What can you say about a $5 billion plan that died? The collapse of the city’s Olympic dream on Monday, less than seven months after the United States Olympic Committee picked Boston as its bid city, comes as a bitter blow to the many people who devoted their energy and time to advocate for the Games. Despite months of effort, the plan fell apart after Mayor Walsh refused to guarantee that taxpayers would cover any cost overruns. The USOC is reportedly seeking to cobble together a last-minute plan with Los Angeles or another city to bid for the 2024 Games. Although the process started vital, far-reaching discussions about the city’s future, ultimately the people of Massachusetts never got a fair chance to weigh in by voting in a referendum.
The discussions the Games triggered have been beneficial. City planners call what Boston experienced on a grand scale over the last seven months a charrette: a chance to imagine how the future should look. The Olympics would have required vast investments in an Olympic Stadium and athletes village, along with athletic venues. The citywide conversation that ensued over how Boston could meet those needs gave residents a chance to discuss medium- and long-term goals, and whether the massive expenditures involved in an Olympics might help achieve them. It elevated discussions that otherwise might not even have occurred. How many Bostonians had even heard of Widett Circle before Boston 2024 focused attention on the little-used land between the South End and South Boston? When was the last time proposals to extend the Emerald Necklace into low-income sections of Dorchester got serious attention?
By bringing those ideas to the table, and soliciting public input, chief Olympic proponents John Fish and Steve Pagliuca provided a lasting service. The challenge for the city now is to keep the forward-looking energy unleashed by the Olympics going. Some can be directed into the mayor’s Boston 2030 planning initiative, a Walsh program meant to create a citywide master plan in time for the city’s 400th anniversary. The merits of the development ideas raised by the Olympics haven’t changed, and it may be even easier to tackle them now that they can be detached from the polarizing context of the Olympics.
Indeed, the collapse of the Boston proposal ought to cause some soul-searching at the United States Olympic Committee, whose rules and expectations created some of the greatest liabilities faced by Boston 2024. The secrecy required by the USOC during the preliminary phases almost ensured that the Games would get off to a bad start politically, since they looked as if they were cooked up in secret. And at the end, it was the USOC’s insistence on an open-ended financial guarantee that proved to be the last straw; it was too much even for a supporter of the Games like Walsh.
Walsh’s refusal to sign the contract provided a memorable climax on Boston’s Olympic saga. It’s far too soon to say how the city will remember its flirtation with the Olympics, and whether voters will hold either the initial plan, or its failure, against the mayor. Hopefully, they won’t. Walsh saw in the Games a chance to make Boston better, and showed leadership by pursuing it despite the political risks. City officials and policy planners should take the strongest elements of the plan and build on them for a better future.