Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The city is already sticking itself with the worst downsides of hosting the games. At least this way, it would be forced to make crucial improvements.
Lately, a dream has overtaken fans of Washington, D.C.'s professional football team. The idea is that the team's owner, Dan Snyder, will move the team to Los Angeles, a larger media market, with the promise that D.C. gets a new expansion team within three years. You can blame Bill Simmons for nursing a hope that's got dispirited Washington fans excited for a new day. Never mind that it's pure fantasy.
Snyder himself has given no suggestion that he'd like to move to Los Angeles. Maybe he could be persuaded to take a deal, but he hasn't budged an inch on the team's racist name—despite moral outrage from football fans, negative press from sports media, and financial pressure from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. If anything, Snyder is emboldened by the team's dwindling fanbase and thwarted ambitions, not chastened. He's now shopping around for a municipality (in the D.C. area) that will build a new Washington football stadium.
And why not? Newly elected D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has said that she'd like to build that stadium. Washington fans—D.C. voters—would go for it. A new stadium in the District would almost certainly replace Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, where the Washington team used to play. "We're a sports town, aren't we?" Bowser told NBC4 on Sunday. "I feel strongly that for our Washington football team to win, they have to come home." (The team currently plays at FedEx Field in nearby Prince George's County, Maryland.) She's hardly alone.
In the same interview, Mayor Bowser bragged on Washington, D.C.'s bid to host the Olympic Games in 2024. The U.S. Olympic Committee may announce its selection as soon as Thursday. The District is in the running, along with Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Critics in all those places are praying that the games fall on someone else.
But D.C. had better hope that it comes away with gold in that contest. The city is already hell-bent on pursuing the biggest downside of hosting the games: publicly financed stadiums. At least an Olympic bid would require the city to invest in matching transit and infrastructure upgrades and affordable-housing commitments.
The arguments against hosting the games in the District are varied and compelling. The D.C. 2024 bid is far from inspiring. D.C.'s Metro system doesn't work for residents under normal circumstances. More locally, the neighborhoods most likely to be affected by a successful bid—namely Hill East—don't want a new stadium. Residents in those neighborhoods resent being discussed in such abstract terms, like chips in an Olympics bargain. (Tim Krepp, who ran for D.C. House Delegate in 2014, explains the view from Hill East.)
The biggest objection to hosting the games anwyhere comes down to the enormous costs associated with building new stadiums. Indeed, the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles were a huge success in part because L.A. didn't build any new Olympic arenas. Maybe it's a great idea for Los Angeles to host for a third time.
For better or worse, though, the District is also going to have virtually all the stadiums it needs to host the games. In December, local leaders and the Major League Soccer team D.C. United arrived at an agreement that will see the city pay $150 million, and maybe more, for a new $300 million soccer stadium, despite the fact that the team is worth nowhere near that much. The city may even use eminent domain to see the deal through. (What hope does Hill East have in stopping Washington Football Nation?)
What D.C. can't boast is political consensus around completing an east–west citywide streetcar line, dedicating affordable housing, building a homeless shelter, or planning serious Metro improvements. These are all things that the city would need to accomplish in order to host the Olympic Games. And that's the great boon of the games to host cities: Mega-events inspire consensus for infrastructure spending that's otherwise hard to come by.
To be sure, the critics are all correct. Bidding for the games is secretive and undemocratic. There's no guarantee that replacing D.C. General with an Olympic Village will lead to affordable housing on that site (and to a real shelter for people experiencing homelessness elsewhere). Blithe proposals to transform whole swaths of poorer, mostly black D.C. sound like The Plan at work. And D.C. Metrorail is "a slow-rolling embarrassment whose creeping obsolescence is so pervasive, and so corrosive, that Washingtonians are increasingly abandoning it."
Still, there are some benefits that Olympics critics overlook. New developments in architecture mean lighter venues that can be adapted to other purposes after the games. Consider Zaha Hadid's aquatics center for the London 2012 games, now fully converted into a slimmer structure. In fact, the number of temporary venues in the London Olympics (planned by the U.S. firm Populous) was equal to the sum of all the temporary structures in the 2008, 2004, and 2000 Olympics combined. The games can be done in a lean way.
Furthermore, services like Uber and Airbnb add up to a kind of "invisible infrastructure" that would allow residents to cash in directly on hosting the games. No one in the District wants the traffic or congestion that the games are bound to bring, but plenty of Washingtonians would enjoy renting out their apartments for a week or two, or driving around Olympic tourists.
Put the argument a different way: Let's say Boston is chosen as the potential U.S. Olympics host for 2024. What happens next for D.C. is a soccer stadium that's a bad investment, then a football stadium that's an even worse investment. Plus, if present trends continue, no real discernible improvements on affordable housing, homelessness, or unsucking D.C. Metro. Call it throwing good money after bad, but if we're going to give a man like Dan Snyder that kind of money, it should mean something.
And an Olympic Games in Boston? No one wants to see that.