A look at how New York’s failed efforts to host the world’s biggest sporting event succeeded in reshaping huge swaths of the city, from Hunters Point to Citi Field. ‘New York never needed the Games, but we did need the infrastructure,’ one expert said.
Los Angeles will soon host its third Summer Olympics. Atlanta had the centennial edition. Even St. Louis got the nod from the games’ governing body.
But New York City, the world’s marquee metropolis, has never hosted the world’s marquee sporting event. Not that it really means much for Big Apple prestige.
“The cities that compete for the Olympics are usually desperately needing the recognition or the attention, or are dictatorships that want to be accepted,” New York University Urban Planning Prof. Mitchell Moss said during an interview on WBAI last month. “New York has never needed the Olympics to establish its global preeminence.”
That’s no doubt true, though getting beat out by St. Louis at the turn of the 20th Century must have stung.
Despite never playing host, the Games have still reshaped the cityscape—or at least a failed bid to land the 2012 edition has.
New York City under Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg pulled out all the stops to land the Olympics before eventually losing out to London on decision day 2005, seven years before the games began. The NYC2012 attempt faltered, but plans to reshape huge swaths of the city to accommodate brand new sporting venues—and, later, transformative residential projects—swiftly crossed the finish line, buoyed by Olympic fervor and a time-bound bid for the Games.
The ongoing development in Long Island City’s Hunters Point, site of the proposed Olympic Village; the residential transformation of the Williamsburg and Greenpoint Waterfront, potential home to swimming, diving and beach volleyball venues; and the mega project at Hudson Yards, billed as the site of a massive new taxpayer funded Olympic Stadium, all have their roots in the attempt to score those 2012 Olympics.
Other huge projects trace their origins to that Olympic bid, too. The plan to tear down Shea Stadium and build a more aesthetically pleasing park next door got a boost from Olympics-related land use decisions. When the West Side stadium idea crumbled, and with it, the far-fetched hopes of pulling the Jets back from New Jersey, city planners sought to build the main stadium at Willets Point instead.
The replacement Yankee Stadium, built on top of a popular park, also sprung from the West Side stadium failure. The Bronx Terminal Market, a big box mall next to the Major Deegan, was eased by a land swap that stemmed from the Olympic bid—the developer, Related Companies, traded property set aside for creation of a velodrome in exchange for the old Bronx House of Detention.
The No. 7 Train extension that serves Hudson Yards may never have been built without the Games. And the NYC Ferry system also evolved from the bid. The boats were proposed as a useful way to cut down on traffic between Olympic venues plotted along an imaginary cross—one arm reaching east from New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium soccer venue through Midtown Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden to the Willets Point main stadium; the other arm reaching south from Inwood’s Baker Athletics Complex (field hockey) to the northern tip of Staten Island (softball). The two axes would intersect at the Hunters Point South Olympic Village.
“New York never needed the Games, but we did need the infrastructure,” said Moss, a former Bloomberg advisor and the lead author of a 2011 report hailing the impact of the Olympic bid. “The legacy of the planning of the Olympics is one of the greatest assets New York has.”
His report, “How New York City Won the Olympics,” will turn 10 years old in November and many of the projects pending at the time—like Hudson Yards and much of Hunters Point South—are up and running.
But not everyone is so enthused by the legacy of NYC2012.
“‘How Related Won the Olympics’ is maybe a better title for the report,” said Community Service Society Policy Analyst Samuel Stein, referring to the Related Companies, the billionaire-owned development firm that built Hudson Yards, Bronx Terminal Market and much of the below-market rate, but still pricey, apartments in Hunters Point South.
The rushed rezonings that led up to the Olympics benefited the developer class by allowing them to construct new glass skylines with few homes or services for lower-income New Yorkers, Stein said.
Plenty of New Yorkers opposed the Olympic bid as a Trojan horse for redevelopment in the early 2000s. Today, residents squeezed by the deepening affordable housing crisis, including those who participated in earlier waves of gentrification, have joined in the opposition to corporate-driven land use decisions—just look at the Amazon HQ2 backlash, or the opposition that killed the Sunset Park rezoning.
