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Opinion: Stop the destruction of Olympic Plaza

The announcement by the Calgary Municipal Land Corp. (CMLC) regarding the “transformation” of Olympic Plaza is a betrayal of our Olympic legacy. This plan appears to signal the removal of the last public space commemorating Calgary’s achievement in hosting the 15th Winter Olympics. This marks the final act of a decades-long effort to scrub the memory of an event that helped define our city. Hosting the Olympics took the effort of tens of thousands of Calgarians — volunteering time, energy and expertise to make sure Calgary shone on the global stage. We proved that we were far more than ‘Cowtown’. A young first-term alderman, Al Duerr, proposed the creation of Olympic Plaza. His vision was of a great public space in Calgary’s core serving as an open Olympic medal presentation venue, then becoming a permanent part of our city that commemorated Calgary’s achievement in hosting Canada’s first Olympic Winter Games. Olympic Plaza, built with a winter skating surface that seamlessly transformed into a summer wading pool was an urban success. For four decades, Calgarians had great reason to jump on the CTrain and head to the core for a free, fun skate downtown. In the summer, many strolled down Stephen Avenue to relax on the lawn surrounding the pool, catching sunny rays while children and parents splashed in the plaza’s wading pool water. Unfortunately, not everyone shares the vision that birthed Calgary’s Olympic victory. Various venues have been torn down or abandoned, and now Olympic Plaza has fallen into disrepair, and has become a hangout for drug dealers and the homeless. Instead of protecting and restoring this historic gathering place, officials appear to have opted to obliterate it instead. The irony that Olympic Plaza is in the shadow of Calgary’s historic city hall is not lost on some. In the 1960s, there was a movement to remove what was then seen as out-of-date sandstone structures. Most were crushed to make way for “modern,” nondescript replacements. Calgary’s leaders chose instead to honour and protect our historic legacy. Old City Hall has been restored to its full glory, with the mayor’s office in its location of honour overlooking Olympic Plaza. While a final design plan has not been presented, initial drawings show Olympic Plaza being replaced by a meaningless design of nothingness. There is no stage, no rink, no grass. If this proceeds, the city will lose the last public piece of its Olympic history. What will happen to the plaza’s 35,044 bricks engraved with names and messages from supporters around the world, which have been a tourist draw? Families come here to show a new generation where a family brick sits in this place of glory. These bricks were promoted as a way for anyone to “own” their very own part of Olympic Plaza. Why are we allowing our heritage to be discarded? Have we not remembered the lesson from those who saved Old City Hall? Olympic Plaza is an inspirational message to future generations, reminding them that Olympic dreams can be achieved. It is a physical legacy equal to Old City Hall and the Calgary Tower as icons of our city’s incredible story. We need to make the declaration that this is a monument worth keeping. Olympic Plaza should not be stolen from future Calgarians but instead restored to its original glory, with the same care that guided the recent restoration of Old City Hall. Call your councillor and the mayor and tell them to save and restore Olympic Plaza, because this is our Olympic moment to shine. Ron McMahon is a big fan of Olympic Plaza. He recreated the lost electronic database of the plaza’s more than 35,000 bricks from the paper records, and then created the website OlympicBricks.com and the related iPhone app to tell the plaza’s story and guide users to the location of every brick in the plaza. He doesn’t have a brick of his own.

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