Rise up, ye garden party skunks

Olympic ringsDriving down the Mass Pike the day after Boston was tapped for the 2024 U.S. summer Olympics bid, there on the WGBH electronic billboard, the five Olympic rings logo against our beautiful skyline. A frisson of excitement. Wow; it’s coming here! Congratulations to the bidding group. And in a split second, I wondered what (and who) will get lost in the process.  I felt the locals had eaten the catnip and nothing was going to stop this bid from going forward.

Boston 2024 executive Dan O’Connell said as much to Adam Reilly last night on Greater Boston.  They’ll modify plans perhaps if, for example, there’s overwhelming opposition to a particular venue, but this baby is moving out.  Boston Mayor Marty Walsh says they’ll be listening to the public,  that this will be “the most open and transparent and inclusive process in Olympics history,” but he opposes a city referendum. (This is the same  man who championed the right of Bostonians to vote on casinos affecting their community.)There’s no doubt that the farther he goes down the road with the elite, self-appointed group of 2024 proponents, the harder it will be to pull the plug.

It’s not reassuring that it took Freedom of Information suits to get the organizers to let the media peek at their Bid Book documents. This morning Boston 2024 made public some renderings of venues.  But O’Connell et al won’t distribute copies of the bid because of  so-called “proprietary information” (and alleged pressures from the IOC). Excuse me, but whose city is this anyway? Plus, O’Connell explained, the proposal is already changing.    Well, we’re grownups.  We can understand when something is in flux.

Already there’s a tendency to label critics as so many skunks at the garden party.   Naysayers. As if every question were a symptom of craven negativity.  But we need those skunks to raise very legitimate questions. Of course, if ultimately chosen,we’re capable of pulling it off.  But should we?   What are the real costs? Not just in dollars, but in lost opportunities to do other things.

Supporters claim the only public dollars (beyond federal money for security) would be the $4.5 billion needed for infrastructure,  already authorized in state transportation plans.  But it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to realize that state priorities would be reordered to advance the Olympics and that projects for the central and western part of the Commonwealth  would be moved to the back burner.  This happened with the Big Dig, a huge and worthwhile project but a testament to wild cost overruns and diversions of road and bridge money from projects important outside Route 128. (Will Governor Charlie Baker, getting aboard the bandwagon, jettison his campaign promises to take economic benefits to the whole state?)

The data from other Olympics are overwhelming.  There is no economic benefit from being chosen, and most winning cities suffer great losses. Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist, who has just published a book on the subject, says Boston would be lucky to lose the Olympics. Boston’s budget can be expected, as the NY Times put it, to “trampoline.” 

Studies abound showing that notwithstanding promises that no public dollars will be spent (except for infrastructure), that promise is rarely kept. Host cities swim in red ink for years. The best that can be said  is that some residents  in host cities benefit from enhanced self esteem and short-term happiness from participating in a world spectacle.  Even claims that locals are inspired by the athletes  and  exercise more are baseless.

Olympics booster and Boston Globe business columnist Shirley Leung  made one good point in the reams she has written marketing the idea.  She has reported how New York, in losing its bid to London, came out a winner because of all the beneficial planning that was part of the process. If that’s what comes out of the Boston Olympic bid process, that is all to the good.  But planning our future should drive the Olympics bid, not the other way around.

A Boston Globe editorial wisely intoned that Boston’s selection as the U.S. nominee “should only begin the public discussion of the wisdom of hosting the Games here, not end it.” Let’s hope the local media don’t get swept along in the tide of boosterism and seduced by sugar plum fantasies of economic gains at little to no taxpayer expense.

A full and public debate is essential, including perhaps a statewide referendum on a 2016 ballot. Listen carefully to the bid promoters and also visit the No Boston Olympics website.  Let’s be supportive of a well reasoned process and not be carried away by the glamour, hyperbole and mythology. If we do host the Olympics, it should be part of an overall long-term strategy for investing in our collective future, not just a five-week party for the well connected, one that leaves us and our children holding the bag for their fun and games.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

4 thoughts on “Rise up, ye garden party skunks

  1. Bill Valletta

    Thanks for an acurate analysis of the risks that a Olympics planning can easily push aside all other planning and projects. I note that you refer to Shirley Leung’s recent piece that tries to recount the impact of New York’s 2012 bid on neighborhood planning. She is wrong. Here’s what I sent to the Globe in response to her article:
    As a former New York City Planning administrator, I was surprised to read Shirley Leung’s highly distorted explanation of New York’s planning history, which asserts that the 2012 Olympic bid was the prime reason for the success of numerous neighborhood renewal projects, in particular, Hunters Point Queens and Hudson Yards, Manhattan. (January 14, 2015 at page C1) She quotes two sources in the city, whose recollections imply that in both areas, redevelopment was stalled in endless discussion until the Olympic promoters came along.

    This odd story is offered as proof of the much-repeated argument that an Olympic bid provides the opportunity to focus attention on how the city can work better, and that its deadline forces inefficient planners and city leaders to get things done.

    Contrary to what is said in Ms. Leung’s piece, both Hunters Point and Hudson Yards were areas of the city that the New York City Planning Department was actively working on in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Both were planned under the city’s Charter-mandated procedures, which required the staff of the city departments to work closely with the pertinent Community Boards, Borough Presidents and the neighborhood associations and civic groups that had interest in all aspects of development and renewal.

    In Hunter’s Point, the initial neighborhood planning focused on area’s declining manufacturing and need for housing renewal for its low-income and working class residents. The neighborhood plans anticipated a series of re-zoning actions over an extended period – covering, first, certain strategic blocks near the subway stations; then extending to blocks that would remain industrial and other blocks for loft conversions, housing preservation, and re-constructed housing at modest scale. Finally some blocks would become high-rise commercial and housing and luxury waterfront development (including the sites proposed for the Olympic village). The first re-zoning took place in 1986 (allowing the Citibank Tower to be built) and there were additional re-zonings in 1995, 2001 and finally in 2005. Each zoning action was accompanied by other city investments in infrastructure and re-planning of roads and public spaces. The long time line has insured that all the pieces have fit together and that the luxury housing and commercial projects (now under construction in 2014) are balanced and integrated with the earlier priority projects of low and moderate income housing and industrial/commercial preservation.

    The New York experience should teach Boston a very different lesson than that advocated by Ms. Leung. Routine processes of neighborhood planning, in which citizens and community organizations are fully empowered players, are not a failed or inefficient method of planning. They create high quality neighborhoods and insure that all good ideas get on the agenda and able to compete for resources and the attention of city leaders and technicians. The risk of an Olympics bid is that only the projects and ideas that fit the single-purpose agenda and the deadline, are pulled out and given priority, distorting the give and take of neighborhood planning and pushing aside weaker citizens and communities.

    Bill Valletta, Somerville
    The author was a New York City staff planner and land use lawyer from 1980 and was General Counsel to the New York City Planning Department and Commission from 1986 to 1994.


    1. This is a really thoughtful reply, all leading up to the key point: “The risk of an Olympics bid is that only the projects and ideas that fit the single-purpose agenda and the deadline, are pulled out and given priority, distorting the give and take of neighborhood planning and pushing aside weaker citizens and communities.” That should be the test against which everything should be measured.


  2. Planning our future SHOULD drive the Olympics bid and not the other way around, Marjorie, but it usually takes a crisis (and make no mistake: this is a crisis in the purest sense) for that to happen. My hope is for Boston to do all this great planning and have the bid go to Rome. It will give us a chance to see what our leaders, particularly Marty Walsh, are really made of.


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