For nine years, I led New York’s bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. Needless to say, we lost (to London). Still, perhaps nothing did more to set New York on a course toward a greater future than that effort.
I've heard all of the arguments against a Boston Olympics: the cost, the fear of big projects that spiral out of control like the Big Dig, the capacity of the MBTA to handle the crowds, the traffic. With sufficient planning, transparency, and oversight, they are all answerable. A Boston Olympics can be financed privately, just as Los Angeles and Atlanta were and New York would have been. Traffic? Remember Los Angeles? Everyone assumed LA — which had no mass transit — would be a parking lot during the Games, but incidences of traffic jams were down 95 percent compared with the same period the year before. The same thing has happened in every other Olympic host city.
But, as valid as these questions are, they miss the big point. There is nothing like an Olympics to catalyze a city and region to think big and then take bold action to define its future. This happens for a very simple reason: An Olympics is pretty much the only thing in a city's life that occurs on a deadline. It is almost like when you invite people over to your home — you clean it up because you don't want them to think that you live like a slob.
Somehow, when the Olympics come to town, longstanding plans that had always been thought to be politically impossible or financially infeasible come off the shelf and get put into action with unprecedented speed. Tokyo built its subway around hosting the Games in 1964. Barcelona, which had been ignored for 50 years under the rule of Franco, rethought its transit system and revitalized its waterfront around the 1992 Games, making it one of Europe's most vibrant cities and greatest tourist destinations. Atlanta used the Games to enhance its downtown core. More recently, London used the Olympics to create a massive, magnificent mixed-use community on a former dump in its East End, something Londoners had been discussing for over a century.
I'm going to let you in on a well-kept secret I learned as the leader of New York's 2012 bid: To benefit from a bid, Boston doesn't even have to win.
We had about two and a half years from the time New York was selected by the United States Olympic Committee to be its candidate city until the International Olympic Committee voted on the host city in July 2005. During that brief period — which is pretty much what Boston has until the IOC vote in 2017 — projects large and small, typically built around proposed Olympic venues, were planned, approved, and financed. For example:
■ The innovative High Line park became one of New York's greatest attractions (and one of the world's top 10 Instagrammed spots last year).
■ The first subway extension constructed in decades will connect Midtown with the largest development in US history — Hudson Yards, on Manhattan's Far West Side, with new office space, apartments, retail, schools, and public space in a neighborhood that sat undeveloped for decades as politicians debated and delayed.
■ Three new stadiums or arenas were built as a result of the Olympic bid. Prior to the bid, New York had not built a stadium since Madison Square Garden in 1968. A week after we announced plans for Citi Field in Queens, plans for the new Yankee Stadium were unveiled. Brooklyn's Barclays Center followed shortly after we lost the bid.
■ The redevelopment of vast swaths of New York's precious but underutilized waterfront is underway. For decades, the city stood by as the waterfront degraded from a thriving manufacturing hub to a series of abandoned wharves and warehouses. Much of that development was contemplated by our Olympic plan.
■ Dramatic improvement of our streetscapes — including new public furniture such as newsstands and bus shelters — contributed to a more user-friendly, attractive city and generated significant new revenues that were then redirected into building a world-class city marketing agency that helped lead to enormous growth in tourism.
The benefits of a bid can continue even after a loss. Our proposed Olympic Village was going to be on a spectacular site in Queens across the East River from the United Nations. After we lost, the city bought the land and it is now becoming the largest subsidized middle-income housing development in New York in 50 years.
The benefits of the bid can be less concrete and even longer-lasting, too. In New York, the rush of planning and approving during the bid phase helped the public and private sectors to develop skills and gain confidence that they could work together to think more creatively and comprehensively about the city's future. In the two years after the bid went down to defeat, many of the same players worked together on PlaNYC 2030, the city's pathbreaking sustainability plan.
I don't know how a Boston bid should catalyze Bostonians to think about the future. But I do know that an argument about how Boston won't be able to handle the Games because the MBTA can't handle the snow reflects only a failure of imagination. The right question is how can the deadlines that the bid impose be used to engage in a serious conversation and then take action to reverse the decades of underinvestment that led to the problems this past winter?
Great things happen when cities marry visionary ideas with the political will to make them happen. These opportunities don't come along often, but Boston has one right now. The question is whether the city will get behind the bid and make the most of it.
Dan Doctoroff was New York City's deputy mayor for economic development. He is a member of the board of the United States Olympic Committee.