Boston’s “no public money” Olympic stadium pledge may not count public money for land

The Boston papers are off to an excellent start asking the questions that need to be asked about Boston’s 2024 Olympic bid: First the Boston Globe asked architects whether a temporary stadium would really be any cheaper than a permanent one (answer: nope); now the Boston Herald is questioning why, if the Olympic stadium won’t require any public money as promised, it needs a quasi-public authority to build it?

The city, the state and the MBTA would hand over public land in Boston’s Seaport District to the newly created agency or an existing quasi-public with “expanded authority,” which would purchase surrounding private land, as well as railway air rights, to build the 80-acre stadium and surrounding development, according to the bid submitted to the U.S. Olympic Committee last month.

Quasi-publics are typically financed at least in part by taxpayer funds or public resources. The backers behind the Boston Olympics have repeatedly denied taxpayers would foot the bill for the creation of a public authority…

The bid doesn’t address how the city or state could cede public land and relocate current public facilities without taxpayer money.

All excellent questions! Boston 2024 executive vice president Erin Murphy Rafferty replied in a statement to the Herald that the pledge not to use “any tax dollars for Olympic-related construction” is “non-negotiable and is one we will keep” — but, of course, “land acquisition” isn’t “construction,” now, is it? This is one to keep an eye on, so hopefully the Boston newspapers will continue to do so.

Boston’s temporary Olympic stadium would cost as much as regular one, but at least would go away afterwards

Boston’s 2024 Olympic bid got the nod from the U.S. Olympic Committee in part because it promised not to leave the city littered with white-elephant sports venues, most notably by building a temporary stadium in South Boston that could be taken down after the Olympics were over. But stadium architects have warned the Boston Globe that “temporary” doesn’t mean any cheaper:

Benjamin Flowers, an associate professor of architecture at Georgia Tech, said a 60,000-seat stadium would be so large and complex that calling it a temporary structure would be inaccurate.

“What they are really saying is, build a full-on stadium and then demolish it,” said Flowers, who studies stadiums around the world. “It strikes me as a curious proposition to suggest investing the many hundreds of millions it would take to do that to then demolish it and take it down.”

The bright side of doing that, it seems, is that the stadium site could then be used for something more useful — development, parks, space elevator deck, whatever — once the Olympics were over. It’s a bit of a weird way to be selling the world’s biggest sporting event — and we’re gonna build a super-cool stadium and then tear it down again because everyone knows stadiums suck — but points for honesty, at least.

Boston chosen as 2024 U.S. Olympic bid city, people who’ve actually been to Boston laugh and laugh

San Francisco’s 2024 Olympic committee made a last-ditch addition to their bid on Wednesday, adding a plan to build a main stadium in Oakland that could later be used for the Raiders … and you know what, we don’t have to give another thought to that, because San Francisco is not getting the 2024 Olympics. Yesterday, in a bit of an upset, the U.S. Olympic Committee picked Boston as its candidate to host those Summer Games, knocking out San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.

At least in theory, Boston got the nod in part because its plan would rely less on building tons of new white-elephant stadiums and velodromes and such, which it has gotten a wee bit of flack for in the past:

Boston’s compact Olympic bid leans heavily on existing venues, such as TD Garden and college facilities, including Harvard Stadium, Boston College’s Conte Forum, and Boston University’s Agganis Arena.

Current plans call for a temporary Olympic stadium at Widett Circle, along Interstate 93 near Frontage Road south of downtown, for opening and closing ceremonies and track and field events. An Olympic village to house the athletes is planned for the former Bayside Expo grounds, with units converted to workforce housing or student dorms for the University of Massachusetts Boston.

