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Park utilizes native amenities

Monday, November 30, 1998

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Critic

Walk down the ramp at Allegheny Riverfront Park and the city slowly slips away. Twenty-five feet below Fort Duquesne Boulevard, there are no cars and buses, only a ribbon of walkway with trees and rocks bordering one side and gently rippling water on the other.

  The new Alcoa headquarters is across the river from the Allegheny Riverfront Park looking between the Seventh Street Bridge, left, and the Eighth Street Bridge. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

The trees are now barren, but in the spring, they will leaf out above native grasses and wildflowers planted among the boulders -- a bit of wilderness at the river's edge.

Construction of the lower level of the two-tiered park is complete; it will open to the public today after a 3:15 p.m. dedication ceremony. Work on the upper level might begin late next year.

The park is designed to accommodate just about everyone: people arriving by boats, bikes, wheelchairs, baby strollers and shoes. Its accessibility is achieved with two ramps, each 6 feet wide and 350 feet long, that provide a gentle transition from city to river. The ramps sweep down from the east and west sides of the Seventh Street Bridge, giving the park its defining architectural element and providing visitors with compelling views. One of the park's greatest amenities is what you can see from it, including the new Alcoa Corporate Center on the opposite shore, framed by golden bridges.

The lower level of Allegheny Riverfront Park is almost entirely "hardscape" -- built elements whose crisp edges are softened by the trees and irregular boulders, bluestone cleaved from a quarry near Latrobe. The cantilevered walkway extends the natural shoreline, wrapping around the soot-blackened, rusticated stone bridge piers that link the park to Pittsburgh's past.

In 1979, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development first suggested the transformation of this flood-prone piece of land from parking wharf to public park in the same study that proposed the creation of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to foster development of Downtown as a cultural district. Planning for the park got under way in earnest about five years ago, when the trust invited six teams of landscape architects and artists to submit ideas.

The trust's public art and design advisory committee chose Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates of Cambridge, Mass., and artist Ann Hamilton of Columbus, Ohio.

"Both were extraordinarily distinguished in their own fields, and we thought they had a very interesting concept for the site," said trust president Carol R. Brown, who also serves on the advisory committee.

The new Allegheny Riverfront Park can be seen from the Eighth Street Bridge. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette) 

The city's natural riverbanks inspired the wilderness walk on the park's lower level, stretching from the Fort Duquesne Bridge ramp to the Ninth Street Bridge, but Van Valkenburgh heightens the experience, using more trees and boulders than would occur naturally, a concept he calls "hyper-nature."

The upper level, which will extend from Stanwix Street to the expanded David L. Lawrence Convention Center, is envisioned as a more formal space, with rows of trees, walkways and grassy plazas for strolling, sitting and eating.

Public and private sources provided funding for the $8 million lower level, including the state, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, and the Vira I. Heinz Endowment. The upper level is expected to cost an additional $13 million to $17 million, including relocation of the westbound lanes of Fort Duquesne Boulevard away from the river.

"It's a very challenging site, and I think the design team found it more challenging than they anticipated originally," Brown said.

The lower level was especially difficult. For one thing, the noisy 10th Street Bypass separates that part of the park from the city. The shape of the sight created other challenges; it is 35 to 50 feet wide and 2,000 feet long.

And then there was the timely wake-up call that nature delivered on the morning of Jan. 20, 1996, when the typically placid Allegheny became a raging river of ice, a torrent of fast-moving white rocks that did considerable damage to trees.

"We felt fortunate to witness that flood, because there's very little empirical data on flooding on the Allegheny," said Laura Solano, project manager for Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. "We realized that the ice floes were much thicker than anybody had been able to tell us, and the impact would be much greater."

The flood didn't change the park's design, but it changed the way it is engineered. The walkway had to be reinforced, with the 14 cantilever beams tied down with counterweights that appear as rectangular concrete pads among the trees.

"We expressed them so people understand there is some structural integrity to the piece," Solano said. "We saw them as platforms people could sit on or stand on or get married on."

The flood resulted in other adjustments, including the addition of high-pressure water hoses for easier cleanup of silt deposits. The park's lower level is likely to be under water several times a year.

Van Valkenburgh chose the trees -- red maple, silver maple, native sycamore, river birch, red bud and poplar -- because they are species that thrive along local rivers. They are thickly planted, about 500 of them at intervals of 5 to 15 feet -- not in containers but directly into the riverbank, in new soil adapted to promote drainage and discourage erosion.

While traveling ice will likely damage the trees, Van Valkenburgh said that, once the trees are cut off at the base, these fast-growing species will sprout again with multiple trunks.

Van Valkenburgh said they planted trees despite the ice floe threats because, "We were wanting to make a connection to the larger regional context of flood-plain tree species overhanging the edge of the river." Scale was another factor. "There's the enormous verticality of the architecture of the Downtown and the enormity of the 10th Street Bypass. We felt trees would be an important part of establishing a human scale."

One of the reasons the trees are so densely planted is to mitigate the ice floe damage: Van Valkenburgh reasoned that it's unlikely that ice floes would wipe out 500-plus trees, but nature will have the last word.

Public input also refined the park's design. The ramps were made solid to shut off the bypass. Drivers lose their view of the river, but the park's visitors won't have to contend with the distraction of highway traffic. The pleasure boat lobby requested places to dock all along the lower level. Hamilton and her husband, Michael Mercil, designed the bronze mooring cleats that were used.

The artists' impact also can be seen in the large striations of portions of the walkway, instant fossils made by imbedding blades of bulrush into the wet cement then removing them from the hardened concrete. The project's consultant on handicapped accessibility said the striations will not impede wheelchairs.

The Hamilton-Mercil team also produced an oversized bronze handrail, mounted above the regulation handrail on the river side of the ramps. Its undulating shape reflects the movement of the river.

On the bypass side of the ramps, Van Valkenburgh planted Virginia creeper, a fast-growing vine that turns scarlet in autumn. It will climb the small-mesh, chain-link fence that tops the concrete wall separating the park from the bypass. He expects it to reach the top of the fence -- a distance of about 20 feet -- in five years.

Planted among the trees are perennial grasses and flowers, including wheat grass, aster, columbine and bachelor's button.

The striated concrete portion of walkway marks the original shoreline, which the cantilevered section augments. As the walkway approaches the Seventh Street Bridge, it gradually dips toward the water at a subtle 2 percent grade.

The walkway is edged with low concrete benches that also serve as a railing, discouraging unanticipated tumbles into the river. There are no benches with backs on the lower level because it is mostly a park for walking and because benches with backs are more susceptible to ice damage.

Last year, Architecture magazine presented a design award to Van Valkenburgh for the park. Since its founding in 1982, his firm has completed more than 300 landscapes and gardens, including a shortgrass prairie, which an annual burning maintains, for General Mills' headquarters in Minneapolis, and a private garden that features a circle of steel mesh walls that bloom with purple clematis in spring. In winter, they become ice walls fed by drip irrigation.

Designed as an amenity for arts patrons, Allegheny Riverfront Park also is expected to encourage the development of housing Downtown and to link Point State Park and Gateway Center with the convention center. When it's complete, it will at long last partially realize the vision of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who in his 1910 plan for Downtown proposed riverfront parks on the edges of the triangle, ribbons of green perched above commercial docks at the shoreline.

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