Observations in Muskegon, MI

The little green stickers that dot this menacing pile of black barrels, which sits on an empty lot 100 yards from the edge of Muskegon Lake, declare "Non Hazardous Waste." Still the stockpile represents the challenge confronting the City of Muskegon's cleanup and urban revitalization project.

Not only is the effort progressing far too slowly - the photo at right was taken last night, but I took pictures of similiar black barrels in this exact spot approximately two years ago - there are also numerous signs to suggest that the redevelopment and reinvestment that's now underway will struggle to yield a truly vital waterfront city in the near future.

To be certain, Muskegon has made some bold moves. Community leaders demolished an out-of-place indoor shopping mall and are now rebuilding some 23 acres of the central city from scratch. They've installed innovative traffic circles to help ease the flow of traffic and promote pedestrian activity when the new downtown is complete. And, like numerous Great Lakes cities, they've recognized the unique value of their waterfront and begun to reclaim it for new businesses, housing, and public use.

But the overall style, character, and organization of the new development that's taking shape on the grounds of the city's largest lakefront project - Edison Landing - struggles, at least so far, to compliment, leverage, or enhance the beauty of Muskegon Lake. What's at stake is nothing less than the strength of the city's long-term prosperity and sustainability.

Perhaps most notable, there's more land area dedicated to parking lots than there is to office or retail space combined. In fact, nearly 43 percent of the total developable land appears to be reserved for car storage. That's a sure-fire way to suck the energy and attractiveness right out of the entire area.

The project is low-density for urban redevelopment and half-hearted mixed use, with homes, businesses, and institutions close but still separated. There's no apparent attention to permanent mass transit. And the law offices of Parmenter O'Toole, one of the shiny new outposts of the development, basically recreates the 20th century problem of buildings and cities turning their backs to the waterfront. In short, the area at this early stage in the project feels like developers are transplanting a suburban office park into an aspiring urban area.

There are a few signs of the new kinds of forms and investments needed to boost ecological health, social well being, and economic competitiveness in the 21st century. Two institutions that now anchor the lakefront - the Annis Water Resources Institute and the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center, both of Grand Valley State University - represent the hubs of higher learning necessary to churn out top talent, develop new ideas, and compete in a knowledge economy.

The immediate lakefront area is reserved for a solid pedestrian walkway, recognizing that waterfronts are most valuable when people are attracted to and using them. And the handful of condos that have been built, while only two levels tall, are full of windows, complete with slick walk out decks, and water facing.

Overall, Muskegon's long and expensive journey of redevelopment is underway, albeit slowly and with some cause for concern. But if the waterfront is a key asset on which the city hopes to build, they can start today by cleaning up those black barrels, as well as the nearby piles of cement blocks, rotting telephone poles, tree limbs, and old docks.

This is a Great Lakes waterfront. Not the dump.