New York City’s Olympic Bid—Why?

By Peter Marcuse

Cities have pursued hosting the Olympic Games out of a variety of motivations, often more than one. Absent from these motivations in recent years has been the original purpose of the Games: to promote peace through the substitution of friendly athletic competition for war. “The Games have always brought people together in peace to respect universal moral principles,” the Athens promoters said. When an Iraqi soccer team took the field in the Athens Olympics, there was no reference to the fact that their country had been invaded by a foreign power, that war was in fact being waged by participants in the Games against the peoples of other participants. But then, the Games have become spectacle, entertainment, rather than a component of an international relationship among states and peoples based on universal moral principles.

What then provokes cities and nations to clamor for the privilege of hosting the Games? Spectacle is surely among the reasons: furthering the role of the city as entertainment, for passive consumption by its residents and visitors, the role of the bread and circuses that ancient Rome used to quiet its citizens. But spectacle also in a deeper sense, the sense in which David Harvey has written about it as to the city, Guy Debord as characteristic of society as a whole: a representation of reality rather than the reality itself, a false façade concealing the truth. Thus in the Olympic arena “nations” “compete” peacefully; there are rules that must be obeyed by all, judges, fair winners and fair losers; all have equal opportunities to participate and do so based on merit alone; the Games are enjoyed by all; the people of the world can sit home and watch on television and need not be concerned that the outcome will affect their own lives. How different from the real competition among nations, the absence of rules, the unfairness of might makes right, the painful consequences for so many, the sharp contrast between poverty and wealth.

But specific cities want to host the Olympics for more mundane reasons. Some cities, ambitious for a larger place in the sun, want them simply to draw attention to their existence and qualities, as major public relations coups: Athens certainly, Barcelona, Sydney largely, Berlin at the national level in 1936. Others see them mainly as profitable ventures for all concerned, bringing money into town, glamorizing the city: Los Angeles, probably. Some see them as the lever with which major infrastructure projects, otherwise desired, can be achieved, and national support attracted: Barcelona again, maybe Montreal. In the most recent rounds, all hope to make a profit out of hosting the Games, at least for the tourist industry, but perhaps for others also.

For New York City, the “others” that might make a profit from the city’s Olympic bid are a little different from typical candidate cities; New York is always a little different. The City has no need to put itself on the map by having the Olympics; it’s already there. Whether the city government can make a profit out of increased tax revenues or contributions is debatable; it contends at least it will have no losses. Tourism is already a major industry; whether mega-events, like the recent Republican National convention, or such as the Olympics would be, really add that much or that widely is debated. The concern for security, in some cases verging on paranoia and defying common sense, adds substantial costs that must be deducted from the benefits that might be expected. As this is being written, however, the whole discussion seems academic since the smart money is betting against the city winning the designation for which it is applying, to host the games in 2012, against the competition of London, Madrid, Paris and Moscow.

What, then, is pushing New York City’s bid? One should not discount civic boosterism. That was probably what moved Mayor Giuliani first to endorse the idea when Dan Doctoroff, then an investment banker and now deputy mayor for economic development in the Bloomberg administration, presented it to him, and what gets celebrity endorsers behind it. Some good government groups back it not so much because they want the Olympics, but because, according to XXX, “It sprinkles fairy dust on projects urban planners have wanted for decades.” The proposals the planners put together for the 2012 bid they labeled an X plan: a north-south transportation axis using ferry service from Staten Island up the harbor and up the East and Harlem Rivers, and an east-west axis using existing rail lines from Flushing Meadows in Queens to the Meadowlands in New Jersey. And where the axes cross, the bid website says:

The Olympic Village will be at the center of the “X,” on the East River in Queens, directly across from the United Nations. From the Olympic Village, athletes riding fast ferries and special dedicated commuter trains will almost never have to go on a New York City street to get to their events.

So not that much in it, during the seventeen days of the actual Olympics, for the average New Yorker.

