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Project spotlight: Pittsburgh’s North Shore

By May 19, 2020Blog
North Shore riverwalk full of pedestrians and boaters near PNC Park

Pittsburgh’s riverfronts have transformed at a rapid pace. It may be hard to believe, but just twenty years ago the city’s North Shore neighborhood didn’t exist. Now one of Pittsburgh’s most prominent waterfront destinations for sporting events, recreation, and entertainment, in 1999 the northern bank of the Allegheny and Ohio rivers across from Downtown didn’t have much going for it.

Sure, there was a popular football arena, Three Rivers Stadium, but its circular design didn’t have any views of the rivers or skyline. The riverfront area that surrounded the stadium consisted of an abundance of concrete. The closest resemblance to a park was a mere strip of grass, and there were very few places to actually get to the water’s edge.


Three Rivers Stadium, which was demolished in 2001 to make way for the creation of the North Shore. Image from Wikimedia Commons.


This photo from the 1980s shows the limited river access of the area that would become the North Shore, despite stunning views of the city skyline just across the water. Photo by Emily Craig.

As Three Rivers Stadium’s design became outdated and new stadiums for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers were proposed for the area as part of a controversial $1 billion regional destination initiative, the idea for the North Shore was born. But from the beginning of the planning process, there was disagreement about the area’s potential. What kind of buildings and amenities should be built between the new stadiums?

Would sports fans ever return to the area if the acres of tailgating-friendly parking lots were turned into green open space? Would people even want to get closer to the river for recreation, when many felt that the riverbanks were dirty and dangerous?

Aerial photo showing the construction of Heinz Field (foreground) and the North Shore public green spaces, 2001. Photo by Jim Judkis for The Heinz Endowments, shared with permission.

Hundreds of community meetings, led by Riverlife (formed in 1999 and then known as Riverlife Task Force), revealed that despite reservations, hopes were high for the potential of the North Shore. Riverlife used that community feedback to advocate for adjustments to the design of the North Shore.

Instead of sticking to the original plan of building a road that would hug the North Shore riverbank and separate the stadiums from the water, the planning partners agreed to move the street grid back two blocks to allow acres of green open space and a grand promenade along the riverfront.

Riverlife learned that community perceptions of the health and safety of Pittsburgh’s rivers were changing in a positive direction. The feedback promoted a vision of green space and recreation—think trails, water features, and a fishing pier–that would tie together amenities like the new stadiums while attracting additional high-quality development in the form of hotels, restaurants, and office buildings.


Boats docked around the pier

Market Street Pier. Photo by Riverlife.

The community feedback and advocacy were taken seriously by the project planners. Green space and riverfront amenities figured prominently into the revised plans, and North Shore Park was designed by EDAW Inc. and implemented by the Sports and Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. In 2001, it opened to the public.

North Shore’s redevelopment features popular public open spaces like the Great Lawn, the Water Steps fountain, and the wide promenades that connect the regional Three Rivers Heritage Trail. Public art tributes to World War II veterans and Fred Rogers provide a glimpse at Pittsburgh’s deeply personal history. Restaurants and performance venues line North Shore Drive.

People sitting on the North Shore riverbank

North Shore riverbank. Photo by Maranie Staab for Riverlife.

For many Pittsburghers, the North Shore was an “aha moment” – a realization that the city’s waterfronts could become renewed destinations despite decades of blight and limited access.

The redevelopment of the North Shore expanded the downtown area, bringing optimized utility and beauty to the riverfronts of Pittsburgh, and set the stage for future transformation across the city’s waterfronts.

Top image of North Shore riverwalk, photo by Ehren Zaun, used with permission.

During this time of COVID-19, there’s a renewed appreciation for Pittsburgh’s riverfronts. Riverlife has been working hard since 1999 to bring these special riverfront parks and trail amenities to all Pittsburghers and our visitors. Your donation in any amount helps our work. Thank you!