They Say Nay | Essay | Chicago Reader

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They Say Nay

Naturalists and neighbors of a Lake County forest preserve are up in arms about Chicago's plans for an Olympic equestrian center.

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Far be it from me to give advice to Mayor Daley. But if he really wants to bring the Olympics to Chicago, I suggest he move the site of the proposed equestrian center out of Lake County. He's planning to plop a 15,000-seat stadium, as well as stables, riding paths, and a barn, right in the middle of the Lakewood Forest Preserve, paving over 300 acres of marsh, woodland, and cornfields.

Daley's plan is a problem for naturalists and other users of the forest preserve, a group that includes people with money, time, know-how, and connections. "Whatever it takes, we're determined to keep these games out of Lake County," says Jay Glenn, a lawyer who lives near the proposed site. "It's about saving the land," said Tom Eccles, president of Voters for Preservation, a group that's formed to protest the location. "It's our responsibility."

At the moment the outrage of Glenn, Eccles, and other residents is aimed at the 23 members of the Lake County Forest Preserve Board of Commissioners. In January, without warning, the board announced that it had reached an agreement with the city of Chicago to build the equestrian center, which caught people in Lake County by surprise. Until then Daley had been proposing to put the equestrian center in a Cook County Forest Preserve.

At the January 9 meeting, board president Bonnie Thomson Carter made it clear that she and the board weren't going to debate the matter: the center was coming whether the residents wanted it or not. (Carter has not returned my calls to her). She described the plan as a no-lose situation for the county: Lake County wouldn't have to pay for the center, and once the games were over the stadium would be reduced to a 2,500-seat facility, not much of a long-term intrusion. She said the county planned to hire a private company to run the stables and operate riding programs there, with special classes for disadvantaged and disabled kids. The deal might even be a moneymaker.

But the board members had to have known there would be resistance. Lakewood Forest Preserve is home to 17 endangered species of animals and plants. Over the years the county pieced it together with several major acquisitions that cost millions of tax dollars. Bike riding, dog walking, and driving are severely restricted, and local naturalists are vigilant about what they view as unwarranted development. For the last few years they've fought a proposal to build picnic shelters there. "So of course we would erupt over the equestrian center," Glenn says.

But on January 16, just a week after the proposal was unveiled, the Lake County Forest Preserve board approved it, voting to OK the deal with the city 17 to 0 (with two abstentions and four absences). Under the terms of the agreement, if the International Olympic Committee awards the games to Chicago--something we won't know until 2009--construction of the stadium can begin immediately afterward.

When Glenn and other residents complained about the destruction of natural wildlife, particularly the endangered species, Carter and Olympic officials assured them that not one endangered animal, plant, or bird would be destroyed. It would be, one aide to Mayor Daley assured resident Linda Breuer in a phone message, "the most ecologically and environmentally and animal friendly games ever produced on this planet."

The residents weren't buying it. You don't have to have lived near a construction project to know that you can't build a 15,000-seat stadium without disruption to a delicate ecosystem. Breuer, who runs Barnswallow, a sanctuary for injured raptors, in her house on the edge of the Lakewood Forest Preserve, says the equestrian center will kill hundreds of birds that live in the preserve. There would be bulldozers and earthmovers excavating hundreds of acres of earth, piling up huge mounds until dump trucks came in to haul it away. "These properties were purchased by the taxpayers of Lake County to be preserved and protected for future generations," says Glenn. "If they put the equestrian center there, they will destroy the woods, and everyone knows it."

One of the many reasons Chicagoans will care if Lake County Forest Preserve Board members are dumb enough to make a construction zone out of their forest preserve is that we may well wind up stuck with the bill. Mayor Daley has been very secretive about the potential costs of hosting the Olympics. In the case of the equestrian center, all we know is that Carter and Olympic officials say they expect to raise about $12.5 million in contributions from a group of private donors. But the Olympic planners haven't said how much the center is expected to cost. Based on the price tag for similar facilities in Athens and other cities that have hosted Olympics recently, we're talking at least three times that.

It's not as if the city has the money lying around. The Chicago Park District is so broke it doesn't have the money to patch the leaky field house in Marquette Park, repair the broken drinking fountains in Scottsdale Park, install working lightbulbs in the field house at Hamlin Park, hire staff to run the gym at Welles Park, patch up decrepit baseball diamonds in Washington Park, or build one--just one--indoor running track.

Can the bird lovers of Lake County beat Daley's Olympic machine? We'll see: they've created a Web site (votersforpreservation.org), they're circulating petitions, and they're holding protests. Come fall, they intend to slate candidates to run against Carter and the rest of the board. Glenn says the group will fly to Switzerland to press their case with the International Olympic Committee if need be.

They're also looking for allies on the south side. "The Olympic people are going for public land. That's why they wanted Washington Park, that's why they want our forest preserve," says Glenn. "They want land they can get for nothing. They don't care who gets in their way."

The protesters are up against a pretty powerful coalition of politicians and corporations, but they're determined. A few weeks ago Breuer gave me a tour of her home, showing off the hawks, owls, falcons, and eagles she's nursed back to health. We went into her backyard and she pointed to the woods just beyond her property line. "That's where they want to put that horse stadium," she said with disdain. "But I won't let them. I'll fight them every step of the way."

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

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Carlos J. Ortiz.

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