Lakeshore Boulevard and its historic past

MARQUETTE — What has gradually transformed into a hub for commercial development and scenic views of Lake Superior shoreline was once the site of colossal oil tanks, chemical plants, a railroad yard and massive coal pile.

Traveling along Marquette’s Lakeshore Boulevard, it’s hard to imagine a city that once turned its back to the harbor — but according to Marquette native and local architect Barry Polzin, that was indeed the case.

“Everything along the lakeshore was just rusty because of the coal pile,” Polzin said. “Main streets were usually against the harbor because they were often messy, dirty places.”

With industrial roots reaching back to the mid-1800s, projects to clean up the Queen City’s harbor have taken course over several decades to get the area where it is today.

Mattson Lower Harbor Park was one of the first projects, which transformed the former Spear Coal Dock into a vast grassy area that hosts numerous outdoor activities.

“The coal pile went away in the late ’70s and Mattson Park was developed in the ’80s. It was a huge thing because it actually created a space that we didn’t have in Marquette. We could have festivals. So that was a big turning point,” Polzin said.

Founders Landing is another strip along the lake that’s been given new life, as it was changed from a railroad yard and bulk storage tank farm into a mixture of shoreline park and condominium development.

Founders Landing, a 29-acre parcel of land adjacent to the harbor’s historic ore dock, was formerly owned by the Wisconsin Central Ltd. Railroad. The city acquired the property in 2001 to foster private redevelopment and increase public access to the waterfront, according to the Marquette Brownfield Redevelopment Authority website.

With the help of the state and federal government, the city has invested over $11 million in demolition, environmental remediation and public infrastructure on the property.

Development in the area includes the Founders Landing condominiums and the Marquette Place developments, which are being built in three phases.

One Marquette Place, the first phase of the project, will be ready for its first tenants to move in by January said Polzin, the project’s architect. The building is a five-story timber-frame that will contain a cafe, office suite and high-end rental apartments with balconies and views of the lake.

Two Marquette Place will contain commercial and residential space, Polzin said, while Three Marquette Place will have more commercial and office space, and rental apartments. Both developments will be “quite a bit smaller” than the first phase, Polzin said.

Polzin said the buildings were designed to capture the era and feel of the harbor’s industrial past using colors reminiscent of iron and rust.

Adjacent to the development is the Hampton Inn, once the location for the North Tank Farm, which was constructed on roughly two acres in 1950 and consisted of four above-ground storage tanks. Petroleum products stored consisted of various grades of oil, industrial fuels and gasoline.

The lease was amended in 1978 to include the storage of caustic soda that originated from the Dow Chemical Company. A spill of caustic soda occurred in 1986 and operations were discontinued later that year.

The decommissioning of the storage tanks, demolition of the remaining onsite buildings and site remediation was completed in the fall of 1997.

Polzin said ash and thousands of bottles were found while digging around the area before the hotel was built.

“The worst of the contamination came from the tank farm. When the city got the property, the state came in and helped clean up all the petroleum stuff,” he said.

In October, the city commission approved a $1.1 million sale of Founders Landing Parcel 2 to Home Renewal Systems, a Farmington Hills-based developer that spearheaded the repurposing of the Holy Family Orphanage into Grandview Marquette Apartments.

HRS Vice President Jeff Katzen said the intent is to build townhomes that are affordable to the average household and a major hotel, but other details are still being worked out.

“We’re very fortunate to have a municipality that is forward-looking and easy to work with and wants to see their community grow and get better,” Katzen said. “We’re excited about this project and would like to continue to have a great working relationship with the city.”

Polzin said while franchise hotels have strict design requirements, he plans to also give it a “Marquette flavor” like the Marquette Place developments. He said the townhouses will resemble residential properties similar to those in south Marquette.

Moving Lakeshore Boulevard inland has been discussed for many years, due to the erosion along the shoreline infringing on the roadway and the resulting need to have large piles of rip-rap to protect the road.

“Right now our focus on Lakeshore is obviously trying to get it fixed and repaired, elevated, moved and saved, if you will,” said Mayor Fred Stonehouse. “Certainly there’s plans to do that and hopefully we can get at least part of that done in the near-term.

“The commission has looked at the concept of getting that done, but the last time an actual plan was put together was about 10 years ago. Whatever we do will be a variation of that theme.”

The Lakeshore Boulevard Relocation and Coastal Restoration Project, which was forecast to cost between $8 million and $11 million, will shift the road inland from the lakeshore through the former Cliffs-Dow property.

After years of monitoring the former Cliffs-Dow industrial site, the city started seeking requests for proposals from interested investors for future residential and commercial development earlier this year.

In the early 1900s, Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company developed the property and produced pig iron at the site for about 30 years. Dow Chemical joined with Cleveland-Cliffs, forming Cliffs-Dow Chemical Company in April 1935. Many have claimed that when the wind would pick up, a strong unpleasant scent would carry for miles as charcoal and wood chemical derivatives were produced, until the property was sold to Georgia-Pacific in 1968.

The property sat idle until the city purchased about 77 acres of the tract in 1997 for $1 and sold off parcels on the north and south ends, leaving the current 46 acres.

The Cliffs-Dow site was on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list from 1983 until 2000 because the contaminated property contained hazardous waste. The site’s long-term remedy included excavation, treatment and disposal of contaminated fill material from the landfill, and monitored natural attenuation of the groundwater. Samples taken at the site show that remaining groundwater contamination does not pose an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment, according to the EPA.

With these recent developments, there are other sites along Lakeshore Boulevard where the future is unclear — including the parcel adjacent to Shiras Park, where several months ago hundreds took to social media to oppose condominiums proposed by the property’s owner, Lakeshore Residences LLC. The group canceled a meeting with the planning commission in May to discuss the plan proposed for the former foundry site.

Also unclear is what’s to happen with the Shiras Steam Plant facility, which the Marquette Board of Light and Power took offline in June, and the We Energies Presque Isle Power Plant, which is expected to shut down next year.