A Promise Made to Be Broken | Essay | Chicago Reader

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A Promise Made to Be Broken

Could a 20,000-seat Olympic field hockey arena really leave Jackson Park unspoiled?


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A couple weeks ago Mayor Daley took his Olympics dog-and-pony show to the Walt Disney Magnet School on the north side, far from the south-side neighborhood parks that will be overtaken if his plans for the 2016 games go through.

As PR spectacles go, it was pretty impressive. The stage was filled with Olympic stars. The auditorium was packed with kids hopped-up to be out of class and eager to cheer on cue for the TV cameras.

The event's ostensible purpose was to unveil the city's new Olympic logo. But its larger goal was to send the message that Chicagoans, like Disney's giddy students, are jazzed up about bringing the games to town.

Of course, the public's attitude toward the games is a lot more complicated. If you walk through Washington Park on a Sunday afternoon and ask the softball and tennis players and joggers and sunbathers what they think about the games, you'll get a chorus of jeers. As they see it, just about the only thing the games will do is turn their park into a construction zone.

Over at Jackson Park, the proposed site of a 20,000-seat field hockey arena, opinion's a bit more split, as some opponents try to figure out how to deal with an all-powerful mayor with a short temper and a long memory.

Stretching along the south lakefront, with Stony Island to the west, the Museum of Science and Industry to the north, and 67th Street to the south, Jackson Park, site of the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition, is one of the city's most storied natural splendors. Designed by the 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, it contains more than 600 acres of open land, including an oak savanna, a Japanese garden, and a wooded island in the middle of one of its two lagoons. To cross the bridge and walk through the island is to leave the city—you can't even hear the traffic from Lake Shore Drive.

The open field just west of the drive is used by dozens of youth soccer teams and some local high schools as a practice football field. It sits next to a driving range popular with local golfers, many of whom are biding their time before teeing off at the park's 18-hole course.

True, the playing fields could use some fixing up, though they're not as bad as some of the moonscapes that pass for soccer fields in other Chicago parks. But overall, Jackson Park's one of the few Park District benefits south-siders get for paying taxes, and if the city's not going to make necessary improvements, everyone would probably be better off if it were left alone.

But Daley got it in his head that Chicago had to have the Olympics in 2016. And his planners assured him that the best way to win the nod from the International Olympic Committee over competing cities like Rio de Janeiro and Madrid was to keep all the venues relatively close together and put them on public land so the city wouldn't have to deal with the headache of taking over property through eminent domain. Realizing that there would be holy hell to pay if he tried to plow over Grant Park or Lincoln Park, Daley earmarked the south side, dressing it up as a gift to the community.

In the case of Jackson Park, residents aren't sure it's a gift they really want. How can the city bring in so many spectators without paving over parkland for parking? How can they build and tear down a 20,000-seat arena without closing down the park for at least a couple of years? And what about fencing off and tearing up valuable parkland—scaring birds, trampling grass, disrupting tranquillity, and evicting soccer and football players—just to host a three-week party? What does Jackson Park get out of the deal?

Not enough, the Jackson Park Advisory Council concluded. In August it passed a resolution opposing the games. "We said the plans were ill conceived and that we didn't support them," says Ross Petersen, vice president of the council. (The former president, Nancy Hays, died in May.)

The council's opposition drew the attention of the city's Olympic committee, Chicago 2016, which depends on the enthusiasm of the city's residents. If it comes out that a significant number of south-side residents oppose the games, the IOC would be less inclined to give Chicago the nod. Given all the logistical and financial problems of staging an Olympics, the last thing any candidate city needs is local opposition.

So the Olympic committee did what they hadn't done before: they reached out to the advisory group and asked for an opportunity to make their case. On September 10 they brought in some of their heavy hitters, like former planning department commissioner Valerie Jarrett and new planning department commissioner Arnold Randall. And they assured about 50 residents that there would be no long-term damage to the oak savanna or the island or the Japanese garden. There would be no parking lots built--spectators, players, reporters, and coaches would be brought in for the games by bus. From start to finish, construction would last no more than ten months--the temporary stadium would be moved from the park as soon as the games were over. Other south-side park sites would be found for the soccer and football players who lost their field. And as a lasting legacy, the park would gain two synthetic-turf fields.

Now the advisory council has to decide whether to trust the city to make good on these promises. Not that they have much choice: if Chicago gets the nod it will be virtually impossible to stop it from doing whatever it wants. But given the city's track record when it comes to large public projects, it's exceedingly unlikely that the stadium will be built and dismantled in a timely fashion without cost overruns. The financing of the games is already iffy. Who knows if there'll be any money remaining to restore the parks once the games are over?

On the other hand, the community could use a couple of nice new playing fields—even if they are a decade off. "I spend a week in the new season filling in holes on that field. This will leave us with a field that is not so dangerous to our children," says Louise McCurry, another member of the Jackson Park Advisory Council. "I feel it's going to be a very good thing. It would be a nice thing for children to play on a field where the Olympics were held."

McCurry says she trusts the city to fulfill its promises, noting that Randall, a Hyde Park resident, coaches a team that plays in a Jackson Park youth soccer league. "The head of the city's planning department is one of our coaches," says McCurry. "I think we'll be taken care of."

But can't the city just build two soccer fields—which will cost about $2 million—without the folly and expense of the Olympics? "I don't know the answer to that," McCurry says. "There are always pros and cons to anything. It would be inconvenient for a year but we can work around it."

Still, the majority of the advisory council remains unwilling to endorse the plan, though members are guarded. The last thing they want to do is antagonize Daley, who in the recent flap over moving the Chicago Children's Museum to Grant Park showed that he gets mighty angry when locals oppose his plans. "We have opened a dialogue and that's an important first step," says Petersen.

Some council members tell me they hope the IOC will do the dirty work for them. If the IOC awards the games to some other city, then Jackson Park's users will get the best of both worlds. They won't have to deal with the Olympics, and Daley will have someone else to blame.

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.

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