Olympic Sites Become Topic Of Hot Debate
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Nearly a year since the Bloomberg administration’s Olympic dreams died, the legacy of its elaborate citywide development plan is a subject of debate. Advocates say the plans laid the groundwork for future growth, while critics charge the mayor was overeager and cost taxpayers.
The New York 2012 Olympics plan called for more than 20 venues to be built across the five boroughs, pairing sports like beach volleyball with the Brooklyn waterfront and whitewater kayaking with Flushing. Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement last week that the city would not pursue a 2016 Olympics bid signals that most of those planned venues will never come to fruition. Still, the administration is touting the Olympic legacy as a spur for some of the broad economic development that is occurring across the city.
Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff, who led the city’s Olympics bid, said the plan purposely focused development on areas in the five boroughs that needed attention, like parks in Staten Island, the south Bronx, Flushing, the far West Side, and on the Brooklyn waterfront.
“In every single case, projects were advanced to the point where they’re going to occur,” he said, pointing to plans for housing and parks on the Brooklyn waterfront.
Several real estate experts say the failed Olympic bid focused development on the outer boroughs, put some approvals on the fast track, and will leave the city with modernized land use plans in long-neglected areas.
A professor of urban planning at New York University, Mitchell Moss, cited the vast rezoning of the Brooklyn waterfront and the far West Side, and the fast approvals of the Yankee and Mets stadium plans, as the positive legacy.
“The irony is that even without the Olympics, we got the best aspects of the plan,” Mr. Moss said. “Those two stadiums would never have happened so rapidly if there weren’t pressure from the Olympics.”
Critics say it is wrong to give credit for the city’s booming growth to the failed Olympics bid. Pointing to the approval of plans for new Yankees and Mets stadia, the proposed Atlantic Yards project in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and a mall at the site of the Bronx Terminal Market, critics say that an Olympics obsession led the Bloomberg administration to negotiate development terms that were overly generous to private developers.
The author of the Web site newyorkgames.org, Brian Hatch, an advocate of the Olympics who has been critical of the Bloomberg administration’s bid, said most of the development on or near the planned Olympics venues would have happened anyway in today’s booming development environment. Instead, he said, the administration’s rabid interest in the Olympic sites had a negative effect for taxpayers.
“The deals got better for the developer in most instances,” Mr. Hatch said.
Last year, the Bloomberg administration negotiated a deal with a developer, the Related Companies, to acquire a Harlem River waterfront site slated to house an Olympic velodrome. The administration pushed hard for the approval of the developer’s project – a shopping center – over the objections of local tenants and some government watchdogs who said the city was giving away too much.
Watchdog groups also criticized the amount of city and state subsidies that are being handed out to build new homes for the Yankees and Mets, charging that the cost to taxpayers outweighs the potential economic benefit. Mr. Hatch pointed out that the mayor announced his backing of both projects, which were to house Olympic events, as the city was waiting for a decision from the International Olympic Committee.
“They got a big boost, and then there were months before anyone questioned them,” he said.
“This is an administration that wanted to come in and do real estate deals,” Mr. Hatch said. “It’s sad that the bid failed. Real estate came first.”
A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who specializes in development, Julia Vitullo-Martin, said the focus of the Olympics helped draw attention to development sites in the outer boroughs.
“It was the equivalent of a news hook in economic development. It was a way to concentrate everyone’s attention,” Ms. Vitullo-Martin said. “New Yorkers who couldn’t identify the Queensborough Bridge were suddenly talking about the Queens waterfront.”
But Ms. Vitullo-Martin pointed to Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project as an example of where Olympic dreams may have clouded Mr. Doctoroff’s judgment. She called the project, which would have housed the gymnastics competition, “way too big, and way too subsidized.”
“I think he took it too far, but you always do if you want to win,” Ms. Vitullo-Martin said. “That project definitely got a shot in the arm from the Olympics,” she said.
The lynchpin and centerpiece of New York’s Olympic bid, the West Side stadium, failed to win state approval despite Mr. Bloomberg’s efforts.
According to the state’s leading development official, Charles Gargano, there has been no interest from developers in building on top of the Hudson rail yards following the rejection of the stadium last year by a state board.
According to the director of the Center for an Urban Future, Jonathan Bowles, the rezoning of the far West Side – which will allow dense commercial development – and not the failed stadium bid, will be the biggest legacy of New York 2012.
“As it gets developed over the next five to 10 years, it could be that a handful of developers fight for the opportunity to build over the rail yards, and pay for it as well,” he said.