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In London, Games’ legacy came first

2012 Summer Olympics transformed a downtrodden section of the city

A housing development is rising at London’s Olympic park.Hannah McKay for The Boston Globe

LONDON — Construction cranes looming over Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park begin their slow-motion ballet by breakfast, accompanied by the distant purr of earth-moving machines roaming around the Olympic stadium. Metallic hammering clangs from the modern housing towers rising beside the aquatic center. A lone worker in a hard hat jackhammers through a swath of asphalt near the former athletes’ village.

Nearly three years after London’s Olympic cauldron was extinguished, crews across the Olympic park are erecting apartments, office space, tech centers, and media studios. The stadium where Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt cemented his title as “World’s Fastest Man” in 2012 is undergoing a massive refitting. New museums are on the drawing board; maybe the first Smithsonian on this side of the pond. Hotels and public schools are on the build list.


It all adds up to a much larger project: creating what Olympic planners like to call legacy.

Legacy is a powerful word in the Olympic movement. It is the term for what remains after the athletes go home — the permanent changes to facilities, infrastructure, park land, a city’s international reputation, and perhaps even the way it looks at itself.

“The legacy piece needs to be built in from Day 1,” said Gavin Poole, chief executive of Here East, a $150 million private redevelopment of the former Olympic broadcast and media center at the park.

“You build everything for its future use and then retrofit it for the Games,” he said.

Though Olympic planners in Boston liberally toss around the term, the concept of legacy for a Boston Olympics in 2024 has not penetrated the public debate, which has been wrapped up in the falling poll numbers and the public relations gaffes of the bid committee, Boston 2024.

Part of the reason may be that Boston 2024 has yet to paint a compelling picture of post-Olympics Boston, beyond general suggestions of a modernized MBTA, new student and affordable housing, and perhaps some kind of a mixed-use development at Widett Circle, where the committee proposes a temporary Olympic stadium.


The Boston bid committee, sensitive to charges that it is dictating the city’s future, says proposals that will define the Games’ legacy will evolve from public meetings over the next two years, the fruit of engagement with the city and its citizenry. Still, the committee is planning to shake up its public presentations, opening with an outline of legacy benefits and then moving on to more specific plans for the two-week sporting event.

The well-regarded London Games of 2012 are not a perfectly fitting model for Boston’s bid: London built its Games using eminent domain powers to acquire land for the 560-acre Olympic park, a little bigger than Franklin Park in Boston. Mayor Martin J. Walsh has already pledged not to take property to build the Games.

London planners enjoyed the use of substantial government money, too, and that would not be the case in Boston. Boston 2024 has put forth a relatively modest proposal relying primarily on private financing to build and run the Games, which is how Olympic bids are designed in the United States.

But if there is an example for Boston in the London Games, it is the laser-like focus on legacy, especially the physical legacy in the Olympic Park.

“We are effectively building a new town in the heart of London,” said Neale Coleman, deputy chairman of the London Legacy Development Corporation, a public agency under London Mayor Boris Johnson that owns the park and is overseeing ongoing development.


Billions are being invested in remaking London’s 2012 Olympic Games site for business and residential use. Hannah McKay for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Even critics of the legacy plan agree that the area — 8 miles and a world away from Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster — has been transformed into something completely unrecognizable.

Gone are the scrapyards, industrial sheds, thick weedy undergrowth, enormous overhead power lines, abandoned automobiles, and the remnants of “fly-tipping,” the polite British term for illegal garbage dumping.

Now there is a landscaped park along the River Lea. It includes the Olympic stadium and several other permanent sports venues. The nearby Olympic village has already been converted into 2,800 apartments, home to about 4,500 people. More housing and office space are under construction on sites that were home to temporary sports venues; other sites are fenced off and awaiting a mix of public and private projects that will begin in coming months and years.

The enormous ambition to “regenerate” the downtrodden Stratford area of East London with the park and massively upgraded public transportation was expensive, pushing the price tag for hosting the 2012 Summer Games to roughly $13 billion, three times original estimates.

Most of the money came from public lotteries, a small hike in the local tax, and national taxpayers, which makes the investment into Stratford a form of public stimulus.

The public, wary at first, seems all right with it.