That’s certainly all well and good, as is the Boston committee’s promise not to use “public money beyond what is already planned to be spent on infrastructure.” (Albeit that’s a bit of a worrisome fudge.) Even temporary stadiums cost money, though, and while Boston 2024 says most of the $4.5 billion budget would be paid for with Olympic revenues, history isn’t real promising there, even for cities like London that claimed they’d be keeping costs down by repurposing existing venues. The citizen group No Boston Olympics has projected that an actual Boston price tag could be anywhere from $5 billion to $20 billion, which is an awful lot of billions that wouldn’t be accounted for by sponsorships and ticket sales and the like.

The Olympic stadium could end up doubling as a new facility for the New England Revolution (it’s the same site as the team has targeted for a soccer-only building), though as USA Today Nate Scott points out, this could end up just taking Revolution owner Robert Kraft off the hook for building a stadium himself, while simultaneously delaying completion of the place for nine years. (Assuming Boston gets the Olympics; otherwise Kraft could always jump back in once the IOC tells Boston to take a hike.) Scott also includes some much better reasons to be fearful of a Boston Olympics, though, with one item in particular that stands out for me:

Boston sold itself as a frugal option to host the Summer Games, and part of that was by saying Boston would host a “walkable” games. That is all well and good, but if you know Boston, you know that the sites these events would have to be hosted at — Fenway Park, whichever colleges host gymnastics and other indoor events, TD Garden possibly, the new stadium they’re proposing in South Boston — are nowhere near each other.

Which means: Driving.

Driving in Boston is a harrowing experience. The roads, which are more or less the old cow paths in the city that they just paved over however many hundreds of years ago, make no sense. Streets are one way for a little while and then go one way the other direction. I know it doesn’t seem possible, but it’s a real thing in Boston. This happens frequently. 

For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of driving in Boston, this is, if anything, an understatement. The first time I tried to drive to Fenway Park, I ended up on a road that headed toward the ballpark just long enough for me to glimpse it, then curved gently away, steering me in any direction but the one I wanted to go in. The last time I tried it, I had plans to get off the Mass Pike and find a T stop to park-and-ride from, only to find myself unable to exit (Boston seems to have gotten a bulk discount on “NO TURNS” signs), driving all the way through downtown, into Cambridge, and back out again, finally parking at the distant Alewife station over an hour later and taking the T from there.

All of which is to say: As much as I, as a sports fan, would normally cheer a Boston Olympics as one that I could potentially attend without actually having to deal with the nightmare of having it hosted in my home city, there is no way in hell I’m going near Boston with an Olympics going on there. Not that I think the IOC will ever choose Boston in a million years, but at least they’ll always have their boarding passes to remember this by.

Oslo may pull its Olympic bid, starting a trend that — nah, who are we kidding, it’s Oslo

With the vote coming up on whether to withdraw Oslo’s 2022 Olympic bid — because, really, who among us is not transfixed by the Norwegian legislative calendar? — I take a look today for Vice Sports at why cities keep bidding on the Games, despite overwhelming evidence that they are a multi-billion-dollar money suck. Because while a bunch of cities have pulled out of the 2022 bidding for holy-crap-that’s-a-lot-of-money reasons (Krakow, Stockholm, Munich), and some have already done likewise for the 2024 Summer Games (Philadelphia, New York), there are still a ton of cities still eagerly in the running, even if “running” doesn’t necessarily describe their efforts at this early date in the 2024 bid process:

In the U.S. alone, we have Los Angeles, whose bid revolves around rehabbing the 82-year-old L.A. Coliseum into a “state-of-the-art” facility; San Francisco, which has a glowing recommendation letter from Mayor Ed Lee and little else in actual specifics; Boston, which is trying to sell the IOC on a “New England Olympics” with events stretching as far as Maine; and Washington, D.C., the only bid that includes an initial price tag — $4 to 6 billion—and whose website offers a helpful graphic that lists “things you didn’t know about the capital region.” (Sample: “175 embassies.” I think I could have guessed that one.)

(And yes, that $4-6 billion would probably include a stadium that would probably end up hosting Washington’s football team when it was all over. Also, would probably end up being more like $7-10 billion, given past performance.)

