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Greening the Parks: A Former Brownfield is Converted to a Lakefront Gem at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore


The new 3,500 square-foot pavilion at the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk is LEED gold certified. NPS photo.

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.


Having been a frequent visitor / explorer of the area (and this site) in years past, the terms "marvelous" and "miracle" are even an understatement of the transformation of this once industrial dump site. The local shoreline is indeed a precious resource with unique, sweeping vistas spanning the greater Chicagoland metroplex to the west and the shores of Michigan to the east. Quite the sight, standing at the bottom of the horseshoe that is Lake Michigan. Now if only something could be done to bring the water quality up to 21st C standards, then you'd REALLY have something to be proud of in northwest Indiana. Unfortunately this multi-state (and federal regulatory) issue is too complicated to be effectively managed with any short-term resolution package, unless you believe that our president-elect, being from the Chicago area, really is God, and can effect the level of "change" that he based his platform on during the campaign. But until then, this rehabilitation is a wonderful example of multifaceted cooperation between a diverse array of interests, and can possbily serve as a model for additional projects throughout other park service holdings, as an example of "it CAN be done".

Lone Hiker makes a very good point about water quality issues, which seem intractable. I would only add that Lake Michigan can't be described very well in generalities. Although nowhere so clean, cold, and oxygen-rich that it unquestionably deserves to be classified as oligotrophic (like most of Lake Superior is), Lake Michigan is at least mesotrophic in its more northerly reaches where there hasn't been a lot of urban-industrial development. It's only down there at its southern end and in certain nasty niches (like paper plant-polluted Green Bay) that this magnificent body of water has been badly abused and trends toward eutrophic. Imagine how bad the situation would be if Chicago were dumping its waste water into Lake Michigan instead of into the Mississippi River watershed.

I'm probably preachin' to the choir here Bob, as you're most likely aware of the fact that throughout much of the 1800's, the burgeoning "village" of Chicago was committing that very environmental holocaust by utilizing the Chicago River as their residential and industrial waste transport system. Unfortunately, the river's flow was north / northeast, which placed all their crap right into the source of drinking and recreational water, Lake Michigan. Early photographs of the shoreline immediate to the city conjure up images of Lake Erie in the 60's, without the car tires. Then the city managed to conceptualize and complete one of the most ambitious civil engineering feats of our nation's history, reversing the flow of the river, which is the reason to this day why those poor folks "downstate" (all the way to the Gulf) feel the impact of the regional development, how the city maintains it's source of drinking water, and why the only US Great Lake isn't totally trashed at this point in time. That, however, is but a small portion of the history of atrocities perpetrated on the poor lake, and much more lasting impacts have been made by the steel and oil industries along the Illinois / Indiana border, the now shuttered nuclear reactor on the Illinois / Wisconsin border, along with a wide variety of other industrial dumping violations that occur from the area north to Milwaukee, following the coastline southeast through Chicago and up the eastern "seaboard" to the Grand Rapids area. Unfortunately to this day, storm run-off regularly forces untreated waste water into the lake, closing beaches, stinking up the joint for days at a time, and in no small manner impacting the commercial fishing industry which thankfully is mostly of a recreational nature. Trophies are still allowed but eating the catch isn't recommended. It's done, but isn't recommended.

You're taking a big leap of faith believing most of the readers know about the "trophic" classification system. I know I managed to confuse the hell out of many micorbiology sections with those terms and how they applied preferred temperature (OTG), overall health of am ecosystem, but also an ability to metabolize various energy sources. Ah, the good ol' days of hetero, thermo, meso, auxo, chemo,............

I have visied the new Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk many times now since I discovered it this spring when I noticed the road side sign directing visiters to the site. On my last vist (during the weekend of the Gary Air Show) I noticed that many people are unfortunately already disrespecting the property in a number of ways. I noticed a great deal of litter and carried as much as I could to the cans but saw more and my heart was saddened by the littering of a place that has been transformed from a place of shame to a place of stark beauty. Also, a great number of vehicles were parked on the sides of the road leading into the site and that is killing the fragile dune grass that has been planted to help re-establish it in the park and also to help prevent errosion. Either more parking is needed or policing of the "illegal" parking needs to be enforced.

Just this past weekend, my partner and I made a trek to the Dunes area for some much needed rest and relaxation.  We had NO idea how amazing the beach and the Riverwalk would be in Portage and quite honestly, we just happened to stumble upon the area that is tucked away in what seems to be an industrial area.  What an amazing experience and I am so impressed with the beachfront and the water was amazing, I actually got to body surf on Sunday due to some pretty high waves. I am forever in love with this area and we will be back next summer.

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