A BBC poll a year after the Games suggests that 72 percent of Londoners believe the 2012 Olympic Games were “worth the investment of public money.” Throughout the United Kingdom, 69 percent agreed. The numbers are even more striking when compared to a YouGov poll one year before the Olympics, which found only 44 percent of Britons believed the country should have bid for the Games, according to YouGov.


The Olympic village in London has been converted into 2,800 apartments, home to about 4,500 people. Hannah McKay for The Boston Globe

“The Olympics has done wonders for Stratford,” said 27-year-old Dan Westaway, in a recent interview between energetic games of Ping-Pong at a pub within sight of the Olympic stadium. Westaway, who works at a Stratford restaurant, said he has lived in the area about a year. “The buildings pop up so quickly. It’s crazy.”

Twenty-four-year-old Basil Abdel-Hadi is the kind of young professional who legacy planners aim to draw to Stratford. He is studying medicine, lives in an apartment just off the park, and exercises at the former Olympic aquatic center, where American swimmer Missy Franklin became a star and Michael Phelps added to his legend.

The Games “have been extremely positive,” Abdel-Hadi said. “Before the Olympics, this area was quite underdeveloped; the whole area was turning to garbage dumps.”

Coleman said the neighborhood would have gentrified eventually, but that the Olympics acted like a time machine, compressing 50 years of urban evolution into 10, in part by greatly improving public transportation. It also drove projects that might never have happened otherwise, he said.

One of the first jobs in building the park was to move the overhead power lines underground, at a cost of more than $500 million.


“That’s something people had wanted to do in this part of London, forever,” Coleman said. “Would never have happened without the Games.”

More housing is being constructed in front of the cycling velodrome, which opened to the public a year ago.Hannah McKay for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

There were negative side effects to the dramatic changes in Stratford, starting with the residents and businesses moved off the land, sometimes unwillingly, to make the Olympic park. The park property had belonged to 350 separate owners, mainly businesses, and some were removed through “compulsory purchase,” similar to eminent domain. Those moved were rehoused elsewhere.

“It was a very important and not entirely unvexed process, if you can imagine,” Coleman deadpanned.

Boston 2024 would have few private owners to deal with to assemble land at Widett Circle for a stadium, but probably would have to buy out and relocate a business cooperative of meat and seafood wholesalers, who so far have not sounded eager to move.

Julian Cheyne, 67, was one of the East London residents relocated for the park. There is a cycling velodrome where his old flat used to be.

“Finding some cheap industrial land for the park was one of their objectives and I just happened to be living on a site next to a large industrial area,” he said. The experience has made him an Olympic opponent.

“I’m afraid it is one big con, the whole thing. What exactly do we mean about legacy? They say London has no white elephants. Actually it does; they were just taken down,” he said, referring to temporary venues such as the London Olympic basketball arena and the water polo venue. “All of these things had to be paid for, they’ve just been demolished.”

The 376-foot Orbit observation tower is a permanent park exhibit and London’s largest piece of public art.Martin Meissner/AP/Associated Press

He said the Games remain popular in Great Britain solely because the country’s athletes wildly exceeded expectations by winning 29 gold medals, the third best national performance behind only the US and China.

“If they hadn’t won the medals there would have been massive dissatisfaction in Britain,” he said.

Another worry of some locals is whether the influx of new people — and new money — will drive up the cost of living and price longtime residents out of Stratford.

John Donn, 68, a retiree who worked in the furniture industry, has lived in the Stratford area all his life. He thinks the Olympic park is a nice place to stroll and have a smoke, but wonders how he has benefitted.

“I suppose it is good for the area, but the local people never got no concessions out of it,” Donn said. “Everything around here, you’ve got to pay to use.” He gestured to a kiosk that sells fancy coffees. “How’s a pensioner like me to pay three-pound-fifty [about $5] for a cup of coffee?”

More fancy coffee places are probably on the way. Construction cranes will be spinning over Stratford for another decade. The city will push for the development of 20,000 to 30,000 new homes in the park and surrounding area, to handle 60,000 to 100,000 people, as the population of London continues to grow.

Several permanent sports venues are being folded into the new neighborhood.

The aquatic center, with its swimming and diving pools in an eye-catching building with swooping lines, is open for public use. The indoor velodrome had drawn 500,000 visitors since it opened to the public a year ago, according to the legacy office. Steve Butcher, 49, a club cyclist and a software engineer, said he drove two hours from outside the city to pay 30 pounds, about $45, for an hour of cycling on the 250-meter Olympic track, which the facility brags is the fastest in the world. Butcher had to book months ahead for an available time slot, he said.