There does appear to be a mild trend toward pushback among cities, which shouldn’t be surprising after the last Olympics cost an estimated $50 billion. The problem is, there are a hell of a lot of cities in the world that think they can host the Olympics — especially the summer version, which doesn’t even require a particular climate — and only one winner chosen every two years. With that big a discrepancy between supply and demand, the IOC can demand a hell of a lot of velodromes.

NY Times still asking if the Olympics pay off, five years after answering own question

The New York Times investigated the pressing question of “Does Hosting the Olympics Actually Pay Off?” this week, and discovered exactly the same thing everyone else ever has found: There’s pretty much zero evidence that any Olympics has helped any city, ever, anywhere.

Even though Brazil, like other recent hosts, has sought to make stadium spending more palatable by also building general infrastructure, like highways and airports, the public would derive the same benefit at far less cost if the transportation projects were built and the stadiums were not. The Los Angeles Olympics were successful, after all, because planners avoided building new stadiums. Barcelona, long neglected under the rule of Francisco Franco, was in the midst of a renaissance that would have probably occurred without the Olympics.

Organizers and their supporters routinely neglect what economists call “opportunity costs” — in this case, what might have happened if a country didn’t host the Games. In some of the world’s most expensive cities, perhaps the greatest opportunity cost is the loss of scarce and valuable real estate. While many facilities remain in use after the Games or are converted for new purposes, quite a few sit virtually as empty as the original in Olympia, Greece. Tourists can ride a Segway around the Bird’s Nest in Beijing for $20.

Similarly, it’s misleading to calculate how much money is spent in a city during the Olympics. A fair comparison requires some estimate of how much would have been spent without them. When the Games come, after all, other kinds of tourism go. During the 2012 Games, the Adelphi Theatre in London’s West End suspended performances of “Sweeney Todd.” The British Museum received 480,000 visitors that August, down from 617,000 the previous year. Indeed, Britain received about 5 percent fewer foreign visitors in August 2012 than it did in the same month the previous year. Those who showed up spent more, sure, but London spent billions of dollars to lure them. “If Boston hosts the 2024 Olympics, there’s no doubt that [the city] is going to be overrun with sports tourists,” said Victor Matheson, an economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. “But Boston is already overrun with tourists in the summer.”

The article is actually a good overview of all the reasons why the Olympics are a massive money suck for host cities, but having the headline in the form of a question is pretty unforgivable — especially when the Times’ “Room for Debate” page asked the exact same question five years ago and came to the exact same conclusions. Here’s a suggestion for the next Times investigative story: “Can Overwhelming Evidence Get the Times to Make a Declarative Statement Even When It Might Anger Powerful People?” It would work just as well under Betteridge’s Law!

Tokyo residents protest $1.7b freaky-looking Olympic stadium

This isn’t quite the global uprising against sports mega-events that I was wondering about, but the first major protests have hit Tokyo over planning for the 2020 Summer Olympics:

About 500 protesters took part in the demonstration while carrying signs that read “We want a compact and economical Olympics” and “Reverse the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.”

“The proposed stadium is too big,” said Kazuhisa Oriyama, one of the organizers of Saturday’s protest. “The organizers of the games need to reconsider their plans and make the public part of decision-making process.”

The new Olympic stadium, which is set to replace Tokyo’s existing 56-year-old National Stadium, would seat 80,000 people, have four times the floor space of the old stadium, cost $1.7 billion to build (down from an initially planned $3 billion), and look like yikes:

If Japan does not replace this design with one that looks less like a mammoth futuristic bicycle helmet, protestors will almost certainly continue to lock arms around the stadium and hold balloons.

