The Olympics first grabbed J. Keith Motley’s imagination nearly 50 years ago, when as a kid in Pittsburgh he competed in a youth track program named for Jesse Owens, hero of the 1936 Berlin Games and a revered figure for many African-American children in the 1960s.
Throughout his career as an educator “sports and academics were a powerful mix that taught me a lot of lessons,” Motley said.
Now as chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston, Motley, 58, and the institution he leads have become key components of Boston’s effort to win the 2024 Olympics. US Olympic organizers say that a proposal to build an athlete’s village at UMass Boston is an attractive idea that helped the city beat out competition from Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and two-time Olympic host Los Angeles to become the US choice for the 2024 Summer Games.
If Boston wins the bid, the local Olympic organizing committee, Boston 2024, has proposed partnering with UMass Boston to build the athletes’ village on and around school property in Dorchester. UMass owns the defunct Bayside Exposition Center, a 20-acre site about a half-mile from the main campus. The site is currently being used for school parking but could become a site for village facilities.
“I’m confident it can work,” Motley said. “And I’m confident that, given the chance, Boston can develop a great bid.”
The affable chancellor was on a team from Boston that joined Mayor Martin J. Walsh on a critical mission in December to pitch the city’s bid to the United States Olympic Committee, at a meeting in California that drew representatives from all four US Olympic hopefuls. Motley said he represented the city’s colleges and universities, which, under Boston 2024’s plans, would host a majority of the sports venues needed to put on the Games.
“People didn’t think we could compete with San Francisco and these other places,” said Motley, a big man who was known as a ferocious rebounder on the Northeastern University basketball team in the 1970s. “Your competitive juices get up.”
The USOC in January picked Boston to represent the United States in a worldwide competition for the 2024 Games. The International Olympic Committee will choose a host city in 2017. Paris, Berlin, and Rome may be among the cities in the running.
The athletes’ village, which must house about 16,000 competitors and trainers, is generally one of the more difficult elements to build in any Olympics. Under early plans from Boston 2024, some athlete housing would later become UMass student dorms, helping to satisfy the school’s goal of adding student residences. Motley said long-term plans call for about 5,000 beds of student housing at UMass.
“Their plans fit into our plans,” Motley said, of Boston 2024. “We’ve been dreaming long before the Olympics about what the peninsula should look like. We have been very clear that we want to have some residential community here, because our students want that experience.”
Other units of housing in the athletes’ village would be designed to be modular and movable, so they could be relocated after the Olympics as workforce housing in other neighborhoods, according to bid documents released by Boston 2024.
The USOC considers the village plan a strong feature of the Boston bid, said Doug Arnot, a USOC adviser now working with Boston 2024 to further develop its proposal.
“What we found attractive about the Boston piece was that a good percentage of that housing already had a user, already had a tenant, and that is the University of Massachusetts,” Arnot said.
“Then in addition to that, the notion of modular housing we found every bit as attractive, if not more,” he said. “It reduces the number of units that are going to go on the market in one place. It gives us the opportunity to address housing challenges in the city of Boston through a Games mechanism. That might be a very powerful legacy not only for Boston but for the IOC.”
Some neighbors have for years been leery of dorms at UMass. “We just don’t need the influx of people,” said Joe Chaisson, of Savin Hill, a longtime neighborhood activist, who also believes Boston is “too congested” to host the Olympics.
Local Olympic planners have been criticized for depicting venues on private land owned by people who did not participate in the planning process. As the bid proceeds, getting control of land is one of the significant hurdles for Olympic planners.
The Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association has not yet been brought into the discussion of a potential Olympic village and has not yet taken a position on it, said the group’s president, Eileen Boyle. The group will host a representative from the Walsh administration in April to talk about the Olympic bid, she said.
Boston City Councilor Frank Baker said he “wouldn’t be crazy about all dorms over there,” referring to the UMass property, and would prefer a mixed-use development of some housing, along with restaurants and stores.
He said he is intrigued by the possibility of using the Olympics to improve the neighborhood’s connections to other areas of the city and to the water.
“As a whole, the neighborhood is waiting to see what the overall plan is” for the Olympics, he said. “I’m more concerned about what it will look like after the Games are gone . . . We need to get into the weeds.”