City puts Olympic hopes in South Side

By Aaron Brown

In a major announcement for the University and surrounding communities, Chicago officials revealed a plan last month that places Washington Park at the center of the city’s bid for the 2016 Olympic Games.

Under the plan, a proposed 95,000-seat temporary stadium in Washington Park would host the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as track-and-field events. After the conclusion of the Games, the upper portion of the stadium would be removed, leaving a 10,000-seat, below-ground arena for permanent use as a sports and entertainment venue.

Officials consider the new stadium necessary for a successful bid, since the city’s current facilities are too small for major ceremonies. Additional events are slated for a number of other sites throughout Chicago, including Soldier Field and the United Center.

The announcement marks a dramatic change from the city’s original proposal. That plan, unveiled in July, called for the construction of an 80,000-seat temporary stadium along the lakefront, to be demolished after the Games. This prompted criticism from some Olympics officials.

Along with the addition of a permanent arena, the new plan would shift a significant portion of the Games from the originally proposed North Side to the city’s South Side. This change in location is likely to have a significant impact on the University, which is within a half-mile of Washington Park.

The plan proposes several University sites, including Ratner Center and Stagg Field, as practice and warm-up areas for athletes. In addition, hosting such a major event nearby would bring increased attention to the University.

“The international exposure from hosting the Games virtually on our campus can only be very positive,” said Hank Webber, vice president for community and government affairs. He pointed to improvements in the athletic facilities and hosting of cultural activities as other significant potential benefits to the U of C.

A Washington Park Olympics also would likely provide a major boon for the surrounding communities, many of which severely lack economic opportunities. Taking this broader perspective, Webber said the Games had the capability to revitalize these neighborhoods.

“The Olympics would bring an economic infusion to the South Side of Chicago,” he said. Webber cited construction jobs, community development programs, renovations to Washington Park, and infrastructure improvements as likely gains for local residents.

However, some observers believe the Olympics offer few real benefits for a host.

“Most cities lose between a little and a ton, and there is no reason to expect Chicago would be any different,” said U of C economics professor Allen Sanderson in an e-mail interview. “The benefits outweigh costs only if you attach an exceptionally high value to hosting a 17-day international party.”

But Webber disagrees with this type of analysis. “I don’t think the way to calculate the value of an Olympics is by whether it gains or loses money,” he said.

Aside from costs, other criticisms about the plan include the lack of parking space, the distance from downtown, and insufficient public transportation. In addition, some organizations have expressed reservations about major changes to Washington Park’s historic open landscapes.

Webber acknowledged these concerns, but said the city could meet the challenge. Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, whose ward covers part of Washington Park, agreed.

“I think there’s a possibility that we’ll get a great new facility in this historic park,” she said. Preckwinkle added that the permanent stadium could provide the large track and soccer venue the South Side currently lacks.

Although the proposed site neighbors the University, school officials say they had little input in this latest decision.

Webber said the change in plans came quickly, and even Preckwinkle said she first learned of the new proposal the morning it was announced.

The University now intends to play a much more active role, officials say. Webber has plans to meet regularly with the committee that oversees the city’s bid, whose members include University President Robert Zimmer and University trustees Valerie Jarrett and Ned Jannotta.

Still, the city has a long way to go before securing the 2016 Games. Chicago is competing with Los Angeles and San Francisco for the U.S. bid, and the U.S. Olympic Committee will announce its choice in the spring of 2007. After that, worldwide bids are submitted to the International Olympic Committee, which will make a final decision in 2009.

This schedule gives Chicago some much needed time to prepare for such a major event. While optimistic about the city’s chances, Webber acknowledged the challenges ahead.

“We still have a long way to go,” he said.