Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Version 2.0 of the Boston 2024 bid frames the Olympic Games the right way: as a means to an end in building housing and transit.
Like everything else in Boston, enthusiasm for the Olympic Games pretty much froze over this winter. The thought of inviting tens of thousands of tourists to the city when it was buried under more than 100 inches of snow must’ve unnerved even the most ardent fan of the Games—even for a Summer Games. Public support for a Boston Olympics threatened to plunge to below-freezing levels. So the group planning Boston 2024 put the bid on ice, with the hopes of returning to it later.
Now that all that snow is almost gone—so close!—Boston hearts have warmed to the idea of a Summer Olympics, a little. A poll conducted late in April found that 57 percent of voters within Boston support the Games, provided that no Massachusetts tax money be used for the construction of the venues or the operation of the Games. A big “if,” surely, but a road to securing support for 2024.
With that in mind, officials released Monday “Version 2.0” of the Boston 2024 bid. The new release focuses less on what it will take to bring the Olympic Games to Boston and more on what an Olympic Games can do for the city itself. In Version 2.0, officials are speaking to the way that the Olympics will help to marshall incredible spending toward new housing and infrastructure.
That’s a feature of Version 2.0, not a bug. Boston’s going to need new housing and transit by 2024, whether the Olympic Games happens or not. Some of the upgrades are so necessary, in fact, that the city should get behind a bid for the 2024 Hunger Games, if that’s what it takes.
The most appealing aspects of Version 2.0 bid are the things that Boston has got to pay for one way or another. Examples of these public expenses include the $455 million for technology upgrades to the Red and Green Lines on the T, plus as-yet-unfunded plans for various stations and transit hubs.
One way to think about hosting the Olympic Games is to consider the costs of not hosting the Olympic Games. And Boston could pay dearly, if it does not approve big infrastructure improvements and build a great deal more housing. Not improving transit access by 2024 could cost Boston dearly, for example, under a scenario outlined by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council whereby the Greater Boston area grows 12.6 percent between 2010 and 2040.
Even the status-quo scenario sees the region growing 6.6 percent, adding thousands and thousands of households. Another organization, The Boston Foundation, estimates that between 2010 and 2030, the Greater Boston area could draw 138,000 new single-payer households and 156,000 small-family households. Boston anticipates massive growth. That kind of growth, without the attendant transit infrastructure investment, is a formula for productivity loss, traffic, congestion, and frustration.
The same can be said for housing. Those people need to live somewhere. New in Version 2.0 is the focus on the creation of two new neighborhoods, including a major development surge for Widett Circle modeled after the $20 billion Hudson Yards project in New York City. The Boston Globe spells out the connection:
The $20 billion Hudson Yards project also grew out of plans originally hatched to make the rail yard home to the New York’s Olympic Stadium if the city won the 2012 Summer Games. After the city lost the bid to London, city officials converted their plans for the stadium into what is being billed as the country’s largest private real estate development, designed to transform the industrial West Side into a new neighborhood.
“It was the Olympic bid, and the deadline imposed by the Olympic bid, that got this thing started and enabled it to happen in record time,” said Daniel L. Doctoroff, who spearheaded the Hudson Yards project, first as chief of New York’s Olympic bid and then as a deputy mayor of New York. He now serves on the boards of Boston 2024 and the US Olympic Committee.
Like Hudson Yards, the Widett Circle development would be built through tax breaks designed to lure developers. Specifically, these are property-tax breaks that only dissipate after a very long time. In Manhattan, one of the most expensive places on the planet, this same incentive mechanism has been called into question. Widett Circle is certainly not Manhattan. Which may mean that the need for incentives is all the greater, or it may mean that the risk is strong that the incentives may never pay off.
The need for new housing is real, and it will not disappear if the Boston 2024 bid falls through. More than one quarter of renters spend more than half of their income on rent—a figure that is rising, according to The Boston Foundation. More than 38 percent of homeowners spend more than 30 percent of their income on their homes (and they’re the lucky ones).
It’s hard to say whether the plans for Widett Circle constitute a sweetheart deal for developers (although critics have concluded as much since the plan was introduced this morning). There are other blanks to fill. Right now, the Boston 2024 planners are tentatively pledging a surplus from their $4.6 billion plan, although many of the details have yet to be finalized. Still, they are thinking forward to the potential for cost overruns and failures—by building a 5 percent contingency fee into the construction costs for each venue, for example, and for planning to spend $128 million on insurance to protect taxpayers from risk
Critics should think just as much about the risks associated with doing nothing. The worst thing that could happen may not be building a velodrome that nobody wants. The worst thing might be not pursuing a costly, risky, ambitious planning project—and never building the housing and transit infrastructure that Boston already knows that it desperately needs.