall and involves excavation and grading and demolition of a 40-foot-high river wall. That will enable the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority to construct riverfront trails and eventually the park.
Through federal and state sources, foundations and private investment, the URA has secured about half of the funding needed for the full venture. It hopes to have the park completed in three to four years.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said the South Shore project and others are "prime examples of how we can move Pittsburgh forward," not only in providing residents amenities but in helping to attract people to the city.
"We're using our rivers in 2006 in a much different way than we did when the steel industry was here, but we've transformed our city, we've transformed the way we do business, and it's a great story to tell," he said.
The other subject yesterday was the $10.1 million conversion of the Hot Metal Bridge over the Monongahela River into a pedestrian and bike crossing. Built in the early 1900s, the bridge originally carried molten steel from mill furnaces on the South Side to steel production mills on the other side.
As part of the project, a new concrete deck and lighting will be installed. A switchback ramp will be built on the south side of the bridge to connect to the trails there and a new span will be erected over Second Avenue to link the bridge to the Eliza Furnace Trail.
Small belvederes will be added to the bridge to allow users to take in views of the river and the Downtown skyline.
When finished next fall, the bridge will be a critical component in the region's riverfront renaissance, connecting trails in the Golden Triangle, South Side and Oakland. It also will be a key link in the Great Allegheny Passage, the 150-mile trail between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md.
The Allegheny Conference on Community Development has made the Great Allegheny Passage one of the signature projects to be finished in 2008 in time for Pittsburgh's 250th birthday.
There are still nine miles to be secured in Allegheny County, Chief Executive Dan Onorato said. The county has put together a plan to make the connections in time for the 2008 celebration, and has been in working with private owners to gain access to needed property.
The cost of completing the gaps could be as much as $7 million.
One troublesome spot involves Sandcastle water park, whose owners so far haven't allowed a trail on their property. Mr. Onorato is hopeful an agreement can be reached.
"They have legitimate concerns but they're working with us. Everybody's working together on this," he said.
Yesterday's events came on the heels of the plan unveiled by county councilmen David Fawcett, R-Oakmont, and James Burn Jr., D-Millvale, to build a countywide riverfront park system that could cost upwards of $100 million.
The park could run up to 100 miles along one shore or the other of the Ohio, Monongahela, Allegheny and Youghiogheny rivers and feature trails and other amenities, like mountain biking, tennis courts, cross country skiing and playgrounds.
They see the park not only as a way to provide recreational opportunities but to entice and enhance development in the towns along the rivers and the region as a whole. The proposal still faces major hurdles, including funding and property acquisition.
At this time, there also are plans under way for major renovations to Point State Park. The Riverlife Task Force is preparing to begin work on a trail along the Mon Wharf.
As one who has spent years encouraging and planning riverfront revitalization, Ms. Schroeder could not be more pleased with the housing, investment and some of the latest initiatives.
"The momentum seems to be building by the day," she said.Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
State Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, joined Urban Redevelopment Authority and Soffer Organization officials for the groundbreaking for the new Hot Metal bike/pedestrian bridge on the South Side yesterday.
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Mark Belko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1262.