April 13, 2014 - John Robbins, Post-Tribune
Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk is a rare instance of prized Lake Michigan shore property being recaptured from industrial use and reclaimed for public recreational use in an equally rare partnership between the city of Portage and the National Park Service.
The park’s land and structures are owned by the National Park Service but managed and operated by Portage.
The lakefront park covers 57 acres wedged between Burns Waterway and a U.S. Steel, formerly Midwest Steel, mill to the east, the town of Ogden Dunes to the west and Precoat Metals to the south. The site was formerly owned by the National Steel Co. and used for settling ponds and treatment of industrial wastes and byproducts.
Open only since 2008, the land is showing growing pains that are a product of its success. Portage is in the midst of a multi-year, multimillion-dollar expansion, rejuvenation and restoration project to protect the park from its popularity.
A nearly $250,000 bundle of four park repair projects is underway, and Jenny Orsburn, Portage parks superintendent, expects them to be completed by Memorial Day.
Dividing the work among four area contractors will help ensure that the projects are done by the summer season kickoff, but A.J. Monroe, the city’s community development director, cautions that construction deadlines are at the mercy of the weather.
The work will restore damage to facilities and the environment caused by erosion. Some damage is due to water runoff. Installing curbs and gutters along roads, paths and parking lots will channel runoff and reduce future erosion.
A stairway leading to the Riverwalk boardwalk has been undercut and will require major foundation work, according to Orsburn. The stairway is currently closed until repairs are finished.
The park landscape is also being damaged by visitors’ use of shortcuts through the property. These trails are of heightened concern because of the fragile nature of the landscape — vegetation damaged by walking along the shortcuts cannot keep sand from moving, and wind and rain quickly move the exposed sand from where it should be to where it shouldn’t, such as along paved walkways or drains.
Railings will be installed to help control and direct pedestrian traffic to reduce the use of shortcuts and the resultant erosion, Orsburn said.
She said the park’s 125 parking spaces are woefully inadequate, especially on weekends from June through Labor Day, meaning the city must spend more on traffic control. The planned major expansion of the park will include 300 more parking spaces.
An approximately 40-acre site south of Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, formerly owned by U. S. Steel, is owned by the city’s redevelopment commission and will be used to expand the park. A vacant U. S. Steel training center and a 200,000-square-foot warehouse occupy the site.
The commission is getting ready to solicit bids for an estimated $1.5 million project, the bulk of which will create the extra parking and a connecting trail from the parking lot to the park. The new parking and trail should be open for public use in spring 2015, Monroe said.
The warehouse, still occupied and used by U. S. Steel under a lease that expires at the end of 2014, will be demolished in 2015, and the site will be restored through part of a $4.8 million grant with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, Monroe said. The Army Corps is expected to carry out some waterway restoration along the Little Calumet River and Burns Waterway as part of the grant.
The redevelopment commission will hire an architect to develop plans for converting the training center for city use.
“The channel work will require additional analysis and modeling,” said Monroe, and will be undertaken at a later date.
For now, Portage Lakefront and Riverfront retains an industrial flavor, with visitors sharing the road with trucks arriving and leaving adjacent steel plants.
Monroe and Orsburn stressed the need for the park to coexist with its neighbors, some of whose land might be acquired in the future.
“It’s our little piece of Lake Michigan,” Orsburn said of the park. “It’s exciting to have our piece of beach.”
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