Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=122111
Story Retrieval Date: 5/22/2013 1:46:09 AM CST
Kate Gardiner and Kate Hollencamp/MEDILL
Kate Gardiner and Kate Hollencamp/MEDILL
Famed Chicago architect and city planner Daniel Burnham once said, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and themselves will probably not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope.”
This quote was relegated to its own page in Chicago’s Olympic bid book, suggesting Chicago 2016’s presumed endorsement from Burnham.
Vice President of Communications Patrick Sandusky said the committee believes Chicago’s games will build upon the legacy left by the 1893 World’s Fair and Burnham’s plan for the city. But some of the Chicagoans most familiar with Burnham’s work would beg to differ.
“I think the first thing Daniel Burnham would have said is, ‘Give me some more detail,’” said Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago. “The devil is in the details.”
“Daniel Burnham designed a great city,” Fine said. “The best memorial we can give him is to not destroy his vision.”
Parks advocate Erma Tranter echoed Fine’s suggestion of what the visionary Burnham might have felt about Olympic construction. She also considered how landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted might have reacted to the proposed changes in Washington Park.
“[Olmstead and Burnham] took areas and set them aside for public use as opposed to using areas that had already been set aside,” Tranter said, noting she had a copy of the Plan of Chicago on her desk.
“I frankly think that they would’ve looked to some other areas that would have benefitted by park creation.”
A century ago, Daniel Burnham designed a city of ambitious architecture and outstretched open spaces. Since then, these staples of urban planning have stood firm as Chicago’s defining characteristics. But one organization seeks to bring the city a new claim to fame – and historians worry trademark buildings and green spaces may be steamrolled by the process.
The Olympics may come to this city soon. But with Chicago 2016’s proposed stadiums, centers and villages come alterations to Chicago’s historic landscape and an outcry from the city’s preservation community. Most notably, historians are clamoring to protect the more than 1,000-acre Washington Park and the Michael Reese Hospital campus on the city’s near South Side.
Washington Park is the cornerstone of the bid committee’s plan for the city. The South Side park is slated to house the track and field stadium and the aquatics center, two of the largest and, likely, most heavily attended structures in the plan. Conservationists say if the park goes, so go 106 years of history, landmark status and 17 baseball diamonds currently serving many community leagues.
“It’s a violation of the historic landscape that we have,” said Erma Tranter, president of the Chicago park advocacy group Friends of the Parks.
But while the park’s greenery could become a distant memory for 14,000 residents of the low-income Washington Park neighborhood, one community leader said those residents don’t seem to mind.
Ald. Willie Cochran’s 20th Ward contains more than half of Washington Park. He said his constituents look forward to the Olympics, regardless of any short-term inconveniences.
“It’s a long-term value,” Cochran said. “A major expansion of anything is going to interrupt people’s lives, but it has to be OK for change.”
“We’ll get over it, and for development, we’ll work with it.”
20th Ward's major open space
Yet park advocates ask, what about preserving his ward’s only major open space? Washington Park represents one seventh of the city’s parklands and is the major outdoor recreational space for Cochran’s ward.
“Our parks are very, very important places,” said Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago. “They shouldn’t be recklessly or cavalierly destroyed.”
“We’re very worried about Washington Park,” Fine said. “When you drop a 90,000-person stadium in the middle of a historic park – how temporary is it?”
The venues’ permanence is a key concern for Friends of the Parks. Details are not yet final on how much of the stadium and swimming pools would remain after the Olympics, but Tranter said neither structure is necessary. Washington Park already has public pools, she said, and another space should have been explored for the betterment of Chicago.
“The Olympics provide an opportunity to take land that hasn’t been developed, or is blighted,” said Tranter. “You develop, and then you leave behind, perhaps, a huge park.”
“The Olympics in Chicago are not taking a blighted area,” Tranter said. “The opposite is the case: They are taking a park, by the foremost landscape architect in the history of our country, and then superimposing the Olympics on it and changing the historic plan.”
The landscape architect Tranter referred to is Washington Park’s planner Frederick Law Olmsted, viewed widely as one of the most famous and influential in his field. Olmsted designed the majority of the landscaping for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Tranter said she thought Olmsted would sharply protest the proposed changes to his park.
