CHESTERTON | A dozen years after planners envisioned a "new urbanism" mecca at Coffee Creek Center and three years after sale of the land gave rise to new hopes of retail and professional campus development, the area off Ind. 49 north of the Indiana Toll Road is still an underachiever.

In the mid-1990s, plans for a neo-traditional community across the 640-acre tract included up to 2,000 residential units and more than 3 million square feet of commercial, office and retail space.

It was showcased as an innovative master-planned community on the front lines against urban sprawl. People would live, work and play all within the same walkable neighborhood wrapped around a 167-acre nature preserve along the banks of Coffee Creek.

The plans garnered national attention, including a 1999 Time magazine article, and comparison to new urbanism superstars like Celebration, Fla. But only a handful of projects panned out.

Apart from an 88-unit apartment building and about a dozen homes, the development has failed to attract the interest of homebuyers, even on parcels already laid out with roads and streetlights.

Residents can walk to a gift shop and cafe, a salon and spa and a women's apparel shop,

Opposite the Toll Road entrance, a Bob Evans restaurant, the Hilton Garden Inn and a gas station stand next to a three-building medical complex that includes the Lakeshore Bone & Joint Institute.

In 2006, Illinois-based developer James Gierczyk bought major parcels of the 640 acres from Lake Erie Land Co., a subsidiary of energy provider NiSource Inc., the parent company of NIPSCO.

At the time, Gierczyk said he planned to move Coffee Creek in a new direction, away from its original intent as an urban community of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

"I love the (new urbanism) concept, but I'm not so sure it will work here, and it certainly didn't work in the past," Gierczyk said then. "I want to move forward with exciting projects that make sense."

In 2008, grand plans by the Optiva Group Ltd., of Strongsville, Ohio, to build a lifestyle center with a luxury hotel, a 2,500-seat community playhouse, shops, restaurants, nightclubs and a 10,000-seat sports complex went nowhere.

But a small-scale version of what Coffee Creek might have been continues to grow in Burns Harbor.

The Village at Burns Harbor, the town's first subdivision exemplifies the new urbanism ideals of walkable neighborhoods, smaller lots, parks and sustainable features that Coffee Creek aspired to.

Seventy-five homes are now occupied, and though the recession has slowed progress, the plan is still for 300 in total, developer Clifford Fleming said.

Fleming, a longtime proponent of neo-traditional communities, was involved with the Coffee Creek initiative at the beginning as attorney for Lake Erie Land Co. before starting The Village.

Some land use planners suggested Coffee Creek failed because the target audience -- Chicagoans looking for elbow room -- did not want the small lots of new urbanist communities. They wanted to show they had arrived -- in the form of a big house and a big yard.

But Fleming calls that "baloney."

"The design didn't fail," he said. Young professionals hurt by the recession are finding that the burdens of McMansions are lowering their quality of life and are finding new urbanist concepts attractive, he said.

At a time when the new urbanism hopes for Coffee Creek seem a thing of the past, it is hard to know the current status or plans for the land. Gierczyk and Lake Erie Land Co. Vice President Tom Godfrey did not respond to multiple requests for information.

Whither Coffee Creek? As Northwest Indiana battles the recession, economic winds may determine the property's eventual destination. Much potential is still there. But so far, very little of the vision presented a dozen years ago has been brought to reality.


Efforts to lure investors met with scandal.

A federal investigation into the 1999 sale of 55 acres of Coffee Creek land to the local Carpenters Pension Fund landed four men in prison for scheming to influence the $10 million sale and later trying to cover up the scheme.

Former state Democratic Chairman Peter Manous, former Carpenters Union boss Gerry Nannenga, real estate agent Paul Ihle and Ihle's partner, Kevin Pastrick -- the son of former East Chicago Mayor Robert Pastrick -- went to federal prison.

Reporting like this is brought to you by a staff of experienced local journalists committed to telling the stories of your community. Support from subscribers is vital to continue our mission.