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Olympic Legacies: Give or Take?

Chicago’s historic parks and its rich architectural legacy are among the strongest selling points for promoters seeking to attract the 2016 Summer Olympics to this city.

In selling the games to Chicago’s residents, meanwhile, promises of park enhancements and sports programs for kids, as well as affordable housing, have been featured alongside visions of jobs and boom times.

But current plans put great burdens on parks, and they involve the imminent demolition of a major respository of the city’s historic architecture (see part two).

In many cases promised “legacy” facilities seem designed not to meet actual needs of current park users but to accommodate the requirements of Olympic planners. In many cases they involve taking away existing resources while promising residual benefits sometime in the future.

In some cases they involve taking away facilities that have been only recently built.

In Jackson Park, an Olympic field hockey venue is planned — on the site of a world-class track and football field next to Hyde Park Academy. It’s one of only three regulation tracks at Chicago schools.

The track and field opened just eight years ago, funded by a community-led drive which raised well over half a million dollars, including support from the National Football League.

“It’s eight years into a minimum 35-year lifespan,” said Ross Petersen, president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council.

Under the current plan, the new track will be bulldozed, along with an adjacent baseball diamond, he said. Chicago 2016 has promised to rebuild it after the games, he said, although a permanent field hockey field facility has also been touted as a possible “legacy.”

The field hockey was moved to the school after the original proposal, using popular soccer fields near a lakefront nature sanctuary, led JPAC to vote against using the park for the Olympics. Petersen said the council is grateful for the site change, but when he asked at a recent meeting whether members wanted to pass a new resolution updating their stance, no one offered a motion.

In Douglas Park, recently rebuilt gymnasiums and a pool serving the Collins Highcampus — reportedly updated at a cost of $30 million — will be demolished to make way for a $37 million velodrome for bicycle racing. Afterwards a pool “may” be moved to the park from the South Side aquatics center, and Chicago 2016 promises to convert the highly specialized, elite outdoor venue into a year-round “multisport facility.”

In Lincoln Park, Chicago 2016 is touting a legacy of 20 new tennis courts after the Olympic tennis venue is taken down. They will replace 20 existing tennis courts.

Washington Park has attracted the most attention. There a $400 million temporary stadium for opening ceremonies and track events, along with a $100 million aquatic center featuring four pools, will be sited on the open meadow that dates to Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1870 design.

The thousand-acre park, listed on the National Registery of Historic Places, comprises one-seventh of the Chicago’s parkland and features 14 baseball diamonds, football and soccer fields, and cricket pitches. Under current plans, it will be closed for at least four years to accomodate the two-week 2016 extravaganza.

The Washington Park Advisory Council has endorsed the siting, although only a few of the 26 conditions it issued two years ago as requirements for its support have been addressed. But a number of community, citywide and national groups have opposed the use of the meadow for the stadium, including the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference, Friends of the Parks, Preservation Chicago and the National Association for Olmsted Parks.

NAOP objects that Chicago 2016 plans “threaten the park’s signature public open spaces and sweeping vistas, jeopardizing [the] integrity, significance and public use” of “a masterpiece of America’s preeminent landscape architect.” According to NAOP, “plans to tear down the stadium following the Olympics are unrealistic” — and even if they are carried out, the new ampitheater and aquatic center would “take a major open space and restrict its use to specific activities, and a much more limited user population.”

The group urges Chicago 2016 to use the Chicago Park District’s South Lakefront Framework Master Plan as a basis for restoring the park” and cites London’s plan for its Olympics, “taking brownfields and adding new parks” instead of “damaging existing historic park resources.”

NAOP executive director Iris Gestram said Chicago 2016 president Lori Healey has not responded to their letter, which was sent in April. Chicago 2016 did not respond to inquiries for this article.

At a recent community meeting at the Washington Park refectory, Chicago 2016 legacy director Arnold Randall was asked if the Olympics planners would consider an alternative site for the stadium. He said that while planning is “a work in progress,” siting the stadium in Washington Park “is part of the bid. That’s the plan and that’s the policy and that’s not going to change.”

Some think that means it won’t be addressed before the host city is chosen in October, however.

“Nothing is hard and fast,” said Erma Tranter of Friends of the Parks, pointing out that London made dramatic changes in its venue siting after winning the 2012 bid. She said Olympic planners have told her “we have some flexibility…we can change some sites.”

