A riverfront that breathes: Buncher's Strip District project needs a wide, park-like setback
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Crumbling riverbanks are not a new phenomenon in Pittsburgh. The Monongahela River takes its name from a Native American word which means "falling banks," indicating that gravity has been tumbling the riverbanks toward the water since long before the first European settlers arrived to claim the Pittsburgh peninsula as a promising location for trade and defense. We live in a city that has always had a dynamic yet challenging relationship with its three rivers: We are here because of them, and they carve out our future.
Much like gravity, present-day development along the Allegheny riverfront is moving swiftly with a sense of inevitability. Six-and-a-half miles of riverfront stretch from the Downtown convention center through the Strip District up through Highland Park. Very few cities have this sort of prime opportunity to transform an urban riverfront so close to the downtown core.
Last month Riverlife testified before the City of Pittsburgh Planning Commission to support a 95-foot setback for the large-scale development between the Veterans Bridge and 21st Street, called Riverfront Landing, proposed by the Buncher Co. More specifically, we need 95 feet of space from the water line to the building line, as recommended for the Allegheny Riverfront in the Green Boulevard planning process, an initiative of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and the recipient of $1.5 million of federal Sustainable Communities funding.
In the many ongoing conversations around preservation and financing, a critical point is being lost. The unassuming Strip District riverfront trail that is well-used and loved is also situated on a steep and failing riverbank. That trail is fairly narrow, less than 10 feet in some areas. Riverbank slopes along the trail are as steep as 26 percent. Engineering and ecological studies show that portions of the existing riverfront could erode in as little as 10 years. This poses a substantial safety issue, not to mention a significant loss of public open space.
Why is it so important to allow a minimum of 95 feet of space between the river and the proposed buildings? The answer is simple. A great riverfront development needs space. Space to ensure that the riverbank will remain safe and stable. Space to create a riverfront park that will feature the public attractions that make Pittsburgh's riverfronts so enjoyable. Space to match the current standard of Pittsburgh's world-class riverfront parks.
The proposed Riverfront Landing plan shows a 50-to-70-foot setback between the water and the building line with little definition of how the riverfront will look or how it will be stabilized and improved. We are talking about only an additional 25 to 40 feet for a 38-acre, $400 million development. By comparison, Pittsburgh's other recently created riverfront parks have a much wider setback.
The popular North Shore, for instance, features an average of over 175 feet between the buildings and water, with a 350-foot setback at the widest point. The new South Shore Riverfront Park at SouthSide Works has an average setback of 150 feet, and the privately financed riverfront park at Rivers Casino averages around 115 feet. This is the new standard for Pittsburgh's riverfront public spaces, and it's changing our former image of a city that has ignored or abused its riverbanks. Pittsburgh is undergoing a waterfront renaissance. All this has been accomplished in the past with the support of developers and Pittsburgh's mayors.
In building Three Rivers Park as Pittsburgh's 13-mile interconnected Downtown riverfront park system, we've learned that creating the necessary space for riverfront parks adds value to the adjacent property and improves our economy. It enhances our ecology by stabilizing banks, treating stormwater and creating breathing room for birds, fish and plants to thrive. And the breadth of space creates popular destinations and allows for recreational amenities like the North Shore's "water steps" fountain, new boat landings, generous promenades for walking and biking, plenty of room for seating, and inviting landscapes with lawns, trees and flowers. In other words, great riverfronts give back -- in multiples -- to the community.
In the dozens of public sessions that have taken place as part of the city's Allegheny Riverfront Green Boulevard Plan and Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan, community feedback calls for riverfront features like a pedestrian/bike corridor, fishing pier, splash pool and other public amenities. To allow for these important people-centered amenities, it's critical to address these issues of space and planning from the very beginning of the project; as we've seen with the North Shore, a great riverfront park sets the stage to attract high-quality investment nearby.
With the right collaboration -- and 95 feet of breathing room -- together we can create a riverfront park that is a game-changer for Pittsburgh. The Allegheny Riverfront has the potential to be a must-see destination for visitors and a magnet for the people who live here that builds on the gritty, fun, eclecticism of the Strip District and that finally unites the neighborhood with its long-divorced riverfront. That is, as long as we allow the space to do so.
On behalf of the community we would appeal to the Buncher Co. to reconsider its blueprint and to work with us to safeguard the future of Pittsburgh's rivers for all its citizens.
First Published July 16, 2012 12:00 am