NYC-2012: The Legacy of Losing the Olympics to London

Two fencers duel on a New York City sidewalk. One scores a hit. The other concedes. The winner claims the elusive, available taxi.

A woman weightlifter hoists a grocery-filled granny cart over her shoulders, crosses the neighborhood and climbs the stairs of a walk-up.

The images come from a pair of ads, back in 2005, with the tagline: “The Olympic Games in New York. We’ve been training for this forever. NYC-2012.”

But the training wasn’t enough. Seven years ago, London defeated New York City’s bid to host the XXX Summer Olympiad, and starting Friday the results will be on stage for all the world to see.

But what if the Big Apple had won? What would the games have looked like, and what would their legacy be? And would New Yorkers be any less ambivalent about the Olympics in 2012 than they were in 2005?

For one, there certainly would be a wealth of new structures.

Runners would be sprinting in an Olympic Stadium overlooking either the Hudson River or Flushing Bay.

Swimmers would be freestyling in a new aquatic center on the Williamsburg waterfront.

Cyclists would be zipping around a velodrome in the Bronx.

And thousands of athletes would be staying in the new Olympic Village, an apartment building in Long Island City, Queens, across the East River from the United Nations.

Most of the proposed facilities now exist only in the bid books the city and the non-profit NYC-2012 presented to the International Olympic Committee. But a handful of projects have been developed, even without the games. New York’s proposal emphasized that most of what the city would build was necessary, anyway. The Olympic legacy would pay dividends for generations to come, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others argued.

Mitchell Moss, an urban  policy professor at NYU and a self-described “informal advisor” to Bloomberg, says so many things have, in fact, been built or are under construction from the Olympic bid that the city really did win the Olympics, figuratively speaking.

“The net effect of having this is that we basically took underused parts of our city and put them to use,” said Moss. “The Olympics are 17 days of sports, but what New York got is a century’s worth of new housing and infrastructure.”

Moss cites the following as Olympics-inspired triumphs:

  • The No.  7 subway is being extended from Grand Central Terminal to 11th Avenue. After several delays, the MTA says it’s schedule to open in mid 2014 and be fully completed at the end of 2015.
  • The revised Olympic stadium evolved into Citi Field, the home of the Mets, since 2009.
  • The would-be gymnastics center became the soon-to-open home of the Brooklyn Nets, Atlantic Yards.
  • A sports and cultural center at the 169th Street Armory in Harlem and a new aquatic center and ice rink in Flushing Meadows, Queens, were stalled 1990s projects, until the Olympic bid renewed pressure to fund them, bringing them to completion a few years later.

Less concrete — both literally and figuratively — victories are the Hudson rail yard on the far West Side of Manhattan and Hunters Point in Queens. Moss said the two massive industrial sites had been targeted for redevelopment for decades, but were always captive to controversy and inertia.

Moss puts them in the “win” column, arguing that pressure from the Olympics bid led to their rezoning for residential and commercial use.

“These were all tied to the Olympic [bid] deadline,” Moss said.

But Greg David isn’t so sanguine. The Crain’s Business columnist and CUNY professor calls the far West Side and Hunters Point — by far the biggest challenges before, during and since the Olympic proposal — Exhibits A and B of premature self-congratulation. Both sites have a handful of new buildings, but full development could take decades.

“It isn’t true ‘We won by losing,’ because [hosting] the Olympics would’ve pushed this agenda much further ahead,” David said. “Look at the Hudson rail yards. It’s supposed to be the next great Rockefeller Center. Well, the Olympics are about to start in London, and we’re not about to put the platform up that’s needed for that development, because there aren’t any tenants for it yet.”

New Yorkers were divided in 2005 about the merits of hosting the Olympics, and they continue to split over whether the crowds that would’ve converged and the development that would have ensued would have been good or bad for the metropolitan area.

“I think it would have been lots of fun and definitely help the area a lot,” said Kevin Li, 26, outside the Aquatic Center in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, where water polo games were slated to be held under the city’s proposal.

Nearby, Wayne Conti, 60, disagreed.

“Sometimes it turns out afterwards that in their rush to build they didn’t really build the right things and you’re kind of stuck with it afterwards,” he said.

Andrew Wong, 40, a Queens resident who works on the Far West Side sees both sides.

“For most of us regular working folks it would have wreaked havoc on our everyday lives,” he said.

But he noted development in the area, which is inevitable, would have moved forward more quickly and coherently, if the city had to build a stadium and whip the largely industrial area into shape by 2012.

“When you have a deadline everything falls into place. All the politics, all the deadlock with the government — everybody finds a way to make things happen. When you don't have a deadline, everything stretches out forever.”

Perhaps not forever. But for Hudson Yards, Hunters Point and other areas in the city’s Olympic bid book, it could take a while.

Whether New Yorkers think that’s a good or bad thing depends on whether they believe urban development, like the Olympics, should be Faster, Higher, Stronger — or they prefer a different approach, like Slow and steady wins the race. 

Guia Maria Del Prado and Jorteh Senah contributed reporting 

Correction: The original version of this article misidentified Crain's New York Business columnist Greg David. WNYC regrets the error.