“What we needed then, and what we need today is outdoor space where we can run and play,” Tranter said.
According to the recently released Olympic bid book, the track and field stadium would sit directly on top of green space currently used for baseball diamonds; concrete pathways would go around and through the rest of the park. It’s a far cry from the sprawling green spaces and the roaming flocks of geese living there now.
Conservationists air concerns
While the loss of the park may not bother some members of the neighborhood, conservationists decry Chicago 2016’s blindness to the issue. Tranter said the bid committee engaged Friends of the Parks only after Washington Park’s proposed developments received extensive press coverage, and even then, her message fell on deaf ears.
“The end result of the bid did not match with our concerns,” Tranter said.
Patrick Sandusky, vice president of communications for Chicago 2016, said the committee considered wide-ranging community perspectives, especially in Washington Park.
“We believe our plans for the games build upon the legacy left by the 1893 World’s Fair – including Olmsted’s work – and Daniel Burnham’s plan for Chicago,” said Sandusky.
Preservation Chicago executive director Fine said Chicago 2016 long ignored his organization’s calls to be heard, as well. After several unreturned phone calls and emails, Fine has only just managed to schedule his first meeting with the Olympic committee.
Fine’s concerns are more than just park space. Though his organization also advocates for the preservation of Olmsted’s work in Washington Park, their pre-eminent concerns are buildings like the architecturally significant Michael Reese campus, which could be either destroyed or adapted to house Olympic athletes.
The Michael Reese Modern, as the campus is known, gained attention for the second year in a row through Preservation Chicago’s endangered list, “The Chicago 7,” released last month. Their argument gained strength thanks to Grahm Balkany, a founding member of Preservation Chicago and independent researcher in the field.
Balkany just released research conducted over the last two years that indicates famed architect Walter Gropius was likely the creative force behind not only Michael Reese’s main building, but also the entire 35-building campus. Moreover, Balkany said, Reese Modern is Gropius’ only standing work in Chicago.
While Fine and Balkany expressed a perceived inevitability of the 2016 Olympics coming to Chicago, they also said their goal was never to stop the Olympics from landing here. Rather, they just want buildings like Michael Reese to be saved and converted for reuse.
“These buildings were built with an eye toward adaptability,” Balkany said, calling the campus not only a historical asset, but also an environmental one.
Fine reinforced the point, saying that while some people may have difficulty grasping the historical value of buildings from the ‘50s and ‘60s, there is no denying the potential benefits of their conversion and reuse.
“There is no need to destroy everything and rebuild it,” Fine said. “Obviously not every building can be reused, but certainly more than one.”
“The building codes, the fire codes, the exit requirements -- things have to be done,” Fine said. “But in preservation we deal with this all the time.”
Fine said while Mayor Daley and Chicago 2016 have heralded their bid for “the greenest Olympics ever,” the most environmentally friendly thing they could do is reuse existing resources.
“It’s much greener to save a building,” Fine said, “than put a green roof on a new building.”
Tranter said Friends of the Parks has a similar message concerning Chicago’s green spaces.
“If you’re going to put a stadium in Washington Park, you’ve got to remove it completely, restore the park, or improve it really,” Tranter said. “Go back to the Olmsted plan.”
2016 Committee touts benefits
Historic preservation aside, 2016’s Sandusky said he thinks the benefits to the communities around Washington Park and Michael Reese Modern will far outweigh the costs.
“An independent study shows that bringing the Games to Chicago will create 315,000 job-years across the state of Illinois,” Sandusky said. (A job year is the number of workers multiplied by the days they work and divided by 365.)
“To prepare local communities to benefit from the projected increase in economic activity, Chicago 2016 established the 2016 Fund for Chicago neighborhoods,” Sandusky said, “which will work with community organizations to provide training that will prepare workers and businesses for job opportunities.”
Chicago 2016 said it also has created community outreach committees, which include representation from the Washington Park Advisory Council, as well as aldermen and community members from the areas surrounding proposed sites. To date, there is no representative from the preservation or conservation communities.
“We live in a city that values community input very little, unfortunately,” Fine said. “Those that do scream the loudest tend to get what they want.”
“But this Olympics is bigger than all of us, and it’s important that we as advocates try to get to the table as soon as possible,” Fine said.