Dangerous Games: Chicago’s biggest foundations start preparing for the Olympics’ ill effects on the South and West Sides

(Ellis Calvin)

In their eagerness to bring the 2016 Summer Olympics to Chicago, four of the city’s largest foundations have created a multimillion-dollar fund to help neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. These areas would likely see the greatest improvements in infrastructure as a result of the Games, yet they are home to the strongest opposition to hosting them. With this in mind, the fund aims to bring residents into the planning process for the Olympics while offsetting some of their potentially adverse effects.

It is not the first time these foundations have collaborated. The Chicago Community Trust, a community foundation, and the independent MacArthur, McCormick Tribune, and Polk Bros. Foundations pooled their resources in 2003 when they created the Partnership for New Communities. With the $10 million it has raised thus far, the Partnership provides grants for economic and workforce development in “those neighborhoods most affected by public housing transformation,” according to a press release–places like Roosevelt Square and Cabrini Green, where public housing has been demolished as part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation.

Like the Olympics, the Plan for Transformation is highly controversial. As the Olympics are expected to do, it has displaced thousands of low-income residents in its effort to create integrated, mixed-income communities. It has also overrun its costs and time frame, which is definitely within the realm of possibility for the aftermath of the Chicago Olympics.

South Side opposition to Chicago’s Olympic bid has manifested itself in many ways, though it has gained little acknowledgment from Mayor Daley or the city’s Olympic planners. Five of the area’s aldermen voted against the Olympic financing package last March, and in May Alderman Toni Preckwinkle (4th Ward) demanded that architects redesign the 5,000-unit Olympic Village to be built at McCormick Place. Citing its “self-contained” buildings, she said it “looks like something dropped from outer space.”

That Olympic construction will be insensitive to local needs is an apprehension echoed by residents. Two of the South Side’s largest green spaces, Jackson and Washington Parks, have both been slated as venue locations: Jackson Park would be the site of a 20,000-seat field hockey arena, while Washington Park would host the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium. The years of construction would leave thousands of athletes without a place to practice and deprive residents of the respite only a park in a city can provide. Despite the fact that they would get a couple new soccer fields out of the deal, the Jackson Park Advisory Council passed a resolution opposing the Olympics last August. The Washington Park Advisory Council, which stands to gain a 5,000-seat stadium, created a twenty-nine-point list of conditions for support.

Also at issue is the cost of the Olympics, whose current $2 billion price tag is unlikely to be paid solely out of the pockets of private businesses. Rather, it would be easy for Mayor Daley to use the $500 million in property taxes collected by his Tax Incremented Finance districts (TIFs) to cover infrastructure costs. Of course, that means the money won’t be going toward education, healthcare, or affordable housing. Even if the Olympic Games actually make the $2.5 billion in revenues that officials are predicting (which seems unlikely, in light of the debt-ridden host cities of the past), the failure to invest in human capital might make the Olympics a bad deal in the long run.

At $3.5 million, the 2016 Olympics Fund for Chicago Neighborhoods is a relative pittance. The foundations that will distribute it may be able to offset some of the damage done by the soaring rents, destroyed homes, and widespread displacement that is likely to come with the Olympics. However, the voice they will give to local residents in the planning process may not be the voice they truly need; perhaps they just want to be heard saying “no.”