While the amount of public financing that would be required to stage the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Boston remains an open question, ULI Boston/New England recently hosted a panel discussion focused on how such bids have paved the way for badly needed infrastructure and development projects in other cities.
The program, “Olympic Legacy,” focused primarily on two cities: London, which was awarded the 2012 Summer Olympics, and New York City, which mounted unsuccessful campaigns for the 2008 and 2012 Summer Games but was able to parlay the bids into mobilizing substantial development projects. This January, Boston was selected from among four cities as the official U.S. candidate for the Games; a decision is slated for 2017.
Moderated by Greg Clark, ULI Europe senior fellow and author of the ULI report To Bid or Not to Bid: Making Global Events Work for City Development, the panel featured U.S. Olympic Committee board member Dan Doctoroff, who spearheaded the New York City efforts as deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding; Alex Garvin of AGA Public Realm Strategists, who was managing director for NYC2012, the nonprofit organization founded by Doctoroff to promote New York City’s Olympic 2012 bid and whose firm was responsible for the proposed Olympics Village and facilities plan; and Andrew Altman, partner with HR&A Advisors, which planned the London 2012 Olympic Park.
Doctoroff emphasized that a city engaged in the bidding process can still come away a winner even without being awarded the Olympics, as New York City demonstrated. “The Olympics and even the process of bidding are completely unique in a city’s life, and they’re unique for one reason and one reason only: they actually occur on a deadline,” he said. “It’s as if we compressed decades of thinking, worrying, and trying to develop financing and getting plans approved into a very short period of time because of the possibility that the Olympics might come to town.”
Doctoroff noted that the compressed time frame created a sense of urgency that accelerated the planning and development of a number of large-scale projects, including:
- Hudson Yards. When completed, it will be the largest private real estate development in U.S. history, comprising 17 million square feet (1.6 million sq m) of commercial and residential space; it also includes a vital extension to the city’s subway system. (More on Hudson Yards)
- Atlantic Yards (now Pacific Park). A 15-building mixed-use development that will comprise 6,000 housing units, office space, retail space, and a hotel, with eight acres (3.2 ha) of open space, plus the Barclays Center, an 18,000-seat indoor sports and entertainment arena that opened in 2012.
- High Line. The-1.45 mile (2.3 km) “aerial greenway” was redeveloped from an elevated rail system and has become a major recreational and tourist attraction.
- Sports stadiums. New stadiums were completed for the Mets and Yankees major league baseball teams.
- Waterfront development. Plans have been approved to redevelop the waterfront of two New York boroughs, Brooklyn and Queens.
“We realized that we could use that deadline at home to get things done that would have otherwise been politically impossible or financially infeasible,” said Doctoroff.
Garvin said getting projects greenlighted was less arduous for two principal reasons: none of the proposed Olympic venue sites involved relocation of people or businesses, and the projects that were developed or approved had longstanding public support from New Yorkers. “There were people who wanted to see us fix up some of these facilities that we had, and we were also very careful to demonstrate that [the projects] were feasible,” he said.
Like New York, London had a number of development projects under consideration for some time, including redevelopment of East London, the proposed site of the Olympic Village. As Clark affirmed, “London had a plan, and the Olympics came along and accelerated it.”
London had won the right in 2005 to host the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. A full three years before the Games got underway, the city established the Olympic Park Legacy Company, an organization set up by the mayor and the government to plan the redevelopment of the Olympic Park after the Games concluded. Altman led the organization, which has as its primary purpose ensuring that everything built for the Olympics could be adapted for use after the Games.
“The Olympic effort was all tied to a very clear vision the city had for its future, . . . and it was about the transformation of East London as a critical part of London’s growth, competitiveness, and also dealing with some of the more intractable issues of poverty,” said Altman. “The Olympics were the platform to facilitate and execute a vision for the transformation.”
The redevelopment of East London began with the reclamation of a one-square-mile (2.5 sq km) brownfield site in 2006, and will continue with its transformation into the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, expected to be completed in 2020. The former Olympic Village is currently being redeveloped to provide 7,000 housing units, sports and recreational venues, office space, tech centers, and media studios. The first venue opened less than a year after the Olympic torch was extinguished.
Doctoroff was asked whether, if Boston’s mass transit system could not handle the brutal winter just past, how it could possibly withstand the Olympics. Doctoroff’s noted that the question could be addressed to any city facing a major initiative: “How can we possibly do this?”
“It’s really asking the wrong question,” said Doctoroff. “The right question is, how do we use the Olympics and these deadlines to do the things we know that we need to do and take care of the maintenance we’ve deferred forever?”
Mike Hoban is a Boston-based writer who focuses on all aspects of the commercial real estate industry.