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Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, National Park Service, Indiana

Project Point of Contact

Eric Ehn


The Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk site was owned by the National Steel Company which had used the site as an open pit dump to store acids and other liquid residues from its steel making operations. The site was also the location of a waste water treatment facility serving the steel plant. In order for acquisition as part of the national lakeshore, National Steel began the cleanup of the site and removal of all the toxic materials. By 2003 the site was granted a Clean Closure designation by the EPA and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. In 2004 the site was purchased by the National Park Service. The Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk project was designed in partnership between the City of Portage, Indiana and the NPS. The project included a 3,200 sq. ft. pavilion with multipurpose room, restrooms, and visitor information desk; a 125 car parking lot; entrance road; 0.5 miles of trails; fishing pier; 950-foot breakwater walkway; and a 1,500-foot riverwalk.


In 1986, a 57-acre tract of property located on the southern tip of Lake Michigan was congressionally authorized as part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore by Public Law 99-583. This legislation also authorized the National Park Service to enter into a cooperative agreements. The Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, as it is currently named, was owned by National Steel Company which had used the site as a brownfield to store liquid residue from its steel making operation in open pits. The site was also the location of a waste water treatment facility that served the mill.

In the mid 1990s, prior to acquisition by the National Park Service, the company began the cleanup of the site under the direction of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). By 2003 the site was granted a "Clean Closure" designation by the EPA and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. In 2004 the site was acquired by the National Park Service with a $3 million appropriation for land acquisition added by Congressman Peter Visclosky (D-1st Ind.). The National Lakeshore's General Management Plan called for the development of recreational facilities at the site including hiking/biking trails, beach and fishing access, and restrooms and parking facilities. It was also noted that the site is home to several populations of Pitchers thistle (Cirsium pitcher) a federally listed Threatened and Endangered species.

Planning: Though located on the Lake Michigan shoreline the tract did not have direct public access due to the number of rail lines and the steel making infrastructure that bordered the east and south sections of the tract. In order to provide a safe access to the steel companies vehicles crossing the rail line, the State of Indiana constructed an $11 million dollar overpass. The National Park Service then secured easements across multiple properties which created theopportunity for public vehicular access to the NPS site. Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk is located within the City of Portage, Indiana.

In 2005 the City approached the park with a desire to enter into a partnership to construct recreation facilities as outlined in the park's General Management Plan. The City's "North End Development Plan" called for creation of an amphitheatre, boating, access trails and shopping to the south of the NPS site, as well as a trail extension to the south. This development would complement the recreation facilities at the NPS site. A cooperative agreement was signed by both parties for the development of the site. The City proceeded to contribute $200,000 as part of grant match to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the demolition and removal of the waste water treatment plant. In total, the City secured $10 million dollars for the planning, design and construction of project from the Northwest Indiana Redevelopment Authority (RDA), realizing that once completed, the facility would become the property of the National Park Service. No federal funding was allocated to the development of the project. As with all partnership construction projects exceeding $5 million, the proposal was submitted for Congressional review and was subsequently approved in October 2007.

The City and NPS jointly designed and planned the facilities and infrastructure. The design of the site focused on sustainability using recycled materials, geothermal heating and air conditioning, local materials, on-site waste reduction, water use reduction, and of course, the rehabilitation and reuse of a former brownfield site. The conceptual plan was hailed by the National Park Service Development Advisory Board as a model of cooperation and ingenuity. The plan for the site consisted of a 3,200 sq ft. pavilion with multipurpose room, a snack bar and patio, restrooms, visitor information desk, 125 car parking lot, 0.3 miles of roadway and 0.5 miles of trails, fishing pier, 950 ft. breakwater and a 1,500 foot riverwalk.

Results and Achievements

After the site was remediated, the natural succession of native plants resumed. The now dry settling ponds are returning to high quality panne habitat with a diverse plant population. The project team worked to incorporate the design of the pavilion, roads, parking, and trails, into areas that were on previously disturbed land. The road alignment used an existing gravel road for most of the way and utilized disturbed storage and staging areas as parking. A previous design suggested using a settling pond for parking, but the inventory of desirable plants led to a redesign of parking facilities. The road base is constructed of 100% recycled concrete crushed to INDOT specifications. The road and site drainage system does not allow any discharge into surrounding Lake Michigan or Burns Waterway in support of the Clean Water Act, but instead directs runoff to catch basins, curb structures, rain gardens and drywells to provide a natural return of storm water to the ground.

The pavilion was designed to U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards and includes multiple strategies in accordance with the NPS Guiding Principles of Sustainable Design. These principles emphasize environmental sensitivity in construction, use of nontoxic materials, resource conservation, and recycling. The building is located on a disturbed site from the previous waste water treatment plant and includes a reflective roof, geothermal heating, low-flow water reduction devices, daylight and views,low-emitting materials such as no-VOC paints and low-VOC stains and certified carpet, and energy conservation motion detector operated lighting devices. Windows have a specially designed frit pattern to prevent migrating birds from colliding with the large expanse of glass. Regionally-produced, recycled steel was used in the building, riverwalk and in the stainless steel finish panels. All lumber used on the project was from certified forests. The majority of materials used on site came from less than 500 miles away, meeting LEED certification standards. Site construction balanced cut and fill to avoid having to transport materials and the landscaping was all native plants specific to the habitat. Only 25% of waste generated during construction was sent to landfills, the remainder was separated and recycled.

In April 2009 the NPS entered into a Cooperative Management Agreement with the City agreeing to operate the site under NPS standards providing all operational support including staffing for visitor services, maintenance and custodial services, visitor management and scheduling of the multipurpose facility. A supporting Operations Manual was also agreed upon to spell out specific procedures and standards for the operation of the site including items such as establishing a "green purchasing" program for maintenance supplies and materials. During the site's first season of operation over 85,000 visitors have walked the trails, stepped out onto the breakwater, and strolled the beach. It is the first completed project adhering to the principals of the Marquette Plan, a regional effort to provide more opportunities for the public to access the lakefront.


Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk has become a regional symbol of the collaborative efforts of federal, state, and local governments with the private sector for reclaiming a contaminated site and showcasing a model of sustainability for the public to enjoy while preserving the significant natural resources, dune habitat, and endangered plants found on the site.