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View of Lake Michigan: Portage Lakefront

Portage Lakefront Pavilion

This is a story about the good, and a lot of tough love between communities.

To date the Portage lakefront is the only location where progress toward realizing the Marquette Plan is visible, and there are significant reasons why this is the case. The predominant reason is that Portage is a solidly white middle-class suburban community with middle-class values and an intact civil society. That is not the case with East Chicago or Gary. The Marquette Plan comes out of middle-class desires to access and utilize the commons on our lakefront.

Portage Lakefront Plan seen in context of the Marquette Plan

[ Summary presentation of the Marquette Plan – pdf]

<Quick History Lesson>

Unlike Hammond, Whiting, East Chicago and Gary, Portage’s industrial history only goes back to 1959 when National Steel opened a plant along Lake Michigan on the very site where the new Portage Lakefront Park now resides. In 1961 the Port of Indiana at Burns harbor, a deep water port, was opened. And in 1963 Bethlehem Steel Company started construction on their large integrated steel facility.

This eastern expansion of heavy industry along Lake Michigan’s southern shores prompted Senator Paul H. Douglas of Illinois to establish the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in an effort to preserve portions of Indiana’s natural shoreline, including its biodiversity, and unique landscape left thousands of years ago by the receding glaciers of the ice age.

In a few short years Portage went from a farming community with ancient dunes and swales and an expansive lakefront to an industrial community with no lakefront access. While Gary experienced a hollowing-out of its neighborhoods due to “White Flight” and massive disinvestment by Industry, Gary’s new neighbor, Portage was a fast expanding brand new, and mostly white, industrial community. Today, Portage has an estimated population of 36,000, the largest city in Porter County and the third largest in Northwest Indiana, behind Gary and Hammond. Portage is still mostly white with 92% white, ~8% hispanic, and <.2% black. Like most developments during this era Portage was designed on a suburban pattern model.

</Quick History Lesson>

Building Success:

Portage’s civic leaders not only adopted the Marquette Plan immediately, they expanded on it with their City’s Northside Master Plan. Of the five lakefront communities included in Phase I of the Marquette Plan, Portage is the only community to take advantage of JJR’s (award winning) work. You can see from the diagrams below how Portage has benefitted from a consistent visioning and planning process. Like East Chicago, Portage suffers from very little public access to the lake, and yet they propose to gain additional access by recovering existing brownfields along its waterway – the same strategy proposed in the Marquette Plan for East Chicago. You can see from these plans how Portage is looking to maximize what little they have by leveraging its waterways and River front. Clearly they have a long way to go, and not all the solutions are the most ideal, but this is a very good beginning. It is a testament to what can be done.

Marquette Subarea Conceptual Plan for Portage Lakefront Portage Master Plan for Lakefront and Riverfront

In contrast to Portage, East Chicago has traded against the plan for a private development along the lakefront for one of the Mayor’s largest fundraisers (a family member was chief of staff and is now chief of police) and branded it as the Marquette Plan with no public input. The Mayor’s plan completely abandons the Marquette Plan which, like Portage, aimed to recover abandoned brownfields along its waterway – The Indiana Harbor Shipping Canal. Both the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC) and the Regional Development Authority (RDA) have not only allowed this to occur without objection, but are encouraging and funding it. I will leave this story for another post.

It is important not to down play Portage’s regional identity as a white community as a contributing factor for its success. Unfortunately, “white” is still an important factor in identity politics in this challenged region. I don’t mean in any way to take away from the hard work that went into Portage’s successes, but to clarify the impediments the other communities face. It is just as important to acknowledge Portages ability to pull together a professional staff capable of realizing opportunities, attracting investment dollars, managing resources, and implementing solutions. And this is exactly why Portage poses a formidable challenge for the highly blighted older minority and urban communities along the lake. Because the leaders of Portage are more capable of forging the right relationships to produce results through an efficient process they are afforded more opportunities. Portage isn’t sitting still, in fact, they have begun to cherry pick opportunities slated for the other shoreline communities.

As an advocate for the older urban Lakefront communities, which dominate the Southern Shores of Lake Michigan, there is a part of me that is insulted that this project spearheads the redevelopment efforts as envisioned in the Marquette Plan. There is also a reality that money’s from the other minority communities, through the RDA, help finance this project. Now that Portage has completed this catalytic project, and jump-started its market by bringing valuable brownfields into productive common recreation use, Portage is set to realize its broader vision. Unfortunately, now that they have realized all this they no longer have a need to contribute to the RDA.

What Portage is able to realize is exactly what we had hope would happen when we first set out to develop the Marquette Plan. That is why we developed catalytic projects in each of our urban lakefront communities. The blighted conditions that remain in East Chicago and Gary are waiting for someone to implement their catalytic project as outlined in the Marquette Plan.

While regional entities praise the Portage project for reclaiming valuable though contaminated lakefront property, they also sight contamination as an impediment to redevelopment in my community. When it comes to redeveloping the Brownfields in East Chicago, all too often we are treated as if East Chicago were Chernobyl. If East Chicago is Chernobyl, and I am serious about this, then the USEPA ought to make this perfectly clear so we can begin abandon our properties and all our industrial facilities. If East Chicago is not Chernobyl then lets get to work and stop avoiding the impediments to change.

With the Portage project success has been gained, but now we need greater success.

This past spring we went out to Portage to take a look at the new lakefront park. Finding the entrance and then realizing that it was the entrance was just plain weird to say the least. It required entering and traversing a poorly marked U.S. Steel facility adjacent and across the river from the park. I suspect this was only a temporary solution, at least until they can construct a more formal and appropriate entrance. The most striking feature of the park besides the feeling of trespassing on industrial property when you enter is the pavilion. The Pavilion provides a very strong silhouette dominating the site and the visual field. By its design it begins to inform your experience in this rather strange setting.

<Recommended Video>

The NWI Times posted a wonderful video introducing the new lakefront and laying out the awesomeness of its achievement:


Former Portage Mayor Doug Olson and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Superintendent Costa

Marquette Plan – Portage Lakefront ]

</Recommended Video>

<Build it and they will come>

via the [ Post-Tribune ] August 27, 2009

Portage lakefront draws crowd :: Porter County :: Post-Tribune.

</Build it and they will come>

  1. Lorin Peter Vasilia
    September 12th, 2010 at 19:25 | #1

    I’m trying to locate Cindie Cassebaum regarding family and war photos of her father, Russ, that I have found after my fathers death, John Vasilia. I am his son, Lorin Vasilia. If she is still connected with this enterprise, could you please forward this to her and have her contact me. I would love to be able to forward these pictures of her father to her. Thank you.

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