Entire world wakes up, realizes World Cup and Olympics are stupid

I don’t know exactly what tipping point we reached last week, but it appears that the entire planet came to a mass realization that mega-events like the World Cup and the Olympics, far from being massive revenue generators for host cities, are gigantic money pits that any public official should run screaming from as fast as possible. Witness, all within the past seven days:

No, it doesn’t mean that the World Cup and Olympics are now defunct, and will be replaced by one of those sporting events that involves everyone batting a giant ball into the air. But suddenly lots and lots of people are saying aloud that these mega-events tend toward being terrible catastrophes for the locales tabbed to host them, which isn’t a new concept, but isn’t usually discussed quite so widely. Though, of course, a few months ago people were actually interested in Russian human rights abuses against lesbians and gays, until they actually started playing sports and there was curling to watch, so maybe this is just the usual “the games haven’t started, we’re bored and have nothing to report on” run-up that will be completely forgotten later on.

What Washington needs is to spend $4-6 billion to host Olympics, says Olympic hosting committee

Washington, D.C.’s Olympic organizing committee has announced plans to … bid to host the Olympics, dummy, what do you think Olympic organizing committees do?

According to USA Today’s Kelly Whiteside (hi, Kelly!), hosting the 2024 Summer Games is expected to cost D.C. from $4-6 billion, including building a new stadium for track and field and the opening and closing ceremonies (and, possibly, for the city’s NFL team later on). Whiteside also notes that D.C. 2024 president Bob Sweeney said the city is “in a better position to host with a convention center, a new baseball park and an improved Metro system,” which might be more convincing if baseball were actually sure of being included in the Olympics.

I’ve written at length in the past about what a boondoggle hosting the Olympics has been for other host cities, so instead, I’ll leave it to U.S. News’s Pat Garafolo, who calls it the worst idea in Washington:

But what about the myriad economic benefits that will come with hosting the games? As I wrote in the Baltimore Sun last year when the prospect of a D.C.-Baltimore bid first arose, those benefits are mostly a mirage. Economist Jeffrey Owen put it this way: “To date there has not been a study of an Olympics or other large-scale sporting event that has found empirical evidence of significant economic impacts. … It is unlikely that anyone ever will.”…

 

For D.C. residents (myself included) there will, of course, be more parochial reasons to gripe about a D.C. bid, such as the inevitable traffic and delays associated not just with the games, but with the construction that will precede them for years on end. But the reason that non-residents should care whether or not D.C. plays host in 2024 is that the Olympics keep getting more expensive, cities keep getting less out of them, and yet lawmakers and corporate sponsors keep pushing for ever more elaborate facilities and spectacles to be foisted onto the backs of taxpayers who should be paying for new services that can make their own daily lives a little bit better.

Manhattan Jets/Olympic stadium plan: the cost that keeps on costing

The New York Jets Manhattan stadium plan may be long dead, but its legacy lives on in the form of “Hudson Yards,” the mixed-use development project that was supposed to surround it on Manhattan’s West Side. Back in 2005, you will recall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg succeeded in convincing the city council that key to getting tens of thousands people to shlep several blocks west of Midtown to see football, the Olympics, or whatever, was to build an extension of the #7 subway line west of Times Square. This would cost $2 billion (if you think that’s a lot, don’t get me started on the 1,500-foot tunnel in Queens that cost $645 million), but never worry, as it would all be paid off by increased property tax payments by new development on the site — that’s right, a TIF.

Except that the development still hasn’t happened, which as Juan Gonzalez reports in today’s Daily News has resulted in the inevitable consequences:

The Bloomberg administration paid $234 million during fiscal year 2012 to a city-created development group that oversees the huge new commercial and residential complex, one of the mayor’s most ambitious projects.

City Hall quietly earmarked most of that money — $155 million — to the Hudson Yards Infrastructure Corp. in late June, because the group has not been generating enough revenue to pay the annual interest due on $3 billion in bonds it issued.

Of course, there are still hopes that Hudson Yards development will one day take off as originally planned — as Gonzalez wryly notes, “Maybe it will in 50 years, when most of us are dead.” If only anybody could have seen this coming.