Others simply see a missed opportunity to build homes for New Yorkers who really needed them, a persistent critique of the Bloomberg era.
Twelve years after it opened, the Mets home ballpark sits on a parking lot island—the hoped-for home of an Olympic Stadium. Zero affordable units have been built alongside the park, even on the razed wasteland once occupied by mechanics’ shops.
“You may like Citi Field, but there’s no affordable housing and a bunch of lost jobs,” Stein said. “I think a lot of the luster has come off the mode of development promoted in the wake of the Olympics—trickle down, build-for-the-benefit-of-private-real-estate-developers and hope that the general market forces benefit everybody. It doesn’t seem that has panned out.”
In the name of the Games
In 1994, Wall Street financier Dan Doctoroff felt differently.
Motivated by the United States’ role hosting the World Cup of soccer—including matches at Giants Stadium just over the Hudson River—the former Republican lobbyist made it his mission to bring the Games to New York City. He soon earned the support of Guiliani and later Bloomberg, eventually steering the bid as a top deputy to the billionaire mayor.
Bloomberg saw another function of the bid: Expediting mega-projects and avoiding the kind of scrutiny that typically comes with rezonings, particularly major neighborhood-level upheaval.
“The Bloomberg Administration now sought to use the pressure of the fixed, Olympic bid timetable to push forward the legal and technical review and approval of these projects on an accelerated schedule so that by the time of the [International Olympic Committee] decision in mid-2005, they would be positioned to go forward regardless of whether New York City’s bid was successful,” Moss wrote in his 2011 report.
That’s exactly what happened. In the case of a 184-block swath of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, the city’s land use application won approval just weeks before the IOC’s decision.
The upzoning was ostensibly meant to create affordable housing and revitalize Bushwick Inlet Park; instead it hastened the ongoing displacement of long-time residents, without those park improvements. The plan also spurred development nearby, where property owners were not obligated to build any affordable units.
Would projects like Hudson Yards, Hunters Point South and the Greenpoint-Williamsburg residential rezoning have moved forward without the Olympic tailwinds?
The architect of the NYC2012 bid, Alexander Garvin, thinks so. Most of the plans had been kicked around for years, but the Olympic dream galvanized business and government in support of one unified vision, he said.
“I think they all would have happened,” Garvin said. “New York City is a city that is constantly changing … Nevertheless we got a lot of housing because the Olympics accelerated the support for the redevelopment of the Long Island City waterfront.”
Garvin looks back at what could have been and believes the bid was derailed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
He also thinks New Yorkers would welcome another shot at the Games.
“New Yorkers are very ornery people and they like to find every possible reason not to do something, but I think we had the support of the majority of people to bring the Olympics 20 years ago and that would reappear because it would be a great benefit,” he said. “It would improve neighborhoods, work for people, bring money for businesses.”
It takes a Village—to rezone a waterfront
The Hunters Point waterfront was key to the Olympic bid, with more than 100 architects submitting designs for an Olympic Village there.
The brand new community would have housed nearly 11,000 athletes in 2012, including Fastest Man Alive Usain Bolt, NBA legends Lebron and Kobe and all-around gymnastics gold medalist Gabby Douglas. That didn’t happen—though some NBA players and Mets stars have since moved into nearby parts of the neighborhood.
Instead, about a dozen glass towers have risen or are in the works along a waterfront park.
“The planning was really brilliant because what it did was try to take areas ripe for renewal and use the Olympics as the umbrella concept and weave together sites that were in different boroughs,” Moss said.
A 5,000-unit development called Hunters Point South, once known as Queens West, is geared to upper-middle class New Yorkers priced out of high-rises across the East River. It may be the Olympics-driven project with the strongest affordable housing legacy, but that designation is a relative. While 60 percent of its units are priced at below-market rates, virtually none are available to the low-income people most in need of housing: New Yorkers earning less than 30 percent of Area Median Income (AMI).
As City Limits reported in 2016, the vast majority of “affordable” units in the buildings completed or under construction went to households earning between 105 and 230 percent of AMI, or $81,585 and $178,710 for a family of three. That was clear in 2010, as well, when City Limits reported that “affordable” housing in this case meant units for people making six figures.
