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Boston and Pittsburgh’s Similar Approaches to Waterfront Redevelopment

Written by Amanda Maher

Pittsburgh and Boston largely abandoned their waterfronts in the wake of deindustrialization. The three rivers converging just on the outskirts of downtown Pittsburgh once powered mills and factories along their banks. In Boston, the pier-lined Harbor provided deep water access to adjacent manufacturing plants and warehouses. With the decline of industry in the latter half of the 20th century, development shifted downtown. In both cities commerce moved away from the waterfront, which had been heavily contaminated by decades of manufacturing.

Another unsuspected parallel between the cities: In 1991, task forces came together in each city to revitalize their respective waterfronts. In Pittsburgh, the Friends of the Waterfront (reincorporated as “Riverlife” in 2008) advocated for riverfront development that would create new linkages for pedestrians and bicyclists who wanted direct access to the rivers, as detailed in a recent What Works Case Study. Meanwhile, The Boston Harbor Association (TBHA) focused more explicitly on cleaning up what had become known as one of the dirtiest harbors in the country.

Plans for both efforts were ambitious. Large highways, railroad tracks, parking lots and other infrastructure created physical barriers between the cities’ neighborhoods and the waterfront. Master plans were created for each district to realize each of their goals: improvements to a 13-mile stretch of waterfront in Pittsburgh and a 47-mile stretch along Boston Harbor.

Each waterfront district had a number of catalytic projects that moved waterfront revitalization forward. Boston’s waterfront was helped by several new developments: a federal courthouse, a convention center (with associated hotels) and a handful of large commercial projects, like the relocation of the Vertex Pharmaceuticals Headquarters to a waterfront area later dubbed as the “Innovation District”. Riverfront development in Pittsburgh was given a boost by the construction of PNC Park, Heinz Field and a new convention center.

One of the strategies that both advocacy organizations employed was to require that developers of all new waterfront properties contribute to some portion of the redevelopment efforts abutting their sites. As Vivien Li, founding Executive Director of TBHA, recently explained to WBUR Radio: “At the time, each individual development that would come along would have to do a segment of the Harbor Walk. And when I started, it was these individual unconnected segments, and developers would say, ‘Well why do I have to build this Harbor Walk? It goes from nowhere to nowhere,’ and I said, someday it’s all going to be connected.”

True to her word, Li has spearheaded Boston Harbor’s transformation, which now includes 41 miles of an interconnected Harbor Walk. The Harbor Walk begins north of Boston in Winthrop and extends south to Quincy, providing waterfront access to residents of some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods along the way. Unprecedented development has occurred along the waterfront, with, most recently, the mixed-use development of a $3.5 billion, 23-acre “Seaport Square”.

In Pittsburgh, more than 80 percent of the 13-mile Three Rivers Park loop has been completed to date. These waterfront trails and parks have not only helped make the areas more attractive for development but also helped to ensure waterfront access for all residents.

Today, each city has a waterfront that draws residents, visitors and businesses alike, creating jobs and strengthening local economies.  Through multi-pronged stakeholder efforts, Boston Harbor has been transformed in to one of the cleanest urban harbors in the country. How clean? More than 90 percent of the time, more than 90 percent of Boston Harbor’s beaches are swimmable, providing accessible recreation opportunities for residents.

An independent economic impact analysis found that Riverlife’s efforts have been equally successful: Since 2000, every dollar of Riverlife operating support (totaling $12.5 million) has leveraged $11 additional dollars invested in riverfront projects—totaling $130 million. Every dollar invested in a riverfront park or trail has lured $32 in private sector investment on adjacent properties, totaling $4.1 billion. Property values and tax revenue have risen dramatically, thanks in large part to the thousands of new jobs and housing units that have flocked to these cities waterfront neighborhoods.

Both waterfront redevelopment efforts have benefited from continuity of leadership. Vivien Li led TBHA for 24 years, and Elisabeth Schroeder was at the helm of Riverlife for 20. Only recently did Schroeder decide to move on, accepting a position with the Parks & People Foundation in Baltimore. Given the similarities between TBHA and Riverlife’s ambitious waterfront redevelopment efforts, it’s perhaps no surprise that Riverlife tapped Li to fill the position. The transition officially happened earlier this month.

While the role will be a different one for Li – Riverlife has an annual budget nearly four times the size of TBHA – her mission will very much be the same: to continue the reclamation, restoration and redevelopment of one of the city’s most valuable assets—its waterfront.


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