New York’s 2012 Olympic Games kicked off with a series of runners hoisting the flaming torch high above their heads, pursued by excited New Yorkers, surrounded by spectators and a police escort with horses, limned by hot-dog vendors and honking cabs. The runners and the crowd crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and galloped past Rockefeller Center, through Times Square and down Wall and Fulton Streets, past the United Nations and the main branch of the public library. Later, Grucci fireworks flared a halo above the Statue of Liberty. As they say here, let’s go to the videotape:
NYC’s fake Olympic torch rally
This was all fake, of course, and while you can’t easily trick a New Yorker, some of them thought they could pull a fast one over on the Olympic Committee, which picks the cities that host this amazing, madcap, bizarre event.
Watching the helter-skelter preparations for the London Olympics from afar, and having witnessed first-hand the ferocious run-up to the Games in Beijing, it’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if New York had gotten the Games — and what did happen.
Twelve years ago, as an intern at a New York paper, I went to a press conference to hear an earful about how my city was going to be the best Olympic city in history. The proposal, with its calls for new stadia, subway extensions, ferry crossings, and an Olympic Village, seemed far too pie-in-the-sky for a city that was already full, thank you very much, full of millions of hard-working nose-to-the-grindstone folks who were too busy to be bothered with things like parades, much less giant city-wide testosterone-fueled international sporting exhibitions.
At the press conference, the topic of security seemed an afterthought, and who wants to muddle the message of global sport and local pride with talk of terrorism. This was pre-9/11 New York, but even then, the plans seemed ludicrous. From the vantage point of London, which has had to make emergency plans for a city’s worth of security guards, the thought of burdening the NYPD and other city agencies with an event like boggles the mind and races the heart.
We rolled our eyes then, many New Yorkers did, and if NYC2012 weren’t so serious, we would have laughed. Ultimately, in the second round of the Olympic committee’s voting, New York’s bid would fail. But it would leave behind a raft of changes to the look and feel of New York – including the speedy gentrification of Williamsburg and Greenpoint – and a strange vision for a future that wouldn’t come.
New York got the full cinematic pitch treatment
To dreamy and utopian proposals like this, no city is better at saying fugghedaboudit. But that didn’t disuade the partnership, NYC2012, from making its pitch with all the slick verve and conviction that’s needed to mint an Olympic city. To Dan Doctoroff, the Wall Street guy who way back in 1994 decided that this was a good idea and poured an untold sum into the preparations, NYC2012 was a foregone conclusion. Hence, the logos, the deals, the videos.
Except it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. While it was hard to pin down which part of the plan was wildest (a giant Olympic Village on the Queens waterfront, an equestrian course on Coney Island), no project was as cursed as the West Side Stadium. The lynchpin of Doctoroff’s proposal, the $5.5 billion stadium would have been paid for in part and operated by the New York Jets, which have long been located in New Jersey (where else?). But a chorus of voices in the neighborhood rose up against the idea, none louder than Cablevision, which spent $30 million in advertising to attack the stadium, which they feared could hurt business at their nearby Madison Square Garden.
Though New York beat San Francisco as the US candidate city, lack of support for the stadium severely curtailed NY2012’s dreams. Hopes dimmed further in 2003, when Vancouver was awarded the 2010 Winter Games, making a consecutive Olympics on the same continent a difficult proposition for the IOC. And while New York might have hoped for a sympathy vote after 9/11, the Iraq War may have hurt its case in the eyes of the international judges. In a last ditch effort, Mayor Bloomberg and Doctoroff flew to Mexico City to meet with an international sports big wig — ostensibly, said the mayor’s handlers, so that the Mexican media magnate could interview the mayor “for his upcoming book.”
Over $20 million would be spent on selling New York to the Olympic committee. 22 designers at Ogilvy would spend four months designing the city’s logo, a silhouetted Lady Liberty morphed into a muscle-bound Olympian with arms outstretched. More videos would be created, featuring city sights and blessings by people like Woody Allen, Itzhak Perlman, Cardinal Edward Egan and Robert DeNiro. Rudy Guiliani addressed the Olympic committee with a promise that the city could handle security concerns. “We will make you proud,” Mr. Giuliani told the board members. “And one more thing: New Yorkers never give up. Never have. Never will.”
Even Billy Crystal testified: “Five boroughs, eight million people, two Clintons,” he said. “And the Mets are helping with drug testing. Winona Ryder is going to get Olympic uniforms free. Why give the Olympics to Beijing? New York has better Chinese food!”