But it wasn’t average New Yorkers or celebrities or planners that put up the well over $20,000,000 of private money that underwrote the city’s bid. It was businesses that had a vested interest in New York City, and in particular in its real estate: developers, institutional investors, financial institutions, construction firms. In the over $1,000,000 contributor category are Goldman Sachs & Co., JP Morgan Chase, Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc, Time Warner, Verizon Communications. In the over $100,000 category are well-known major players in New York real estate: The Rudin family, Fisher Brothers, Forest City Ratner Companies, Glenwood Management Corporation, Tishman Construction Corporation, Turner Construction, Boston Properties, Inc., Cushman & Wakefield, Edward J. Minskoff Equities Inc., Jack Resnick & Sons, Inc. Milstein Properties and others. But that is hardly surprising; real estate is big business in New York (former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messenger used to say that “real estate is to New York what oil is to Dallas”), and those in real estate are after all the ones with the largest and most direct financial stake in New York’s economy.

What is surprising, however, is the play the city’s Olympic bid is receiving in an atmosphere where its success is unlikely, and here the focus suddenly shifts to the proposal to build a stadium and 11,000,000 square feet of office and related uses on the far west side of Midtown Manhattan. The Far West Midtown Plan is one that includes the area of the present Javits Convention Center and the Hudson freight yards. The plans suggest that this area will be covered over with a huge platform on which would be built a stadium seating 75,000 people that would be home to the New York Jets, now based across the river in New Jersey’s Meadowlands. The city would be responsible for the platform, estimated at $3,000,000,000 (that’s billions), and for extending the #7 subway line to the area from its present terminus at Times Square. The Convention Center would be expanded by 1,000,000 square feet with the potential of also using the stadium if desired. Beyond this, the Plan calls for zoning that allows for 28 million square feet of office space, 12 million square feet of residential, 1.5 million square feet of hotel and 700,000 square feet of retail.

So what does this mega-project have to do with the Olympics? The stadium. The Jets want it badly; with the potential revenue from naming rights, luxury skyboxes and a huge seating capacity, it could be a gold mine. But there is major opposition to it from the community in which it will be built; it hardly rates as a local amenity, it makes little use of a spectacular waterfront site and alternative uses would be much more appealing. Others, many others, object to its costs. There is a complex financing plan developed by Dan Doctoroff in which the costs (over what the Jets would pay) are essentially covered by floating bonds, repayable through tax increment financing allocating increases in real estate taxes to repay the bonds, but with ultimately a city guarantee behind them. Experts, including the city’s Independent Budget Office, question whether the demand for space will really produce the tax revenues being projected; others argue that, with an already substantial vacancy rate for office space, the project will undermine efforts to develop Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center site.

Given all these questions, the stadium is a hard sell. It was originally an idea of Rudolph Guiliani’s, who wanted to build it for the New York Yankees as his enduring personal legacy to the city. But the Yankees wouldn’t buy, and independently Doctoroff came up with the Olympic bid idea and sold it to Giuliani. Now, in effect, the Olympic bid has been shanghaied to bolster the stadium project, which in turn has been made part of the city’s far west side plan. From a purely Olympic point of view, a stadium in Queens would make much more sense, and if Shea Stadium were to be renovated and used, much cheaper. The state legislature seems likely to approve bonding for parts of the project, including expansion of the Convention Center, but without the stadium. Yet Doctoroff, for whom the whole idea, in his own words, has become “an obsession,” and now Bloomberg behind him, have been adamant: Everything depends on the stadium. And, Doctoroff argues, since the International Olympic Committee will meet to decide on a final host city in July 2005, a shovel should get in the ground before then. This is perhaps the hottest issue in New York City land use politics since Westway—a proposal to bury part of the West Side Highway and build a park on its roof—was defeated in 1985.

So in the end, New York City’s Olympics bid seems to be more about a huge real estate development on the far west side of Manhattan, anchored by a football stadium (and about the fixations of important people in government), than about Olympic sports competitions or, certainly, than about peace, even at a city level.

Peter Marcuse is a professor of planning at Columbia University in New York.

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