West Side Stadium: A new stadium was proposed for the West Side of Manhattan on top of the rail yards at 11th Avenue and 33rd Street. The stadium was to host opening and closing ceremonies as well as track and field events.

( NYC2012/Neoscape )
Today, the land is under construction with plans for high-rise apartments, office and retail space.
Today, the land is under construction with plans for high-rise apartments, office and retail space. ( Jorteh Senah for WNYC )
The Javits Convention Center was to host wrestling, judo, tae kwon do, fencing, weightlifting and table tennis. The plan was to renovate the structure to host the events.
The Javits Convention Center was to host wrestling, judo, tae kwon do, fencing, weightlifting and table tennis. The plan was to renovate the structure to host the events. ( Jorteh Senah for WNYC )
The West Side Rail Yards in Manhattan
The West Side Rail Yards in Manhattan ( Jorteh Senah )

Williamsburg waterfront: The original plan called for the construction of temporary venues for volleyball and an aquatics center on former industrial land on the Williamsburg waterfront. A permanent pool and beach volleyball arena would have remained for competitions after the Olympics.

( NYC2012/Neoscape )
Williamsburg today.
Williamsburg today. ( Guia Marie Del Prado for WNYC )
Williamsburg today.
Williamsburg today. ( Guia Marie Del Prado for WNYC )

Olympic Village, Long Island City: The waterfront site would've been surrounded by water on three sides and had 4,400 apartments for the 16,000 athletes, coaches and officials. After the games, planners hoped to continue to develop the waterfront and lease or sell the apartments on the market.

( NYC2012/Neoscape )
Long Island City today.
Long Island City today. ( Guia Marie Del Prado for WNYC )
Long Island City today.
Long Island City today. ( Guia Marie Del Prado for WNYC )
Long Island City today.
Long Island City today. ( Guia Marie Del Prado for WNYC )
Long Island City today.
Long Island City today. ( Guia Marie Del Prado for WNYC )
Proposed Olympic water polo pool for 2012.
Proposed Olympic water polo pool for 2012.

Flushing Meadow Corona Park: The Olympic Water Polo Center here was built, despite the fact New York lost the bid.

( NYC2012/Neoscape )

Bronx Olympic Velodrome and Arena: This Olympic cycling track was to be built on the Harlem waterfront and would've been the only indoor velodrome on the east coast, according to planners at the time. 

( NYC2012/Neoscape )

369th Regiment Olympic Arena: This arena would be part of the Olympic Riverfront cluster and would be renovated for a multi-sport arena that could hold other events after the Olympics.

( NYC2012/Neoscape )

Madison Square Garden: Basketball games would've been held here.

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Olympic Whitewater Center at Flushing Meadow Corona Park: The proposed canoe and kayak course was to be hosted at the site known as the Fountain of the Planets, which was built for the 1964 World's Fair. The 290-meter course would've been the first artificial canoe and kayak slalom on the east coast.

( NYC2012/Neoscape )

Olympic Hockey at Baker's Field: This Columbia University field would be renovated to host Olympic hockey in Upper Manhattan.  

( NYC2012/Neoscape )

Fort Wadsworth Road Cycling Course, Staten Island: This 10.6 mile course at at Greenbelt Park-Fresh Kills area in Staten Island would start beneath the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and snake through residential neighborhoods, parks and an open reservoir. 

( NYC2012/Neoscape )

Greenbelt Olympic Equestrian Center, Staten Island: Following the games, organizers planned to keep the park as a permanent site for equestrian activities. 

( NYC2012/Neoscape )

Giants Stadium at Meadowlands Olympic Complex: This is where Olympic soccer would be played.

( NYC2012/Neoscape )

Flushing Meadows Corona Park Tennis Center: This site already exists.

( NYC2012/Neoscape )

Olympic Fencing Hall at Javits Center:   The proposed fencing center was expected to have 8,000 seats and after the games it would be part of the new multi-sport arenas at the Javits Center which would host championship games.

( NYC2012/Neoscape )

Richmond Olympic Softball Stadium: This stadium on the northern tip of Staten Island has already been built.

( NYC2012/Neoscape )

Brooklyn Olympic Arena:  This is where Olympic gymnastics would be held. The arena was to be designed by Frank Gehry.

( NYC2012/Neoscape )

Staten Island Olympic Cycling Center: An Olympic mountain biking and BMX course was to be held here. After the games, organizers planned to make this part of the permanent effort to reclaim the Fresh Kills landfill.

( NYC2012/Neoscape )

Central Park: This was the site proposed to hold the Triathlon.

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Gateway Park Olympic Marina at Rockaway Point and Breezy Point Roxbury: The sailing competitions would be held in the Atlantic Ocean here. 

( NYC2012/Neoscape )

Olympic Modern Pentathlon Center, at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx: The five components of the pentathlon would be held on the Long Island Sound. The beach front would house a temporarily renovated pavilion for shooting, fencing and swimming.

( NYC2012/Neoscape )

Olympic Handball Arena at Nassau Coliseum: A single hall here with 16,000 seats would host handball matches.

( NYC2012/Neoscape )
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