Credit: Keith G. Herzik

Back in 2007, when Mayor Daley was unveiling his Olympic plans, he promised the games would bring a swimming pool to the west side.

And not just any swimming pool, but a $78 million “state-of-the-art aquatic center.”

But that was then. Last December the city announced it was shifting the aquatic center from Douglas Park to Washington Park on the south side. And in the latest bombshell, Douglas Park might be losing a swimming pool instead of getting a new one. Olympic planners have quietly revealed that if we get the games they’re going to demolish the gym and pool at Collins Academy High School, located in the park, to make way for a 6,000-seat bike-racing arena.

Wait—it gets even better. The city just finished rebuilding the swimming pool and gymnasium at Collins with $30 million in taxpayer money, drawn from funds collected by the Midwest tax increment financing district.

The Olympic committee’s plans for the west side have always been a work in progress. Originally the mayor proposed building the aquatic center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, but the plans were changed to appease west-side alderman Ed Smith.

In early 2007, citing cost concerns, the board of ed scaled back its plans to build an Olympic-size pool at newly constructed Westinghouse, on Franklin and Kedzie. Smith threatened to fight the Olympic bid unless the west side got a piece of the pie. So Daley and his Olympic planners announced that they were going to build their aquatic center in Douglas Park.

They made a point of telling reporters they weren’t caving in to some lowly alderman. No, they said, they were motivated by the desire to leave a “legacy” for families in the area, including kids who might be inspired to train for a future Olympics.

The Park District jumped aboard, agreeing to pony up $15 million for the $78 million facility, which would include three permanent pools and two temporary ones. “We feel our $15 million investment to get an $80 million facility—which will be used for less than a month by the Olympics but will be used for decades by the community—was a valuable opportunity,” Park District superintendent Tim Mitchell told the Sun-Times in March 2007.

That June, Olympic planners fired up the propaganda machine, holding a press conference in Douglas Park to announce that the new center would be a giant step toward conquering fears African-Americans have about swimming. “Black kids more than twice as likely as whites to drown,” read the headline for the Sun-Times article about the event. “New pool center would boost swimming.” Boosters dragged in a bunch of kids from the west side as well as Olympic medalist Brendan Hansen and other dignitaries. Mitchell was quoted as saying that too many black parents had never learned to swim and didn’t make it a priority for their kids to learn either.

Then, last December, without explanation, Mayor Daley and his planners announced that they would be putting the aquatics center in Washington Park instead, and that they were going to build a $37.1 million velodrome—an indoor bicycling track—near Collins High. Two months later, Chicago’s official bid book alluded to the cycling track in a way that suggested still more plans were afoot for the area around the school. “In Douglas Park, the velodrome will be able to serve as both an elite track cycling venue and a multisport facility,” it said.

Nothing about the demolition at Collins was mentioned publicly until May 2, when Arnold Randall, who leads neighborhood outreach and legacy efforts for the bid committee, told residents at a community forum in Douglas Park that the school pool and gym would have to come down to make way for the cycling arena.

“I couldn’t believe it when he said it,” said Reginald Johns, a west-side resident who was at the meeting. “That’s the first any of us heard about it. It doesn’t make sense. They just rebuilt this gym. Why are they tearing it down?”

According to Johns and other west siders who were there, several cycling enthusiasts were on hand to endorse the plan. They didn’t go so far as to say it would help west siders conquer their fears of bike riding. But they did say that thanks to the velodrome future west siders would learn to bike ride competitively and might even qualify for a future Olympics. Residents say there was no mention of the velodrome being part of a multisport complex.

Residents say they left wondering what an elite cycling facility had to do with their community’s needs. And if the city knows it needs a bike track—or a swimming pool—why does it need to wait for the Olympics? Why not dig into any one of several available TIF accounts and build them on some of the scores of empty lots in the area?

Chicago 2016 spokesman Patrick Sandusky says the velodrome/sports complex won’t get built unless the city gets an infusion of funds from Olympics sponsors: “No Games = No Money = No Multi-Sport facility,” he clarifies.

The bid committee decided to move the aquatic center to the south side, Sandusky says, because “west-side residents wanted a year-round multi-use facility” instead. He adds that it also helped cluster more Olympic venues in Washington Park.

And the west side will still end up with a swimming facility, he says—when the games are over Olympic planners will use money left over to remove one of the pools from Washington Park, put it on a truck, drive it to the west side, and install it in the velodrome/sports complex. Then they’ll use more money to build an indoor running track and basketball court.

That’s the plan, anyway—but I wouldn’t start counting down the days quite yet. As Sandusky, Randall, and other Olympic officials like to say when neighborhood folks complain about their Olympic plans, nothing’s set in stone—they’re working out the details on plans that are most likely to win approval from the International Olympic Committee. At the moment, it apparently fits their needs to put a velodrome in Douglas Park, as opposed to an aquatic center, so that’s what they’re saying they’ll do—even if it means demolishing the gymnasium and pool we just spent $30 million to fix up.

One thing’s for sure—they didn’t tell west-side residents about their plans to knock down the gym and pool at Collins before Randall announced it a couple weeks ago. After I heard about it from Johns and North Lawndale activist Valerie Leonard, I started calling other community leaders to get reactions. The most common one was surprise.

Alderman Sharon Dixon, whose 24th Ward includes Douglas Park, said she knew nothing about it. “No one told me,” she said.

Officials at the two charter schools that are now housed on the Collins campus said the same, and they didn’t want to talk about it at all. Joyce Caine, principal of the Academy for Urban School Leadership, said: “I don’t know anything about it. I don’t have any comment. I don’t know anything about it.”

John Horan, president of North Lawndale College Prep, said he’d heard that the committee intended to demolish the pool and gym but he hadn’t seen any official plans. “If you figure out what they’re doing, let us know,” he said with a laugh. “We’ll probably figure it out when the bulldozers come.”

He said his school used the pool and gym but wasn’t raising a stink about the plan because they first want to see if Chicago is awarded the games in October. “Our view is, until October comes and goes everything is hypothetical,” Horan said. “Our focus is getting through the academic years. After October there’s ample time to mount an intelligent defense.”

I’m not sure that’s a sound strategy. It may very well be too late to get the Olympic planners to change their venues once the games have been approved. At the very least, it will be tougher to pull off politically.