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Seize the Moment 

South-side community leaders have a narrow window for negotiating with the mayor over his Olympics plans.

Years ago, when we were younger and had more time, my buddy Michael Glab and I would wander around Wrigley Field, trying to score Cubs tickets from scalpers.

I was as dumb at this business as they come, too eager to pay the seller what he asked. Glab took a tougher stance. The hawker would name a price, say $25 apiece, and Glab would counter: "Just give 'em to me." When the scalper told him to forget it, Glab walked away. I was always surprised at how many scalpers chased after us. We'd wind up paying $5 a pop, maybe $7, for seats close to the field.

As Glab taught me, there's a moment in any negotiation when your leverage is strongest. When you're buying tickets from scalpers, it's right after the game has started.

I've been thinking about his tactics as I talk to south siders who are gearing up to negotiate with the city over its 2016 Olympics plans. They're a lot like my buddy and me on the corner, only they're negotiating for the future of their communities. If they don't take charge of negotiations—if they don't take a hard, Glab-like stance—they run the risk of getting locked out of their parks and priced out of their neighborhoods.

"We're all for the idea of the Olympics," says Jitu Brown, an education organizer for the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, a south-side advocacy group. "But there comes a moment... "

Brown and other south siders realize that their moment is now: their leverage with Mayor Daley and his Olympic planners will never be stronger than in the coming months, as the city is finalizing its proposal to host the games. Chicago is one of four cities chosen to make final-round bids next February to the International Olympic Committee, which will pick a winner in October 2009.

If residents act aggressively now they might get something in return for their support. But if they wait until after the city's awarded the games, most, if not all, of their leverage will be lost, because the mayor will have no reason to make concessions. And that's one thing you should realize by now about Mayor Daley: he doesn't negotiate with anybody if he doesn't have to.

Community leaders seem to understand this. So far they've been showing up for the city's promotional photo-ops while privately gearing up to play hardball.

"Everyone's playing it cool," says one south-side activist. "You don't want to come out against the games because that will make you look like you're anti-Chicago. But at some point you have to be ready to go to the IOC, if necessary, and say we don't want these games."

One of the biggest fights will be over housing, particularly in communities like Douglas, Oakland, Kenwood, and Grand Boulevard—roughly the area known as Bronzeville. As many south siders see it, a Chicago Olympics would be an urban renewal project gussied up as a celebration of international sport. Its real purpose is to push new development (read: gentrification) further south, perhaps all the way to South Shore.

The area from 31st to 47th and from the lake west to Cottage Grove was once a mix of low-income, middle- and upper-class black residents. Now bus drivers, teachers, and postal workers would have a hard time affording it—new homes sell for upwards of $400,000. Since the mid-90s about 2,700 units of public housing have been destroyed in this area as part of the CHA's Plan for Transformation; only about 1,500 remain.

The Olympic Village—along with other projects it would trigger, like the expansion of the middle-class Lake Meadows development—will almost certainly accelerate gentrification. Originally Daley proposed building the village over railroad tracks at 22nd Street just east of McCormick Place, saying it would be financed by selling developers air rights over the tracks. Once the games were gone, the developers could sell or rent the units. But his new plan is to build the village to the south and east, on the site of Michael Reese Hospital, which will close in a few months. And if you listen to Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle talk about the plan, it sounds like the city's going to be using property tax dollars extracted from nearby TIF districts to acquire the site.

Preckwinkle, KOCO, and other community groups want the city to set aside a number of the Olympic Village units for affordable housing once the games are over. But if the Olympic Village is like most TIF-funded deals the city will be reluctant to make any aggressive affordable housing promises. In the real estate business these are known as encumbrances—and developers don't like them because they reduce the amount of money they can squeeze out of a deal. The city's supposed to make developers set aside 10 percent of units in TIF-funded projects for affordable housing. But by law the city can waive the set-aside and allow the developer to get away with making a cash donation to the city's low-income housing trust fund—as was the case, for example, in the TIF-funded development deal for Union Station.

Then there's the issue of what affordable actually means. The city favors a definition based on the median household income for the metropolitan area, which is about $75,000. Community and housing groups prefer to use the median household income for Chicago itself, which is about $47,000. If the city gets its way, developers could deem a $180,000 two-bedroom condo "affordable" for a family of four.

Community leaders also want to make sure some of their recreational needs are addressed. The city wants to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on temporary Olympic arenas while many neighborhoods face a critical shortage of park and sports facilities. The public schools still have no indoor tracks or batting cages—haven't they heard we have winter in this town? And the Park District's so broke—especially after agreeing to pay $22 million for its new Streeterville headquarters—that it's forcing youth leagues and community groups to foot the bill for new fields and play lots, and instructional time at swimming pools has been cut.

Some activists have already received a long list of commitments from the city, like Cecilia Butler of the Washington Park Advisory Council, which has been promised new tracks, soccer fields, batting cages, and swimming instructors.

But at some point activists and leaders from all over the south side will have to coordinate their efforts, not just fight for their own little pieces of the pie. The mayor has shown he knows how to win these kinds of games: he'll divide the opposition by playing one community group against another—think about how he waged his big-box battle. Those who sign on will show up at his press conferences to malign those who haven't.

Hey, I never said the guy wasn't clever.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on politics, see our blog Clout City.

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