Two other buildings soon to open will include 534 units reserved for people who earn 40, 50, 130 and 165 percent of AMI, with two bedroom “affordable” apartments reaching $3,065 per month.
“It’s a positive addition to the affordable housing inventory of the city, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need,” said Community Board 2 Chair Lisa Deller last year.
The Shining City on a Train Yard
The towers at Hudson Yards are like the body of an Olympic swimmer towering atop the pool deck: Sleek, imposing and, for nearly everybody, unattainable.
A plan to build a new business district west of Midtown received approval from the City Council in 2005, six months before the Olympics vote. It was supposed to feature an 80,000-seat, publicly funded stadium that the Jets would move into after the conclusion of the Games. That idea died, and the city turned to Queens and the Mets for the main venue.
But the idea of a shining city on the trainyard didn’t evaporate along with the Olympic bid. Developers and the Bloomberg Administration kept at it, eventually winning a trainyard rezoning from the City Council in 2009. By that time, work on a No. 7 Train extension had already commenced and the new station opened in 2013. New York City’s most expensive neighborhood welcomed its first commercial and residential tenants six years later.
Critics of the project, and there are many, say New Yorkers were deceived by claims that it would require zero public dollars. Instead, developers received $5.6 billion in public funds throughout the process.
“I don’t think anyone looks at Hudson Yards and says that was the best use of $5 billion in public investment,” Stein said.
Bridget Fisher, a researcher at the New School who studies the financing and economic impact of Hudson Yards, said the public money deception inoculated the project against much of the opposition that accompanies massive developments.
“It was sold to the public as a self-financing project, which sounds like it wasn’t going to cost taxpayers money,” Fisher said. “If New Yorkers were told that this project would cost this much money in the first place, they’d have a more holistic discussion about how that money could better serve residents.”
The new subway stop was a positive gain for the city, she said, “but it mostly benefits a private enclave.” Extending the train further east past Willets Point would have served more New Yorkers cut off from reliable transit, she said.
Nevertheless, Fisher said, it was a different time in New York City, which was then contending with the impact of 9/11, followed by the Great Recession.
“Justification for any kind of development may have been easier then than now, when we have a more in-tune focus about equity outcomes where development dollars are concerned,” she said. “I think that conversation in New York City has a lot further to go, but I think since Hudson Yards we have made progress on at least trying to center those questions better.”
The 2036 Summer Olympics are up for grabs, but it’s hard to imagine another bid going over well in New York City given the billions of dollars cities dish out to prepare for the events and the IOC’s strict requirements. Host cities need a 3,000-seat complex for modern pentathlon, a 4,000-seat venue for archery and a 10,000-seat arena for the final handball match (not the kind of handball we play in New York City). It took Montreal 30 years to pay off the debts related to the 1976 Olympics.
Still, Montreal is no New York Freakin’ City.
So it’s a little hard to believe that the city at the center of the world has never hosted the Olympics, especially since New York was key to the early days of modern Games. Manhattan was the longtime headquarters of the U.S. Olympic Committee before the body moved to Colorado, and many sports, most notably track and field, were centered in the Big Apple.
“New York City was seen as the center of the Olympic enterprise” in the first half of the 20th Century, said Penn State Prof. Mark Dyerson, an Olympics historian. “New York has always played this dynamic role in the Olympic movement, in terms of being a place where a lot of the organizers come from, where track and field historically was important.”
New York City did come close once, losing out to St. Louis in 1904 because the early Games were often tied to the site of that year’s World’s Fair. St. Louis only got the bid because Chicago bailed.
Nearly 120 years later, the Olympics aren’t necessary for the city Dyerson said.
“I don’t know if New York City needs more tourists, or more global attention or more global fame,” he said. “They seem to be doing just fine without them.”
But might New York City benefit from another Olympics bid, this time oriented around truly affordable housing development? Here, the planning experts on either side of the NYC2012 spectrum agree.
“Our task is to get those things without relying on ever-expanding private real estate,” Stein said. “There’s often a sleight of hand between talking about investment in disinvested communities and talking about giant corporate boondoggles.”
“We don’t need an Olympic bid to build housing,” Moss adds. “We need leadership to build housing.”