Pittsburgh’s renewed economy taps the revitalizing power of water

When Lisa Schroeder arrived in Pittsburgh 16 years ago, she remembers the city’s rivers being viewed as little more than a “toxic highway.”

Back then, the riverfronts were a “pretty dreary” lot as well, she recalled. Developers shied away from them. And whatever riverside amenities existed probably occurred more by accident than design.

Ms. Schroeder, former president and CEO of Riverlife, marvels at how things have changed since she first arrived from Portland, Maine. These days, Pittsburgh’s riverfronts have gone from dreary to dynamic. From the North Shore to the South Side to the East End, developers that once spurned the land along the rivers now are clamoring to build on them.

A study done for Riverlife, the organization formed in 1999 to shepherd riverfront development, estimates about $130 million has been invested in trails and other improvements in the last 15 years. That, in turn, has helped to spur nearly $4.1 billion in development.

Some of the most ambitious projects are still to come. In all, more than $1.5 billion worth of waterfront development is in the works.

Despite the gaps and concerns, Ms. Schroeder, now president and CEO of the People and Parks Foundation in Baltimore, Maryland saw first hand in her 15 years heading Riverlife how the city and its riverfronts had changed — along with outsiders’ impressions.

When she first started and told people she was from Pittsburgh, they “would search for something positive to say,” she recalled.

Now when I say I’m from Pittsburgh, eyes light up and they have wonderful things to say. I like to think the riverfronts are an important ingredient in that transformation.”.

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