Boston is a city of broken subway cars and leaky highway tunnels, a city that hasn’t had the will and the money to make game-changing investments in housing and transportation for decades. And now there’s a movement to bring the 2024 Olympics to town. This is a monumentally bad idea for a number of reasons, from logistics to finances. But the biggest reason lies in the supposed benefit of hosting the Olympic Games, the billions in public investment in new transportation and housing.
The Olympics are the costliest, most roundabout way imaginable of remaking a city’s face. The Games are a weeks-long party at the far end of a grueling seven-year construction odyssey. The supposed public payoffs, like new subway cars and apartment towers, are incidental to the Olympic effort. They’re also far more expensive than they need to be.
Boston doesn’t need the Olympics to do big things. If the region is serious about spending gobs of money to modernize itself, it shouldn’t get mired in throwing billions of dollars at an athletic exhibition. It should look past London and Barcelona, and instead, take a hard look at Hamburg.
German cities have been hosting international building exhibitions for more than a century. The exhibitions, known by the acronym IBA, are years-long building sprees aimed at spurring innovation in real estate development. IBA exhibitions turn German cities into labs for new urban architecture. They’re building competitions aimed at tackling thorny problems and doing big things.
The first IBA worked to bring artistry to mass-produced housing, and subsequent exhibitions dove into repairing war-torn Berlin and breathing new life into post-industrial cities. IBA Hamburg, which wrapped up late last year, focused on urbanizing a disjointed, suburban-feeling island neighborhood through environmentally aggressive new housing. These are the Olympics of development, but it’s development with a purpose.
London sold the 2012 summer Olympics on a promise to use the games to transform the run-down neighborhoods of the city’s East End. The city sunk billions into new road and transit links to the area, and spent heavily to turn a dingy industrial wasteland into a shimmering collection of parks, stadiums, and apartments. It’s an impressive turnaround. But it’s also hugely wasteful.
Tacking this turnaround project onto the Olympics seems to admit that, in London’s case, investing in poor neighborhoods was only politically palatable as an add-on, as the 10-cent toy at the bottom of a box of cereal. The vast majority of the massive sum spent on London’s 2012 Games — it cost the equivalent of $14.6 billion — went toward the Games themselves, not toward the urban revitalization project the Games left behind.
Most of the billions London spent went toward stuff that didn’t last. And the things that did last — the new transportation system, the thousands of apartments that used to make up the Olympic village — came at a huge markup. Taxpayers ate the equivalent of $460 million just on the sale of the Olympic village. If Boston suffered the same loss on the same-sized Olympic village, it would be the same as the Boston Redevelopment Authority forgoing affordable housing fees on the construction of 2,300 new apartments.
Hamburg’s IBA exhibition tackled the same sort of development agenda that London’s Olympic planners confronted in the East End. It confronted a poorer, heavily immigrant island of 55,000 across the river from Hamburg’s city center, and sought to turn it into a vibrant, mixed-use, mixed-income urban district that could create an alternative to suburban sprawl. Without the cost of hosting the Games themselves, though, IBA Hamburg was able to attack the city’s economic and environmental issues head-on. It created a network of schools and cultural centers to anchor existing residents, and attracted new middle-class residents with environmentally innovative housing development. It built new transportation infrastructure, bolstered the neighborhood’s flood protections, and built a new energy grid that puts the neighborhood on track to become carbon neutral by the 2020s. Hamburg did all this with a far smaller public investment than the one London swallowed. The city spent far less and got more.
The lesson for Boston is that a city shouldn’t need an excuse like the Olympics to build a better version of itself. All it needs is the will to challenge itself to be better.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.