The money spent burying stadium infrastructure in the ground — millions of dollars spent on water, sewer and electrical lines — will be wasted in Washington Park and could spur development at other sites, she said.

“They’re spending millions of dollars on things nobody is ever going to use” after the Olympics, said Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago. “It’s a complete and total waste of money.”

Advocates point to the USX site on the south lakefront, where a large residential and commercial development has stalled for lack of financing; or the 92-acre, 15-block site where CHA’s Robert Taylor Homes were demolished — 1800 units of mixed-income housing are planned for the site, and so far 181 have been built; or the former site of Comiskey Park.

Tranter points out that the city owns about a third of the extensive vacant tracts to the west of Washington Park. “They have options,” she said.

Other U.S. cities that have hosted Olympics have added parkland, but Chicago’s plan doesn’t, she said. “A $5 billion budget and not a square inch of new parkland,” comments Fine. Tranter adds that Chicago is last among the nation’s largest 20 cities in park acreage per person.

Chicago 2016 plans to leave 5,000 or so of the stadium’s 80,000 seats to serve as a neighborhood concert and sport facility which “can be expanded to host major international athletic events” and “will be the centerpiece for the revitalization of the Washington Park area,” according to the bid book. The ampitheatre will be four feet deep and surrounded by six-foot berms.

For some years, some residents have wanted a festival site in the park to handle summer events (others fear the noise levels that will result). The park’s playing fields were not the location envisioned, however. At the recent community meeting, residents discussed the best location for the festival site — though no one from Chicago 2016 or the park district suggested the question was open for discussion.

Olmsted’s original plan had a concert and parade ground in front of the parks’ Refectory, which is now a parking lot across Garfield Boulevard from the meadow. That’s the best place for a festival site, Tranter said.

Fine argues that the ampitheater is just the concrete foundation of the stadium, and it’s main function is to lessen the enormous cost of removing concrete. Indeed, the temporary stadium will require many tens of thousands of tons of concrete to be poured into — and removed from — the historic park.

London’s 2012 Olympic stadium (which is now projected to cost twice as much as estimated in the city’s 2005 bid) features permanent and temporary seating, as does Chicago’s. Its foundation consists of 4,000 concrete columns, with permanent seating attached to 12,000 concrete terrace units weighing as much as ten metric tons each. Over that goes a concrete upper tier and a hundred 3,500-ton steel terracing supports for the temporary seating.

George Rumsey of HPKCC worries that “when it’s over they’re going to look at it and say, why should we tear it down? It would be perfect for the Bears.” (The team has the smallest stadium in the NFL, and Soldier Field could be downsized to the concert venue long desired by the powers-that-be. Or the Washington Park facility could be turned over to the University of Chicago, which already administers Midway park and which has been buying land west of King Drive.)

“They say they’re going to downsize it, but what if they change their mind? What guarantees are there? None,” he said. “It’s a land grab, taking over our park with no accountability — and there’s no accountability on what’s going to happen afterwards.”

Chicago 2016 did not respond to repeated requests for information regarding the source of funding for restoring Washington Park, relocating pools from the aquatic center to other parks, restoring Jackson Park’s $500,000 track, or converting the open-air velodrome in Douglas Park into a year-round recreation center. Those costs don’t seem to be included in projected construction costs; $400 million for the stadium is obviously a low-ball figure.

“It’s very unclear” where the money is supposed to come from, Tranter commented. FOTP’s principles for Washington Park state: “Funds must be budgeted to dismantle the stadium.”

As far as track: A serious commitment to providing track and field opportunities for Chicago youth would require better facilties, most crucially an indoor facility; a commitment by the schools and the park district in order to reach all ages; and a significant increase in the hours for which school track coaches are compensated, currently far less than for other sports, said Bill Gerstein, an educator who spearheaded the fundraising drive for the Jackson Park track.

Chicago 2016 has dangled the possibility of turning the National Guard Armory near Washington Park into the city’s first public indoor track facility — a longstanding proposal of sports advocates. But no commitment has been made.

Chicago 2016’s “legacy” group World Sports Chicago touted a summer track and field program in May which they said would serve 3,500 kids; in July the Tribune reported that 300 had participated. (Most WSC events appear to be Olympics-boosting rallies for children who are already attending park district camp or public school.) Inquiries yielded no response.

Continued: Architectural Legacy

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