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Architects and designers have big plans for the West End Bridge’s pedestrian walkways, from improved safety to scenic city overlooks and even sky netting above a new green space for lounging.

But — to the dismay of community members — the new infrastructure is still years away.

In July 2021, Riverlife — a nonprofit dedicated to Pittsburgh’s riverfront development — released its “Completing the Loop” report, which plotted out trails, parks and attractions that would close the 15-mile loop between the 31st Street Bridge on the Allegheny River, the West End Bridge on the Ohio River and the Hot Metal Bridge on the Monongahela River.

“Out of that process came an understanding that we could really make a complete and comprehensive system of trails and open spaces around the city if we could only solve a few gaps,” said Gavin White, Riverlife’s director of planning and projects.

“The biggest of those gaps is … the West End Bridge.”

White spoke at the first of two community meetings on Monday, Dec. 4, held via Zoom. Late last month, Riverlife announced an over $2 million investment in design and engineering to make the bridge more accessible for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Currently, the West End Bridge is accessible to pedestrians only via staircases, which renders the pathways noncompliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act and challenging for cyclists, said Ubaldo Escalante, a consultant with the firm Buro Happold, a partner for the project.

Missouri- and Oregon-based architecture firm El Dorado, with local partners from Merritt Chase, presented two different designs.

A mock-up of “Site C,” or the east end of the West End Bridge, with the proposed “Journey” walkways, which emphasize swift movement through the area. (Photo courtesy of Riverlife)

The first, titled “Journey,” features ramps that create direct paths to the bridge’s sidewalks. The ramps would be surrounded by native plants, the architects said. Both sides of the bridge would have distinct overlooks for views across the river and of the city.

The second option, titled “Destination,” turns the paths into a space locals might visit for their own sake. The ramps would be wider, providing more space to meander. The east end of the bridge would feature hammock-like sky netting along the path and a redesigned park space below.

Both plans use an abandoned rail tunnel on the west end of the bridge as a new entry point to the West End neighborhood.

The response at the community meeting was mostly positive, with many — especially commuters — excited to have updated infrastructure.

“Everything you’re showing here is a massive, massive improvement to what we have, so I would propose — as someone who uses it almost every day — that whichever one is quicker, easier and straightforward that we go ahead with it,” said Jake, who did not give his last name. “We’re talking about parks and native plants and how we can make it perfect, and I think I speak for a lot of people who don’t have time to attend meetings like this when I say let’s just make it happen … and see it as soon as possible.”

A mock-up of “Site C,” or the east end of the West End Bridge, with the proposed “Destination” walkways, which could become a community hub of sorts. (Photo courtesy of Riverlife)

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is expected to update the West End Bridge in 2028 at the earliest.

White said the community meetings were explicitly to provide early input to the architects.

Construction cannot begin on the improvements until the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority finishes its Clean Water Plan — a multiyear project that is expected to begin in 2025 — as the underground infrastructure being added will affect the area around the bridge.

White added that Riverlife hopes to coordinate its project with PennDOT’s 2028 rehabilitation of the West End Bridge.

“We’re getting the jump on the design so that we can be sure to include these projects in federal packages that PennDOT is submitting and other competitive grant applications — because it’s not going to be cheap — so that we can be sure to have the funds by that time.

“The thing that might make ‘Destination’ versus ‘Journey,’ ‘big splash’ versus ‘bare-bones,’ more of a decision point is how much funding we can raise, not so much the timeline.”

Roman Hladio is a reporter for NEXTpittsburgh. He wants to hear the stories created in Pittsburgh. When not reporting, he plays difficult video games that make him upset and attempts to make delicious meals out of mismatched leftovers.

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