A former brownfield on the Lake Michigan shoreline now sports a marvelous new recreational facility. The Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is finally up and running, thanks to years of planning, an innovative partnership of private and public sector entities, and a $10 million construction project incorporating green technology.
The southern end of Lake Michigan was recognized more than a century ago as a marvelous place to manufacture, transport, and market a huge range of products. Since then it has become one of America’s most intensely developed urban-industrial corridors. It’s something of a miracle that a fine national park like Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore could be established there. It’s not at all surprising, however, that some of the land in and near the park suffered a good deal of abuse before the onset of the modern era of environmental awareness and protection.
The American public paid little heed to pollution problems before the late 1960s, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that legally mandated preventive measures kicked in. By that time, a type of site now called a “brownfield” was a commonplace feature of urban-industrial landscapes like that of the Chicago-Gary region. A brownfield is an abandoned or underutilized industrial or commercial site/facility that is available for redevelopment or conversion to other uses. Inherent in the meaning of the term is the notion that the site is known to be, or might prove to be, environmentally contaminated.
Among the many brownfields along the Lake Michigan shoreline was a nearly 60-acre site on the west side of the Burns Waterway Harbor in the city of Portage, Indiana that had been used as a dumping ground for acid wastes produced in the manufacture of steel. In some areas of the country, the steep costs of cleaning up such a site would have rendered it unusable for the foreseeable future. This particular site, however, was prime lakefront/riverfront property within the authorized boundaries of a national park that badly needed additional developed recreation facilities. It was, in short, a golden opportunity to convert a brownfield into a lakeside gem.
Things have worked out. Earlier this month, approximately 400 visitors and NGO representatives joined local, state, and federal officials at the formal dedication of the new Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk. The 57-acre facility offers parking for 125 cars, an accessible fishing pier, a riverwalk along Burns Waterway, a rehabilitated breakwater with handrails, various hike/bike trails that link to other parts of the park, access to the beach, and an LEED gold certified 3,500 square-foot pavilion (see the accompanying photo).
The project was made possible by an innovative partnership between the city of Portage, the Northwest Indiana Redevelopment Authority, the Corps of Engineers, and the former National Steel Corporation.