March 2, 2007

Olympic proposal stirs University community

Members of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) will visit Chicago next week for the city’s final chance to impress the committee in its bid to land the 2016 Summer Olympics nomination over rival Los Angeles. Chicago’s Olympic proposal, featuring a prominent role for the South Side, has met praise from University administrators but mixed reactions from locals.

The proposal calls for the construction of an 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium in Washington Park, just west of campus. The stadium, earmarked to become a 5,000-seat amphitheater when the games end, would host the Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies as well as numerous athletic events.

With Olympic competitions staged so near to campus, University Vice President for Community Affairs Hank Webber said Stagg Field and Ratner Athletics Center would be used as warm up facilities for the athletes. He said students would face “restrictions on utilization [of these facilities] during that summer,” but anticipated little student objection since use of Ratner and Stagg dips in the summer.

“I do think it involves a certain disruption we’ll have to work on,” he said. “On the other hand, there’ll be great excitement to have the Olympics happening…. I think most people will take it in stride.”

University support for the Olympic bid is no surprise, with President Robert Zimmer sitting on the Chicago 2016 Exploratory Committee, the organization charged with fundraising for Chicago’s bid. Webber said the University endorses the proposal in part because the Olympics might spark South Side economic development.

“[The Olympics] creates the potential for considerable neighborhood rejuvenation, particularly in Washington Park,” Webber said, adding that the event could spur transportation improvements across the South Side.

Mia Sissac, spokesperson for Chicago’s 2016 Olympic Exploratory Committee, echoed the view that the Olympics would benefit South Side neighborhoods. The Chicago Exploratory Committee aspires to leave an Olympic “legacy” on the South Side, she said, adding that the committee hopes the remaining amphitheater would provide a venue for cultural events and international performers.

Sissac said the Olympic committee would not leave Washington Park in a state of chaos. “Whatever grass is gone, we’ll put all of that back. We’re not just going to leave the holes,” she said.

Nevertheless, some remain skeptical that Olympics-provoked development would benefit South Side locals.

“The new development would be geared toward tourists, not toward residents who’ve always lived here,” said second-year Hannah Jacoby, a member of the South Side Solidarity Network, an RSO concerned with the needs of South Side residents. “[Development] would…lead to the destruction of some homes and local businesses and [would spur an] enormous jump in property taxes.… It would dramatically change the makeup of the South Side.

“We need to keep our fingers crossed the Olympic Committee doesn’t pick us,” Jacoby said.

The Olympic bid provoked harsh criticism from Washington Park residents as well. Many worry the summer games will disrupt their community and detract from the setting of the park, a landmark listed in the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. The park was designed in the 1870s by Frederick Law Olmsted, renowned architect of New York’s Central Park and the University of Chicago campus.

“People are concerned about details of the planning. In the short term, the construction of the stadium will displace a number of activities,” Webber said.

Washington Park, which “creates community cohesion,” according to Jacoby, is the stage for various athletic competitions, summer parades, and festivals.

Washington Park Advisory Council (WPAC) President Cecilia Butler said locals will support the Olympics if the city considers their needs. Last Saturday, after two town meetings devoted to delineating locals’ concerns, WPAC drew up a 29-point list of conditions the city must meet to gain Washington Park residents’ support. Requirements include control parking demand, protect parks, and safeguard the homes of tenants who fear displacement.

“[The Olympics] are a great opportunity.… The whole world will have its eyes on us,” Butler said. “But we need the city to support the people who are affected.”

Like the WPAC members, many agree that the responsibility for making the Olympics a positive experience rests on the shoulders of the city government.

Sissac emphasized the committee’s role as a fundraising body and said it had little power to affect the possibility of rising housing costs in Olympics neighborhoods. She said potential solutions to these problems, such as rent freezes, rest in the hands of the city.

Despite broad criticisms of Chicago’s Olympic hopes, Webber said he is impressed by the support the city has garnered for the proposal. At press time, the Chicago 2016 Olympic Exploratory Committee reported 77,476 people had expressed support for the bid on its website. Webber attributed the support partly to the private control of Olympic fundraising, which leaves taxpayers off the hook.

“I think most people understand that the Olympics is an extraordinary event,” Webber said, calling the Olympic Games the leading sporting event in the world after the World Cup.

If Chicago wins the U.S. nomination, which will be announced in April, it will face competition from international cities, culminating in a final decision by the International Olympic Committee in 2009.