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Planner sees local gains if Boston hosts Olympics

2024 Olympics could pay dividends in jobs, housing, and transportation

GLOBE PHOTO/file 2006

Immediately after the US Olympic Committee announced Boston on Jan. 8 as its entry in the global bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, the head of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency for Greater Boston, released a statement challenging local government officials and the private sector to “make the Olympics a catalyst to build a more equitable region.”

Executive director Marc D. Draisen spoke with the Globe last week about how Boston hosting the Olympic Games, and the preparations leading up to the international event, could affect the economy of cities and towns across the region.

Q.What role could Greater Boston communities play if Boston wins its bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics?

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A. It’s impossible for any major event like the Olympics to be limited to just one city, especially when the core city is a relatively small part of the region. The city of Boston constitutes about 20 percent of the region’s population and much less than that in terms of land mass. If you’re putting on such a big event as this, it needs to be regional in scope.

Q.How would communities outside of Boston benefit from the Olympic Games?

A. I would say the benefits are really in three categories I can think of:

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 [Jobs] — Any event of this kind would generate jobs for over a decade: a substantial amount of jobs during the run-up and preparation for the Olympics, during the event itself, and in the immediate aftermath.

  [Transportation] — [Boston] Mayor [Martin J.] Walsh has committed to making this a walking-friendly Olympics, so most people would not have to drive a car to and from the events. We’ll have to, over the next decade, expand the capacity of the MBTA, and that includes trains, subways, and bus routes. And the great thing about that is, obviously, we need to do this anyway. The T is a wonderful system, but it is very old and it is overcapacity already. South Station desperately needs to be expanded to be able to expand the commuter rail. Every person who takes the T is one less car on the road, and that helps people who drive to work as well. . . . So really improving and expanding the MBTA is a huge benefit not only for T riders but for auto commuters as well.

  [Housing] — We have a tremendous shortage of affordable and middle-income housing in Greater Boston. Other communities, like Barcelona, really used the Olympics as a way to build additional working-class housing, which was of high quality and which could be available to regular families long after the Olympics ended. . . . It could be done in many places; it’s better to spread it around than to concentrate the housing in one place. We have a supply problem and we are not building housing fast enough. . . This is just an opportunity with a little bit of pressure with the date of the Olympics to build additional housing, to build our supply after the Olympics are over. This can’t be throw-away housing; it needs to be built for permanent use. It’s going to take pressure off the price spiral we’ve seen over the last 20, 30, 40 years in the immediately surrounding suburbs and Boston. I don’t think [Olympic housing] will go all the way to Interstate 495, but relieving the pricing in one area can help another.

Q. If Boston is chosen, is there a chance we could see surrounding communities host some Olympic events?

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A. Some of the venues being considered are outside Boston proper. Some of them are in the suburbs and Gateway Cities. There is an emphasis here on trying to use what we have and trying not to build new things. That’s a wise system: prudent, conservative. If you don’t have to spend so much money on new stadiums, you can focus your efforts particularly on transit and housing. That’s where the emphasis is, because that’s where the long-term benefits are. I don’t care one way or the other [about the Olympics]. I care about can it help this region dothethings it needs to do.

Q.Some infrastructure projects, like the South Coast rail proposal that would extend commuter rail service to under-served communities south of Boston, have been discussed for decades but have yet to be realized. Can the promise of the Olympics and the pressure to make infrastructure improvements really help push some of these projects along? What about funding?

A. We have to start planning these things, choosing the most important ones and then building that. And if the Olympics can provide us with a kick in the pants, then that’s a good thing. The Olympics are going to need to be privately funded as well as publicly funded. Investors, financial institutions have to put some of their chips on the table and help to build some of this hugely needed public infrastructure. We can do things fast here. When all those bridges on I-93 in [Medford]needed to be repaired, they did one each weekend and they were done in three months [in 2011]. We can do things as quick as anybody in Boston when the capital is there and when the political will is there. When the capital is lacking, it can take a long time. Maybe this can help galvanize the political will. We have nine months to do some things, three years to do some things, and 10 years to do other things. The housing and transit and all the infrastructure projects don’t need to be built in the next three months or three years, but we have to have them on the drawing board.

Q.If you could prioritize, which projects would you want to be tackled first?

A. I’ll say finishing the Green Line extension; that has been our number one priority by the MAPC. Finishing the Green Line extension all the wayto Route 16 [in Medford] should be a critical priority. The second thing in terms of regional [efforts] would be the expansion of South Station; that unlocks so many things it’s critical. That would be my list. But 2024 is 10 years from now. We have a lot of engineers and construction firms, and we can do a lot more than those two if we have the capital and political will.

Q.Some museums and localbusinesses in London reported a drop in visitors during the 2012 Olympics as locals and tourists avoided the area. If Boston hosts the 2024 Games, could it hurt tourism and businesses in surrounding communities?

A. I think that, generally speaking, I would expect that plenty of people would visit Boston during the Olympics, but it’s true that the concentration might be more on the Olympics than in other cities. But we can see a boost in tourism and spending during and after the Olympics.

Q. What role will the sharing economy, which is currentlythriving in many Boston suburbs, play if the Olympics come to town?

A. My expectation is there would be a lot of that. Currently, a lot of it is unregulated. Regulatory issues should be squared away by then.

Q.How can the momentum to improve transit, housing, and other infrastructure in Greater Boston continue if Boston is not chosen to host the OlympicGames?

A. My hope is people will recognize the value of building more housing and more transit. My hope is they see these projects through. We’ll have to set alternative deadlines; we do have deadlines every now and again — they’re called elections. A strong infrastructure generates a strong economy, so people can put pressure on publicleaders.


Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.
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