The most eye-catching architectural element of the 2012 Games, the 376-foot Orbit observation tower, is a permanent park exhibit and the city’s biggest piece of public art. Not everyone loves the twisted red lattice of steel, which looks like something a young Stephen Hawking might have designed from Tinker Toys. Local legend says Mayor Johnson persuaded the head of the ArcelorMittal steel company to donate materials and money toward the sculpture when they ran into each other in the bathroom at the Davos World Economic Forum in 2009.

The former Olympic media and broadcast center, an enormous hangar-like building that could hold five jumbo jets, is crawling with construction workers. It is being converted into high-tech offices, media studio space, restaurants and shops. BT Sport, an ESPN-style sports channel, is the first major tenant. Loughborough University is expected to move in, said Poole, the chief executive of Here East, the development project with a 200-year lease for the building. Here East won the right to redevelop the building by beating 300 competing proposals, he said.

“We can build a technology campus here,” said Poole, who has a general familiarity with Greater Boston. “What’s that square called near MIT? Kendall Square? There’s nothing like it in London, and we can do it here.”

“Before the Olympics, this area was quite underdeveloped; the whole area was turning to garbage dumps,” said Basil Abdel-Hadi, 24, who lives at London’s Olympic site.Hannah McKay for The Boston Globe

A critical difference between the Boston and London plans is how the athletes’ village and the broadcast center would be financed. London built them with public money and then sold or leased them after the Games to private interests, Coleman said. Boston 2024 intends to bring in private developers at the beginning to build the facilities for their own post-Games purposes, and then to briefly lease them back to Boston 2024 for the duration of the Games. London would have preferred to farm out the construction cost to the private sector, but the collapse of capital markets in the Great Recession made that impossible. Another sharp economic downturn close to 2024 is a potential risk in Boston’s plan for the two key Olympic facilities.

Finding a new use for the $600 million Olympic stadium has been the trickiest piece in London’s effort to avoid any white elephants.

“I wouldn’t say we got this one dead on,” said Coleman, from the legacy office. “No city, however big, needs a 60,000-seat stadium for track and field.” Boston 2024 agrees: The bid committee has proposed a 60,000-seat temporary stadium that would be entirely removed and recycled after the Games.

Three huge construction cranes were operating in the London stadium in late March. Workers are adding a new roof and installing retractable seating that can be rolled back for track events and pulled forward for soccer, so fans can be close enough to the pitch “to abuse the players,” Coleman said, in what was probably a joke.

A Premier League soccer team, West Ham, will become an anchor tenant.

“It’s cost quite a bit of money” — about $300 million in retrofitting — “and most of that is going to be public money,” Coleman said. “But if our reckoning is right, once we’re done the stadium will run at a profit. And it’s part of this huge new quarter of London.”

The hugeness of the project is part of the reason local ecologist Annie Chipchase opposed London’s bid back before the city won the Games in 2005.

“It’s an awful lot of money,” she said, with a laugh.

As one of the most prominent opponents in the early days of the bid, she had warned the Olympic park would ruin a unique wildlife habitat along the overgrown banks of the River Lea, which snakes gently south to the Thames.

“It was quite wild, very different than anywhere else in that part of London and people were amazed when they stepped off the main road and would say, ‘I can’t believe I just saw a kingfisher go by,’ ” she said.

She finds the Olympic park — a spotless expanse of lawn, landscaping, walking paths, and playgrounds — to be “soulless” and the new construction sterile and disconnected from the past. “The area had quite a lot of history and the type of development going in pays no heed to that.”

Other skeptics have come around, based their own experience with the Olympics.

Eli Wislocka, 37, brings her toddler, Tommy, to the park because he likes the sandboxes and the big trucks in the construction zones.

Was it all worth it?

“Not everything,” Wislocka said, pointing out the zany Orbit tower. “That’s just appalling.” She smiled. “I’m not really sporting, but my mother is bipolar and the Olympics was something we could watch and follow together.” She scored tickets to Olympic volleyball and had “a great day out.”

“I was really skeptical [about hosting the Games]; it was a great amount of money, but, on a personal level, it was something that cheered my mother up.”

Mark Arsenault can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.