For Boston 2024 to recover from a near-death experience, local Olympic organizers need to face up to how they got there.
As a June 30 deadline imposed by Governor Charlie Baker looms, the private partnership leading the Olympic bid is trying to regain the initiative. Several new venue proposals — tennis in Dorchester’s Harambee Park instead of at Harvard, beach volleyball in Quincy instead of Boston Common — have gone over relatively well.
Still, public support remains tepid. That’s partly because such a massive civic project carries obvious risks, and partly because an abysmal February sapped confidence in our transportation system.
But the bid effort labors under less obvious burdens, ones that nudge Boston 2024 to compensate in ways that look muddled, presumptuous, or clueless. Consider:
A late start. Though unsuccessful, New York’s effort to land the 2012 Summer Games has become a model, because the city used its bid as an excuse to replan underused industrial areas. When the International Olympic Committee chose London instead, those areas of New York received a rapid influx of investment anyway.
Yet New York also had much more time than Boston to think through its bid. Dan Doctoroff, an investment banker who led the effort, began exploring the idea in 1994. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appointed a task force in 1996 — a full 16 years before the games that his city eventually bid for, and six years before the US Olympic Committee chose New York as its candidate city. In comparison, Massachusetts’ exploratory panel convened in late 2013. Barely a year later, Boston was America’s official bidder for 2024.
Huge gaps in Boston’s urban planning. The bid book that Boston 2024 submitted to the IOC put forth some promising ideas, such as the reimagining of Widett Circle as a new neighborhood. But these ideas came out of nowhere, because the city had no current master plan for Olympic boosters to crib from. Such a plan would have identified areas available for large-scale redevelopment well in advance — and avoided unpleasant surprises for businesses and residents.
Recently, Mayor Marty Walsh launched Boston’s first master-planning effort in decades. “If we’d done a citywide plan earlier,” BRA director Brian Golden said last month, “we’d have a much better understanding of what would work, parcel by parcel, in the city.”
No clear lines of authority. A Boston Olympics won’t happen without the mayor’s signature, but a city of about 655,000 can’t put on the Games by itself. In practice, responsibility is divided among Boston 2024, Walsh, Baker, and the Legislature. “A regional conversation about venues, impacts, infrastructure, and mitigation has no clear home,” declared a recent report by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, and Transportation for Massachusetts.
New York, by contrast, had a unified command: Michael Bloomberg picked Doctoroff as his deputy mayor for economic development and enmeshed the Olympics with his own goals. In Boston, too, the buck needs to stop somewhere. In their report, the three Massachusetts planning groups call for an official, state-level commission to oversee the Olympic process — a recommendation that should be implemented, well, yesterday.
If the plans are rushed and no one’s in charge, voters sense it. Absent a time machine, can local Olympic chairman Steve Pagliuca and his team still win them over? Sometimes, when you’re pulling an all-nighter, inspiration strikes. But it’s not enough for Olympic organizers to roll out a Beacon Hill-friendly list of new venues. Boston 2024 is a goner unless it addresses the deeper fault lines within its bid.