Londoners Hang High Hopes on Olympics

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BLOOMBERG: We will transform a thousand square miles of our city into new or enhanced park lands we will create whole new venues along the rivers that we for so long walled our selves off from…we will create new neighborhoods where nobody goes and there’s no economic activity.

For Mayor Bloomberg hosting the 2012 olympic games is great way to draw private sector investment to transform New York neighborhoods, build sports facilities, and parks. But in other countries vying to host the 2012 games, the Olympics vision extends even further. The Olympics are seen as a catalyst to correct social ills. WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein visited London and Paris. Here’s the first of two reports.

Here I am, 3500 miles from the West Side of Manhattan, 22 floors up, looking down at a what once was a bustling railyard, now a vast field of mud. Inside this empty apartment, walls are full of huge bright maps of a proposed Olympic Park.

IAN EDMONDSON: This is the north side of the Olympic Park

Ian Edmondson is London 2012’s planner. When he looks at the brown dirt under gray skies, he sees the things Olympic planners usually see: a stadium, an aquatic center, a velodrome.

EDMONDSON: And those two towers there sort of the mound of earth in front of that is the Olympic Village area, further to the right.

As in New York, there is a need for all these venues if the city is to host the Olympics. As in New York, there’s hope for post-Olympic uses.

EDMONDSON: This would be the first park in Europe in 150 years.

There is already construction going on here.

EDMONDSON: We need to get you kitted up.

Britain is building a new terminus for the cross channel rail line. To look at it, I’m booted up in huge black Wellington books, and slip on an orange vest, and a hard hat.

Ambience from channel tunnel construction

EDMONDSON: Basically here, we had this is where the train will pull up this is the platform edge that way is Brussels and Paris, Europe 2 hours, that way is London, 7 minutes.

This terminal will stimulate new development in any event, Edmondson acknowledges, just as the extension of the number 7 line to the far West Side will spur commercial and residential projects. But where Manhattan already has some of the richest zip codes in the country, this neighborhood in East London, Stratford, is as poor as the brown dirt that surrounds us and coats our boots. And in a modern British tradition, planners here decided to try to use the Olympics to create housing, jobs, and schools for the poor.

Sebastian Coe -- or “Seb” as he’s known -- is the head of London’s bid for the 2012 Olympics. He’s a slight man, a former middle-distance double gold medalist and a member of Britain’s House of Lords.

COE: Sport is important. It transcends so much of what we like to think of ourselves as and how we define ourselves but yes we are a broad bid, we want to bring benefits to a poor community.

So there it all is, right in the bid book: after the games, London’s Olympic Village would contain fifty percent affordable housing for nurses, doctors, teachers and police officers. By contrast, NYC 2012’s bid book describes its village thus: “Following the games, 4600 new apartments will provide quality housing.” The details of how much of that housing would be affordable have yet to be worked out. It’s not just housing. In New York, the most recognizable symbol of the bid – is the proposed West Side stadium . It would have a life before and after the Olympics as a home for a private sports team, the New York Jets. In London, the 80,000-seat government built and owned stadium would be reduced to 25,000 seats and be used for community events.

COE: is not our wish to leave a sort of plomp down in the middle of that area an intergalactic sporting city there has to be a reason for those facilities and opportunity to maintain them.

Of course, all of this comes at a cost. Unlike New York’s bid, London’s bid is a national bid. The national government, led by Tony Blair, has established a lottery to pay for the Olympics – and the revitalization of East London. And while New York’s bid is nearly entirely privately financed, London’s will be funded in part with a special Olympics “tax,” of about $40 a year for ten years.

COE: I don’t think that philosophically most people in this country have an issue with taxation…and I think most people when they’re asked about that in London recognize that London is a large world capital, it needs facilities.

Of course, there is grumbling. Angie Bray is a conservative member of the London Assembly.

BRAY: We as conservatives would have been keener to have pursued more the New York style and looked at what the private sector may have been able to do in rather greater detail. But this Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone is very much a public sector man, the private sector isn’t something that automatically appeals to him.

The Mayor, known pretty much universally as “Red Ken,” is a socialist to the same extent Michael Bloomberg is a capitalist. While Bloomberg believes that properly targeted private sector investment can lift everyone’s fortunes, Livingstone believes it’s the government’s job to engineer these things.

He’s best known for introducing “congestion pricing” in central London – charging vehicles about $10 a day to drive there during peak times. The result – passengers in buses and cabs whisk through the city in ways you can’t count on in New York at 2 am. The London bid heavily bears “Red Ken’s” stamp. But even conservative Bray admires the way Livingstone wove the strands together.

BRAY: I think there is a way of engaging a lot of people that might not otherwise feel quite so enthusiastic about a large expenditure in one part of London.

Londoners ARE engaged. The publicity for London 2012 is widespread. Bold, bright posters, in the London Underground, museums, theaters, airports, with a simple message: Back the Bid. But, it’s not all strawberries and clotted cream. There’s a deep current of mistrust and pessimism about the government’s ability to properly deliver grand and efficient public projects.

London service announcement.

In the London underground, there are daily announcements of service disruptions, delays, and station closings. That’s an improvement, Londoner’s say, over the days when service was just as bad but there was no information given out.

BRAY: Huh well, I have to say Londoners have some experience of big projects which haven’t been carried through terribly well in the public sector we don’t have a massively good record on that.

Over in East London in the, Stratford shopping centre, a mall not unlike the Fulton Mall in downtown Brooklyn, with some of the same shops, even, neighborhood residents are busy with Sunday shopping. Many worry the Olympics will cost too much, or cause their bus fares to rise. But nurse Becky Sander couldn’t be more optimistic.

SANDER: I think it would be fantastic it would hopefully bring a lot of jobs to the area and improve quality of life for us in London and locally, there’s quite a high rate of unemployment here there are lots of social problems and hopefully the Olympics coming to Stratford that would bring employment into the area.

That is the kind of gold medal dream London 2012 has planted in the British populace.

For WNYC, I’m Andrea Bernstein.