Vivien Li, for nearly a quarter-century the unofficial mayor of Boston’s waterfront as head of the powerful Boston Harbor Association, revealed Tuesday that she is leaving Boston to lead an ongoing revival of Pittsburgh’s riverfront.
Li was instrumental in the dramatic transformation of Boston’s waterfront, lobbying effectively to clean up the harbor’s waters and then working to preserve public access to the shoreline amid the development that followed. Her blessing was highly sought by the developers building a skyline along the city’s waterfront.
“Anytime someone’s doing something major, we reach out to get her comments, and we listen to her very seriously,” said a longtime Boston real estate executive, Robert Beal. “She’s done a wonderful, wonderful job in overseeing our city and in articulating how we have to be concerned about Boston Harbor.”
The 61-year-old Li said she will leave in September to become head of Riverlife, a public-private partnership charged with redeveloping Pittsburgh’s extensive riverfront properties.
“The harbor today is cleaner and the waterfront is in many ways at the center of civic life, and Vivien played an important role in making that happen,” said Bruce Berman, a leader of environmental group Save the Harbor/Save the Bay. “She’s got lots to be proud of, and Pittsburgh is lucky to have her energy.”
As development of the Seaport and downtown waterfront exploded, Li extracted parks, ocean views, public decks, and other concessions from developers and helped foster the creation of such popular attractions as the Harborwalk trail network.
“Out of all the things we’ve done, I’m most proud of getting all these entities to buy in by saying, ‘Look, you need to have things for everyone, not just those who have money and can afford to live on the waterfront,’ ” Li said. “Now you see lots and lots of families of all different backgrounds and income levels and races enjoying the waterfront together, and doing it for free.”
The net effect of Li’s efforts, according to a 2004 profile in Boston Globe Magazine, was to turn the city’s collective gaze back to the ocean that dominated its early history.
“I have seen how her effective advocacy has transformed the waterfront, from making Boston Harbor swimmable to the reclamation of once-vacant properties into vibrant waterfront sites,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement.
Li recalled there was a time when developers were reluctant to invest in public amenities that did not directly benefit their businesses.
“Developers in the ’90s said, ‘Why would we help build the Harborwalk? It leads from nowhere to nowhere, it costs a ton of money, and no one will use it,’ ” Li recalled. “But now they all see the benefits.”
John Drew, who developed the Seaport Hotel, World Trade Center West and East, and Waterside Place projects in the Seaport District, called Li a blunt but reasonable critic whose ideas often improved development proposals.
“She’d come straight out and tell you what she thought, but she also listened and was willing to change her opinion if you made a good argument — that’s what makes a great advocate,” Drew said. “She wasn’t just creating a problem to solve a problem, ever.”
Over time, Drew said, Li convinced many in Boston’s business community that what was good for the public and the harbor was also good for their bottom line.
“Some people thought there would be security problems if the waterfront was open to the public, but quite frankly, that never happened,” Drew said. “What has happened is that property values have gone up. The ability to walk around, use the buildings, go to restaurants — she was a major contributor to creating that whole atmosphere.”
Previously a Department of Public Health official and a senior staff member of former governor Michael Dukakis, Li joined the Boston Harbor Association in 1991. She was paid $132,000 last year, a spokesman said. The group’s budget, now around $845,000, is financed from contributions from companies and foundations. The Boston Harbor Association has not yet named Li’s successor.
Li experienced setbacks, too. She failed to stop the New England Aquarium from building an IMAX theater, which Li argued did not qualify as a “water-dependent use” required under state environmental rules. And music promoter Don Law triumphed in a skirmish over building the music theater now known as the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion.
In recent years, residents have voiced worries about gentrification and overdevelopment along the waterfront, concerns that were unimaginable when Li took the helm of the harbor group in 1991.
The challenge she faces in Pittsburgh seems an echo of her early work in Boston.
“When the headhunter approached me in May, it was the first time I really thought about doing something different and leaving Boston,” Li said. “I was intrigued by Pittsburgh, because it’s an old steel city in the Rust Belt, and they have a lot of former industrial land on the rivers there.”
Li will guide a number of projects in Pittsburgh, which sits at the confluence of the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela rivers, including the redevelopment of former industrial properties similar to those in Boston’s Seaport.
With an annual budget of more than $2 million, Riverlife enjoys generous financial supported from large foundations, including the Heinz Endowments.
She said she was hesitant to leave now, when the pace of development is remaking waterfront neighborhoods and stirring passionate debates about Boston’s character. Among the important and controversial projects pending are developer Don Chiofaro’s proposal to build a 600-foot tower on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage and new planning rules for the downtown waterfront.
But Li is confident that preserving Boston’s waterfront — and the public’s access to it — is now a widely shared goal.
“All of this is institutionalized now, and long after I’m gone it will continue to be there and people will continue to enjoy it,” Li said.