Washington, D.C., bid for 2024 Olympics could help poor neighborhoods and unite the region

Robert McCartney
Columnist September 4, 2013

Before you join the cynics and naysayers who airily dismiss the notion that Washington should bid to host the 2024 Olympics, hear the counsel of a man intimately familiar with both our city and Olympics success.

Andrew Altman headed the District’s Office of Planning from 1999 to 2005 under Mayor Tony Williams, where he won praise for pushing redevelopment of the Anacostia waterfront. More recently, Altman headed a British public corporation that planned the rebirth of London’s blighted East End after it hosted the 2012 Olympics.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Does he think the Olympics could help revitalize struggling neighborhoods in the District (and elsewhere) in similar fashion, at the same time that it united our fragmented region around common goals?

You bet.

“I think it would be fabulous for Washington, having lived in Washington and loved it,” Altman said. “The Olympics are a great motivator to mobilize people regionally around a vision for future growth.”

Let the chorus say, “Amen.”

The effort to land the Olympics moved forward last week with the formal launch of an exploratory group, called DC 2024. It’s led by local business and sports leaders, some of whom worked on the unsuccessful joint bid by Washington and Baltimore to win the 2012 Games.

Washington would be the official host city in 2024, but plenty of events would be held in Maryland and Virginia to take advantage of stadiums and arenas in those states.

For needed new construction, the organizers want to follow the London model of leaving a physical legacy not of “white elephants,” but of buildings and athletic facilities to be used for many years.

Altman said the London Olympics created 20,000 units of housing, of which more than a third is moderate or low cost. The effort also provided training for construction work and other jobs.

“This was in the poorest part of London,” Altman said. “There was a very deliberate strategy with local communities to make sure this was going to benefit them afterward.”

Now consider that the most likely location for a new Olympic stadium would be on the site of aged RFK Stadium, right on the Anacostia and near some neighborhoods that could use a facelift.

As I wrote a year ago when people first started talking publicly about this, seeking the Olympics is a high-risk, high-reward proposition.

We’d have to beat out other U.S. cities to get the American “nomination” in 2015. Top rivals would probably include Los Angeles and Dallas.

Then we’d have to best international competitors — especially Paris — when the International Olympic Committee picks the winner in 2017.

If we won, the upfront price would be steep. The U.S. Olympic Committee estimates a host should plan to spend between $3 billion and $6 billion, and the London effort cost much more.

But the expense should not hold us back. Washington is, after all, the wealthiest metropolitan area in the country. If we can’t afford it, then nobody can.

Moreover, the only cost now is the price of preparing the initial bid, which is $3 million to $5 million over two years. Private donations are covering all of it.

If a bunch of local corporations and wealthy individuals want to spend their money to try to persuade us to make Washington a truly world-class, Olympic city, then the least we can do is give them a fair hearing.

The biggest hurdle now is the wariness among politicians and in parts of the business community. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray cautioned that the city has “finite resources” and stressed that any Olympic facilities to be constructed must have a future use. Some regional business leaders are holding back.

“A lot of people feel they made a major, huge commitment for 2012, and they’re not prepared to make that same kind of commitment now, but we’ll see,” said former mayor Williams, who now is chief executive of the Federal City Council.

“To make it work, you’re going to have to show that it’s worth the effort,” Williams said. “It’s got to be economically feasible and politically defensible.”

No one is arguing with that. But let’s not allow the challenges to blind us to the value of the prize.

“I think there’s a huge positive benefit for what the Olympics can do,” Altman said. In London, he said, “it gave a huge boost to the spirit of the country, spirit of the city. People feel good about what was done.”

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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