If Monday was — as long hinted — the day Steve Pagliuca was going to show Boston the money, then the reboot of the city’s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics fell a tad short.
Don’t get me wrong: the new plan is elegant and thoughtful, a vast improvement over anything the Olympics folks have presented to date. The venues, while a bit far-flung, make sense. The cost estimates sound reasonable. The whole thing seems doable.
But there remains no good answer to the question that has mobilized opponents of the Games since the beginning: How much could taxpayers be on the hook for, and why should we be liable for any of this?
Fundamentally, I’ve been an agnostic about the Olympics. On the plus side, certainly I can see the benefit of showcasing the city before an international audience. I can buy — with more difficulty, which I’ll get to shortly — the notion that it might be the best way to make sorely needed infrastructure improvements.
On the other hand, I don’t think a winning bid proves anything about Boston’s status as a city. A triumph might make some rich guys in suits feel like they’ve truly arrived, but most of us already know we live in a great city. To my mind, the organizers are still struggling to explain in a compelling way why most residents should be excited about this.
What I really care about in this bid is what it will do for, or to, the city. The organizers, it must be said, have some great ideas in that regard. Widett Circle is a wasteland, and if the Olympics can turn it into a real neighborhood, which it has never been, that would be wonderful. The second “new neighborhood” Pagliuca and architect/planning visionary David Manfredi talked about creating, near UMass-Boston, would also be a step forward for the city. It’s an area ripe for development, and at some point UMass-Boston needs to have dormitories, despite the longstanding NIMBY opposition of many of its neighbors.The plan would provide for permanent student housing after the Games.
In that case, though, I will say that the organizers substantially underestimate the level of opposition they will face. I think I can say that with some authority, because it’s my neighborhood, and nothing they say about its softening sentiments rings true to me.
But back to the money. In his presentation today, Pagliuca argued that, according to Boston 2024’s “conservative” projections, the games should run a large surplus. In addition to that, $128 million is to be earmarked for insurance that will protect the taxpayers in the event of overruns.
But it’s not like Boston 2024 has actually bought insurance at this stage. They have talked to brokers, and they are confident that someone will insure them against overruns, even though overruns while hosting an Olympics are practically guaranteed. Basically the organizers are saying, “trust us.”
I didn’t leave nearly as confident as Pags, and I doubt that the public will be all that reassured, either.
The whole notion that Boston needs an Olympics to develop neighborhoods or fix the T has never sat well with me. As I walked around the convention center, I couldn't stop thinking about the Seaport, a new neighborhood that has arisen over the past decade without an Olympics. In terms of development, the city couldn’t be hotter. If Widett Circle is a great idea, it will happen, with or without the Olympics. And we should fix the T — for the benefit of the people who depend on it every day. Why isn’t that a compelling reason to act?