Group Marks 20 Years of Opening Pittsburgh Riverbanks

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
5 June 2011
By Andrew Conte

Twenty years ago when five friends came together to talk about Pittsburgh's riverfronts, many people still considered the waterways unsafe.

Since then, Pittsburghers have come to see the rivers as places for living and playing -- rather than sewers for waste, said John Stephen, a founding member of Friends of the Riverfront, a nonprofit dedicated to creating access to the waterways.

"It's remarkable how people's perspectives toward the riverfronts have changed completely," Stephen said. "People are really striving to find different ways to get to the river."

Friends of the Riverfront celebrated its 20th anniversary on Saturday with members of the nonprofit marking the city's change in attitude and celebrating all the ways Pittsburghers now have to reach the rivers. With an event at the Steel City Rowing Club in Verona, the group honored Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato for advocating on behalf of riverfront trails.

"More people now see the rivers as a place of possibility," said Thomas Baxter, the nonprofit's executive director. "When you look at the riverfront, it was mostly an industrial wasteland and dumping ground. Now we have green infrastructure, trails, green spaces."

The first friends of Pittsburgh's riverfronts were Martin O'Malley, an activist who returned to Pittsburgh in 1989 after working on environmental campaigns in California; Tom Murphy, a state representative who went on to become mayor; R. Todd Erkel, a writer; Edward Muller, an urban geography professor at the University of Pittsburgh; and Stephen, a lawyer.

"What we believed when we started Friends of the Riverfront was that once you put a stake in the ground, you'd never be able to go back," Murphy said. "We wanted to create a sense of place, so people would take an ownership of it. That's what's happened."

Together, the group came up with plans for the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, which it opened in 1990. That route now includes 21 miles of trails along the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers throughout Pittsburgh.

Before the Heritage Trail, city planners had been more focused on creating individual access points to the river for boaters rather than a continuous trail on the riverbanks.

"We really held up a different point of view," Erkel said. "As much as people want access to the water, there was a 100-year latent demand for access to the waterfront."

Today Friends of the Riverfront works to fill in the trail system's gaps and expand it throughout Allegheny County, Baxter said. The nonprofit has partnered with the county and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

The group also has two ongoing capital campaigns: One would finish aligning the Great Allegheny Passage, a bike trail connecting Pittsburgh with Washington, D.C., and the other would help Aspinwall purchase a marina that could be turned into a $3.5 million, eight-acre community park.

"I'm very confident we have the momentum now," said Mark Bibro, the group's president.

When the friends first came together, Stephen said he never thought it would take 20 years to open up the region's riverfronts.

"It just seemed a natural that Pittsburgh had such great river resources that we would catch up and pass others by when it comes to riverfront parks," he said. "Fortunately, I was naive enough to think it could be done."

Andrew Conte can be reached at or 412-320-7835.