Slowly but surely, the Whittier Peninsula has gone from brownfield to bright field.

Slowly but surely, the Whittier Peninsula has gone from brownfield to bright field.

Years ago, the sliver of land abutting the Scioto River south of Downtown was a dump. Literally. It's also held a scrap yard, a massive incinerator and, for decades, the city impound lot.

Old cars, government buildings and train tracks still sit nearby, though they're gradually receding into memory.

Officials planted a park on the peninsula in the 1960s, but most of the amenities were later pulled because of misuse. The city's tow lot grew to hold 4,200 cars. Waste from former foundries, machine shops and paint companies soaked deeper into the soil, and a bad reputation kept people at bay.

Still, neither the land nor the hope was lost.

In 2002, the City of Columbus, Metro Parks and the Ohio chapter of the National Audubon Society signed an agreement to transform Whittier into a bona-fide green space. They pledged to restore the habitat and welcome the community back into it.

Slowly but surely, rescue work began.

Two years ago, when 72 acres of the peninsula officially became Scioto Audubon Metro Park, a new boat launch, three observation decks and small picnic areas popped up. Wetland cells took shape in a northwest corner, and trails were cut near a multiuse path along the Scioto River. The county park organization spent $11 million updating and cleaning the land.

People started coming back - birders and fishermen first, then families, joggers and bikers. Slowly but surely, the peninsula felt safer, cleaner, more vibrant.

A crowning achievement of this long, hard reclamation struggle comes at 10 a.m. Friday with the dedication of the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, a state-of-the-art hub for conservation and education that will serve as park headquarters. It's a major piece of the peninsula puzzle and the first National Audubon Society center built so close to an urban core.

"One of the main messages you'll be hearing from us is that you can change the places in your community," center director Heather Starck said. "You don't have to let them go if they're bad. Once you start cleaning them up, everybody wants to join in."

The weekend celebration, "Explore the Nature of Change," will include hikes, tours and other events Saturday and Sunday. The title's fitting.

"It's a real transformation," Metro Parks spokeswoman Peg Hanley said. "When you consider it was the site of a dump and an old railroad yard, I think it's remarkable that we're there and the park is open."

The beautiful new building that overlooks the river is pretty remarkable, too. Its 18,000 square feet were built with recycled materials, geothermal climate control, vegetated roofs, waterless urinals and minimal interior finish materials. Rain gardens and nearby wetlands provide run-off management.

It will host a full slate of programs and activities in a region designated an Important Bird Area for its importance to migrating species. Saturday morning nature walks, monthly date nights and a Friday lunch series for city workers are planned already.

A 35-foot outdoor climbing wall and natural play area will be completed in September, and ideas for a sledding hill and sand volleyball courts have been discussed. Metro Parks will look to expand the park in the future, as the impound lot continues its relocation to the South Side.

If you ask me, everything about this project makes sense. It's a much-needed Downtown nature institution that offers true outdoor opportunities, upholds a steadfast conservation mission and enlists one of the nation's most successful environmental groups.

"We designed this building to bring in people who aren't already connected to nature," Starck said. "It'll be a work in progress for years and years. The park around us is going to keep getting better and better."