On the Waterfront: Miracles do Happen

In October I visited Pittsburgh to attend the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference, and spent an afternoon touring one of the city’s crown jewels: Washington’s Landing, formerly Herr’s Island. Here was a waterfront project worthy of the name: 93 townhouses on a seven-acre island reclaimed from a foul-smelling slaughterhouse, now offering a gorgeous park, tennis courts, jogging trails and all the latest green building techniques.

Pittsburgh's Washington's Landing© Brian C. Howard

The lovely park, crowded with strollers and bicyclists, was built on a sealed-up toxic landfill, which gave me a little pause. An indignant 1998 op-ed piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Daniel S. Rotenstein gives some context to the island’s history, and why it got so smelly. “Before the stockyards closed in the summer of 1965, they provided more than the nuisance odors locally known by many as the ‘Herr’ s Island stench.’
East Ohio Street was a community comparable in composition and character to Chicago’s Back of the Yards and Herr’s Island was Pittsburgh’s Packingtown. Serbs and Croats who emigrated to Pittsburgh found jobs on the island or in one of the meat byproducts processing plants along River Avenue, the site of a thriving leather tanning district since the 1840s. They found jobs in Pittsburgh’s two remaining wool pulleries or in the district’s last tannery

Ye Gods! Slaughterhouses, tanneries, rendering plants—no wonder the place stank to high heaven, and was an environmental nightmare to boot! Here are some useful references: “Odors from the island’s animal rendering plant were foul enough to make a fellow just about swear off breathing.” (O’Neill, 1986); workers on the 31st Street Bridge were quoted as saying: “You can’t even drink your coffee when the wind blows the wrong way.” (Rieland, 1974); “North Catholic High School even had to close its windows on hot summer days due to the bad odor” (Post-Gazette, 1990). Rotenstein believes the Herr’s Island stench should be commemorated “because it was part of our past, part of the daily lives of the people who lived and worked along East Ohio Street. And because the island was much more than just something at which passersby turned their noses up.” But what are the preservationists to do, create smell-o-vision exhibits? It’s hard to imagine happy tourists visiting a restored slaughterhouse.

I do worry about that toxic dump, though, no matter how well it was environmentally sealed. The organic wastes on the site, hauled off to a landfill in Ohio, were particularly malodorous, including 100,000 tons of rotting rendering plant offal, and the decaying carcasses of animals from the Pittsburgh Zoo (including the remains of a circus elephant). Encased under the park are 17,962.69 cubic yards of contaminated soil, surrounded by a High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) double lining and a leachate detection and collection system. Does that sound reassuring?

Washington’s Landing has had no trouble attracting tenants who want to live on a waterfront in the middle of a busy city, though they’ve had to endure such tribulations as the entire 130-boat marina floating away in a storm. It’s certainly a nice place to visit, and is right along an historic “Rails to Trails” pathway. You don’t feel you’re in a gritty, industrial city (precisely Rotenstein’s point, of course!).

As I was thinking about Washington’s Landing, a new publication crossed my desk, the Waterfront Center’s “Excellence on the Waterfront 2004” Awards. Pittsburgh is not the only city that has been busily restoring its waterfront. The awards honor these up-and-coming developments, all of which no doubt have their detractors:

" Mill City Museum. On the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, the Mill City Museum is exactly what Rotenstein would have wanted to see on Herr’s Island: an historically accurate industrial museum honoring flour milling, and preserving what remains of the original buildings. The city itself has restored 125 acres of park land, including lookouts and promenades, along the river, winning top plaudits from The Waterfront Center. Minneapolis is also cited for its sensitive development of the so-called “Beerline Neighborhood,” which was formerly home to trains that served the city’s breweries.

"The Oakland Waterfront Trail. Although still in the planning stages, this trail runs 6.6 miles from downtown Oakland, with 10 new parks and preserved marshlands. Also honored was the Eastshore State Park plan for San Francisco Bay, which transforms a degraded waterfront made up largely of urban landfill into an 8.5-mile conservation area. Planning for the park brought together dog walkers, windsurfers, artists, fishermen and the usual bikers, bladers and strollers. There will be nature trails, picnic areas, a visitor’s center, a hostel and “dog-friendly areas.”

"Anping Harbor Historic Park, Tainan City, Taiwan. The public was deeply involved in the planning for this park, which will include open spaces, pedestrian and biking networks, housing and a riverside park. Western incursion into Taiwan started in the harbor when the Dutch East India Company founded Fort Zeelandia in 1624.

"Ashbridges Bay Treatment Plant Site, Toronto, Canada. The city’s principal wastewater treatment site will be transformed into an eco-minded park, complete with landscaped trails on 112 acres. Visitors will experience 11 successive ecological zones or “episodes” reflecting the region’s history. Jurors were impressed with the designers’ “dash of whimsy,” which is applied to novel designs for green roofs and porous parking lots.

"Northwest Maritime Center Dock. Located in Port Townsend, Washington, the dock is a $1.5 million experiment that includes an important ecological design that minimizes damage to eelgrass beds. As the jurors noted, “To counteract the effects of shading from the dock, reflective materials are installed under the pier.” Small steel pilings replace larger and more numerous wooden piles.

"Millenium Park Recreation Core. Once the home of gravel mining pits, this complex in Kent County, Michigan is now a greensward with as many as 10,000 visitors a day. Native prairie grasses are used to cleanse stormwater runoff.

"Hudson River Park. Replacing the blighted and collapsed West Side Highway in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan, the nine-acre Hudson River Park is five miles of 16-foot-wide esplanades, green spaces and piers that are a haven for city-bound joggers and cyclists.

"Corvallis Riverfront Commemorative Park. The citizens of Corvallis, Oregon fought off a proposed highway along the derelict waterfront, then reclaimed the 25 acres for a park that houses a pedestrian zone, a farmers’ market and wildlife habitat with nature trails (incorporating 10,000 new plantings).

The jury praised the winning projects, which “recognized existing conditions and capitalized on transforming empty sites into dramatic, positive places.” And they certainly did that in Pittsburgh, too. Let’s hope those buried toxins don’t come back to haunt them.

Contact: The Waterfront Center

Photo Credits

Mill City Museum-Assassi Productions; Oakland Waterfront Trail-illustrations Timothy Wells; Anpin Harbor Historic Park-National Cheng-Kung University; Ashbridges Bay Treatment Plant-Architects Alliance, Diana Gerrard; Northwest Maritime Center-Shelly Randall; Millennium Park-O"Boyle, Cowell, Blalock & Associates; Hudson River Park-Luca Vignelli; Corvallis Riverfront-Doug Macy