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City gets advice on developing waterfronts

By Patricia Lowry,
Post-Gazette Architecture Critic
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

What makes a great waterfront?

Ann Breen should know. As co-founder and director of the nonprofit Waterfront Center in Washington, D.C., the city and regional planner has been visiting, studying and consulting on urban waterfronts for more than 25 years.

“Every waterfront should be unique and not remind you of someplace else,” Breen told a group of 160 people at a luncheon talk yesterday at the Renaissance Pittsburgh hotel. It is Pittsburgh’s challenge, she said, “to capture the asset and character that is unique to this place.”

As Pittsburgh inches toward implementation of its Three Rivers Park waterfront plan and makeover of Point State Park, the event provided food for thought for planners, architects, funders and interested others. The luncheon was part of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation’s “Making Cities Work” series.

“You have this marvelous industrial heritage,” something to work with and embrace, Breen said, rather than erase.

“You have a lot of water here in Pittsburgh. We’ve gone to cities where they have barely a trickle and try to make something of it.”

During a slide tour of more than two dozen cities, from Prague, Czech Republic, to Portland, Ore., Breen stressed that the best waterfronts are those that incorporate a variety of uses and capture the spirit of a city.

“What I like about Prague is there are all these nooks and crannies where you can eat,” Breen said. “A floating barge with umbrellas and tables is instant fun.”

In Budapest, Hungary, where trolley tracks run along the river, barges can make the riverfront come alive, as in other cities with waterfront road and rail barriers.

Barges can hold not only restaurants, Breen showed, but also swimming pools and outdoor cinemas.

She praised parks built to withstand and accommodate the inevitable flooding, like Cincinnati’s riverfront park, with its walkway embossed with a geological timeline.

And she praised variety: “A riverfront is not uniform; it should have many, many different places, some green, some hard.” Still, “many cities want nothing but green on their waterfront. That’s for each city to decide.”

Good riverfronts also have “a lot of programming and a lot of public art,” and don’t skimp on the way-finding signs.

As for architecture, she said, “you can have great buildings, but do they address the waterfront?”

Breen lauded the Sydney Opera House, with its balconies and welcoming walkways, but criticized Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim for its lack of integration with and views of the Nervion River.

In a smaller session after the luncheon, Breen said Pittsburgh “doesn’t need another big bell and whistle” with high visibility and impact.

She diagnosed the problem with Pittsburgh’s riverfronts in a single, simple sentence: “Your edges don’t sing.”

Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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