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shirley leung

In Pittsburgh, Vivien Li gets a second shot at the waterfront

PITTSBURGH — On my first trip to this Rust Belt city in the midst of a renaissance, Vivien Li can’t wait to show me something.

We arrive at a mound of gravel and dirt by the Allegheny River. I don’t get it. She left Boston for this?

It has been almost a year since Li stepped down as the head of the Boston Harbor Association, where over a quarter century she emerged as the city’s most powerful waterfront advocate. With our downtown waterfront all but spoken for, Li was lured by the work still to be done in this former steel town that sits at the confluence of the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela rivers.

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The city sits at the confluence of the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela rivers.
The city sits at the confluence of the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela rivers. Jeff Swensen for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

“Pittsburgh, it’s probably what Boston was, like, five, eight years ago,” said Li, 62, the chief executive of Riverlife, a nonprofit that restores and promotes the riverfront. “That’s what made the job particularly exciting.”

She took me to this section of town known as the Strip District because it reminded her most of the South Boston Waterfront. Instead of seafood and cargo, waters here served the steel mills that Andrew Carnegie built, while the rail lines carried produce. Restaurants and shops now fill former warehouses, and white-shoe law firms and tech companies such as Uber are moving into the neighborhood.

Still, development hasn’t quite reached the water’s edge. In that, Li sees an opportunity to borrow a page from her playbook in Boston and strongarm developers to provide public amenities on private property, from bathrooms to benches to phone-charging stations. She also wants to avoid the compromises that she feels led to some overbuilding in the Seaport.

While the business community became well trained in Boston, Li wondered if developers here would balk. Some are reticent, but others got it right away. The more amenities — public or private — the more valuable their properties become. One developer even suggested a kayak launch.

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A bit surprised by the eagerness, she asked one developer why he was so quick to say yes, to which he replied: “Well, of course, it’s new urbanism.”

The concept is a backlash to suburban sprawl and is bringing people back into cities to live, work, and play, all within walking distance. Being on the waterfront is part of that new lifestyle.

For decades, Pittsburgh turned its back to its rivers. Polluted, they were a workhorse, not something to be looked at or enjoyed. But when the city’s steel industry began dying in the 1970s, Pittsburgh had to find a new identity. Over the last two decades, the region has diversified its economy by growing a tech sector (thanks in part to the engineering prowess of Carnegie Mellon University) and doubling down on health care, medical research, and finance.

Meanwhile, the city of Pittsburgh under then Mayor Tom Murphy began buying shuttered steel mills on the rivers. Murphy, a bike enthusiast, wanted to create trails. In his first year in office in 1994, the city bought more than 1,000 acres and plowed rudimentary paths along the rivers.

About $130 million in public and private funding has been invested in Pittsburgh’s riverfront park system, which is 80 percent compete.
About $130 million in public and private funding has been invested in Pittsburgh’s riverfront park system, which is 80 percent compete.Jeff Swensen for The Boston Globe

But a bigger vision was needed for this city in transition. Much of the riverfront became cheap surface parking lots similar to what our Seaport used to be. Alex Krieger, the prominent Boston architect whose firm Riverlife would later hire to create that vision, used to say that Pittsburgh was a great place to be a car.

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Murphy, along with leaders of the Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, formed a large task force that would lead to the creation of Riverlife in 1999.

In addition to Krieger, Riverlife drew inspiration from native son and historian David McCullough, who on a boat ride at the launch of the organization imparted this advice:

“Don’t make it like other places, because Pittsburgh was never, ever like other places. Make it [a] place where people want to bring those they love,” he said. “Make it a place for music and sunshine and trees by the water. Make it possible to walk out of an office building down to the river, or to bring your family to a picnic by the river. . . . And build for the long run, not for what’s going to work next week or next year — the long run.”

Out of Krieger’s work came the idea for a Three Rivers Park, a 13-mile loop of downtown riverfront parks and trails. About $130 million in public and private funding has been invested in the downtown riverfront park system, which is 80 percent complete. That has helped catalyze over $4.1 billion in related development.

Parts of the riverfront are already incredibly lively such as along the North Shore, where both the Steelers and the Pirates play in waterfront stadia. Of course, there is Point State Park with its iconic fountain. But Li’s Riverlife is pushing for even more activities such as a pop-up park, food trucks, and more bike-sharing.

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The focus of her attention these days is on the next frontier: the 16 blocks of the Strip District riverfront. Riverlife’s plan — crafted by Massachusetts firm Sasaki Associates — calls for a public plaza, a waterfront dock with dining, and an expanded marina, among other amenities.

Yeah, we Bostonians have some of that in the Seaport District, but with the wall of towers on the waterfront, it doesn’t always feel accessible, unless you live in the multimillion-dollar condos on Fan Pier or work in one of the new buildings.

Li had a big hand in shaping Boston’s Seaport District. She worked tirelessly for our own Harborwalk, a path that connects city waterfronts, and other public spaces. Still, she acknowledges perhaps there were too many compromises.

“As we look back, the buildings are very large,” she said. “It is hard to see the harbor unless you are standing at the exact right location looking down a corridor.”

She reflects a bit more. “That is almost a sad thing. We have succeeded in bringing people to the harbor, but now if you’re not familiar, and you are walking from the subway stop or Silver Line stop, you ask, ‘Which way is the harbor?’ ”

In Pittsburgh, Li gets a second shot at the waterfront. With lessons from Boston, she wants to get it just right.

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Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.