The bad news came in late 2005. London would host the Games. A planned celebration at Rockefeller Center, wrote Newsday, turned into “a wake.” “The weather was gray and dreary,” wrote Lauren Mechling in the Sun, “with spells of rain followed by the squish of mud underfoot.”
When New Yorkers learned of their loss at Rockefeller Center
The stadium idea was dead too. But just before the IOC gave the Games to London, the city council approved a rezoning of the surrounding Hudson Yards neighborhood, which legally extends 60 blocks from 28th to 43rd Streets. When the development project is finished, this slice of Manhattan’s west side will include nearly 26 million square feet of office space, 20,000 housing units, two million square feet of hotel space, retail, a public school, and more than 20 acres of public open space. "This neighborhood is a great bet," one developer told the Times recently, "because what will ultimately happen, and what we already seeing to some extent, is that people getting priced out of Chelsea and the High Line area will move further north, directly toward us."
The High Line, that fancy park that sits atop a former elevated railroad in the Meatpacking district, also owes part of its existence to Olympic rezoning (it was meant to interact with the proposed stadium). Williamsburg and Greenpoint were also rezoned to accomodate sporting events on Brooklyn’s shoreline (this is where archery and volleyball would have taken place, and where a part of the Olympic Village might have stood, notwithstanding the oil slick that sits underneath). It’s as a direct consequence of the Games that the historically Polish and Italian neighborhoods-cum-hipster enclaves are now home to a circus side show of new condominiums. With them: a population growing so fast that city can’t add new subway cars on the L line fast enough.
Speaking of transportation, the Olympic bid also left behind what eventually became the East River’s ferry service, and, as part of the Hudson Yards rezoning, the extension of the no. 7 subway line to the edge of the West Side, a massive construction project that was recently delayed by six months.
Other legacies included a stadium at Atlantic Yards, which was intended to host gymnastics (and be designed by Frank Gehry) but which is now being developed for the New York Nets. And the once industrial Queens West neighborhood on the East River, the planned site of the Olympic Village, has since become the province of private developers, who’ve erected towering gleaming condominiums.
All of the rezoning and development ended up meshing conveniently with the Mayor’s call for a "strategic land use plan" to deal with a projected population of nine million people by 2020.
"We have the capacity through rezoning and underutilized land to go well over that number," Dan Doctoroff said in 2006, by which he had become a deputy mayor of economic development. But "growth for its own sake is not necessarily good," he told the Times. "We have a structural budget deficit. You want to ensure that the growth that takes place helps to ameliorate that deficit rather than exacerbates it."
All told the Olympic legacy in New York City looks something like this, according to a report (pdf) issued last year by urban planner (and Bloomberg / Doctoroff ally) Mitchell Moss (thanks to the Atlantic Yards Report):
• The Hudson Yards rezoning and redevelopment, including the LIRR development.
• Extension of the #7 subway line.
• High Line: the transformation into an elevated linear park.
• Brooklyn Waterfront: "the Olympic timetable helped accelerate the long-discussed rezoning of the Greenpoint and Williamsburg waterfront.
• Hunters Point South moves ahead.
• Ferry Service: a new private East River ferry service began in 2011.
• Baseball Stadiums: “Rejection of the proposed Far West Side sports and convention center drove the City in 2005 to reach agreements rapidly with the Mets and the Yankees on the construction of their new stadiums, with the teams themselves providing most of the financing.”
• South Bronx: the Bronx Terminal Market was finally redeveloped.
• Harlem Armory and Queens Pool were renovated.
• The would-be gymnastics center became the soon-to-open home of the Brooklyn Nets, Atlantic Yards.
Concludes Moss, “The Olympic bid was the catalyst that identified neglected areas and made them a priority for redevelopment by the Bloomberg Administration.” As he told WNYC today, "The net effect of having this is that we basically took underused parts of our city and put them to use. The Olympics are 17 days of sports, but what New York got is a century's worth of new housing and infrastructure."
In a sense, New York’s failed bid might be seen as a blessing in disguise. It prompted a development plan that spurred bold projects that actually have value to the city, with none of the Olympic headaches borne by Athens, Beijing or London. Better giant white glass condos, one supposes, than the empty “white elephant” stadiums that tend to linger in Olympic cities after the torch moves on.
Then again, without the ambitious and perhaps harebrained proposals for the Olympics in New York, urban development here might have proceeded with a different tone and focus, unrushed and careful. We’ll never really know what New York would have been with the Olympics, or without it.
We may still live to see an alternate reality, after the US Olympic Committee reaching a new revenue sharing agreement with the IOC in May 2012, New York has been mentioned as a potential candidate for the 2024 Summer Olympics. Archery in Williamsburg, anyone?