The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the Olympics Washington didn’t win could still transform the city

Planners of Washington’s 2024 Olympic bid clustered events in transit-accessible nodes along the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. (Image courtesy of Gensler)


For more than a year, some of Washington’s most accomplished architects, engineers and planners assembled a vision for how the region could look a decade from now. Huddled in secret brainstorming meetings, they plotted the most idyllic Washington and inner suburbs they could imagine for living, working, visiting and admiring.

They dreamed of a city that had addressed its transit woes, harnessed the potential of both its rivers and escaped its reputation as a breeding ground for political dysfunction.

Their goal was to win the 2024 Summer Olympic Games. And they failed.

But even though Washington lost the Olympic bid, their plan presents a strong case for still executing that vision. Now, for the first time, we get to see the details: the closely held architectural renderings and transportation schemes for how the city would have rapidly transformed over the course of the next 10 years.

Because every bidding city now has to demonstrate how its infrastructure investments will have benefits for years to come — no vacant stadiums or other white elephants that litter the host cities of yesteryear — Washington’s Olympic plan is a master road map for the city’s future.

“We wanted to get the Olympics, but, more than that, we thought this would be a transformational vision for the city,” said Jordan Goldstein, managing director at the architecture firm Gensler, who led the effort. “It was really important for us to show the Washington of tomorrow, not the Washington of 20 years ago.”

During the jockeying to host the 2024 Games, the Washington area achieved something fleeting: cooperation among two governors, a legion of county officials, members of Congress from both parties and a slate of powerful corporate executives and philanthropists. These are many of the same individuals who have long failed to successfully address chronic issues facing the region, among them financial problems at Metro, the deterioration of infrastructure like the Memorial Bridge, environmental regulations and housing affordability.

When the U.S. Olympic Committee selected Boston in January, it ended the idea that Washington would host the Olympics any time soon. But that blueprint for the region’s future remains, idling on a server in Gensler’s K Street office building.

[USOC chooses Boston over D.C. as its candidate to bid for 2024 Summer Games]

In the past months since losing the bid, some local leaders have inquired with the Olympic planning team about how to still incorporate their ideas. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said in a speech that she had challenged her economic development team “to figure out how we can harness [the bid’s] immense thought power and influence around this country, to make sure that we continue to focus on how we speed up development.”

Big events and deadlines mobilize action, but there’s no reason we need an Olympic bid to pull off bold changes. The price tag for the original plan was in excess of $10 billion, but Washington would have been on its own to raise those funds regardless. So why don’t we just build it anyway?

The planning team has shared their blueprint exclusively with The Washington Post. Here is a look at five ways the region could carry forward the torch they lit.

When French engineer Pierre L’Enfant laid out his plan for America’s new capital, he created a grid of urban streets and grand boulevards connected by public squares and circles. More than 200 years later, many of those have become symbols of the world’s most powerful city — the National Mall, Lafayette Square in front of the White House — tread by the 19 million annual visitors to Washington.

Not so for the eastern end of the city. Though the terminuses of East Capitol Street and Massachusetts Avenue, along the Anacostia River, featured just as prominently in L’Enfant’s original plan, that area’s potential has largely gone unfulfilled.

The architects behind the 2024 bid saw no architectural reason for that imbalance to continue. They viewed the L’Enfant plan as a documented road map for where the city was always destined to go. It gave them a critical advantage when mapping the District’s future. “No other city had this,” Goldstein said.

[D.C.’s team begins laying out plan to host 2024 Summer Olympic Games]

Working with the firm Brailsford & Dunlavey on facilities and Clark Construction to estimate costs, the 2024 team plotted to build a new Redskins stadium either on the site where RFK stadium currently stands or on Poplar Point. They envisioned turning the Pepco facilities on Benning Road into a jobs hub. And they decided that Hill East, a 67-acre waterfront parcel next to RFK, should become affordable housing, a top priority for the District. During the Olympic Games, these would have temporarily served as the main stadium, a broadcast center and the Olympic Village, respectively.

Every elected mayor in the District’s history has tried to revitalize neighborhoods along the Anacostia, so this is no easy bit of work. The 2024 planners did not solve difficult problems such as where to put an existing methadone clinic or what to do with the D.C. Jail.

But other aspects of this development are already afoot. District officials have nearly completed a study on how to redevelop the RFK property. The Redskins have begun discussing a new stadium. And construction will begin next year on a 354-unit apartment building with ground-floor retail at Hill East.

Goldstein said opening up this “eastern gateway” would be easier than he first expected. The streets already feel connected to Capitol Hill and downtown through the historic plan, and much of the needed land is controlled by just two entities, the District government and the National Park Service.

In Goldstein’s mind, the cameras for the 2024 Olympic Games would swoop down the Anacostia River from Prince George’s County to the Olympic stadium and show a new side of Washington to the world. “The idea was to create a front door out of something that was a back door, and that should still be the idea,” he said.

The District may not be growing by 1,000 people a month, as it was a year or so ago, but the population is still increasing and the property values have risen so quickly that many residents view the high price of housing as one of the area’s major stumbling blocks.

As part of the 2024 team’s mission, they had to envision how the city would operate with its normal population plus millions of fans and 17,000 athletes and officials. It was an exercise in examining the pressure points that a larger population would put on the city’s infrastructure.

Washington already has the logistics in place to host massive singular events such as presidential inaugurations, Fourth of July celebrations, the Cherry Blossom festival and days when the Nationals, Wizards and D.C. United play on the same day. But the three-week-long Olympics called for more lasting improvements, some of which the region might borrow as it grows.

The organizers copied an idea from London, which created dedicated traffic lanes for shuttles between events when it played host. They proposed pulling out parking meters along Independence Avenue, creating a new lane in each direction for transit.

They also figured out how to add a Metro station at what could be a small fraction of the usual cost. The key was to insert it along an existing line, eliminating the need to dig new tunnels. Just as an above-ground station was added for NoMa behind Union Station and is in the works for Potomac Yard in Alexandria, the 2024 team imagined tacking on an additional Orange Line station beside RFK stadium, though closer to the Anacostia River.

The topography was such that passengers would be able to walk right from the train platform into the Olympic Stadium. Like the station at Reagan National Airport, they also proposed adding a third, middle track where trains could stop at the stadium and turn back without disrupting regular trains heading in either direction. Such improvements would be useful for the region even without the Olympic Games, to ease congestion during large sporting and cultural events.

“You have the capacity in the city to do these types of things. You don’t have to reinvent your transportation system,” said Robert B. Schiesel of Gorove-Slade, a transportation consulting firm that worked on the bid.

L’Enfant planned the nation’s capital from the Potomac River to the Anacostia River, and although boating and recreation opportunities along the Anacostia have dramatically increased in the past decade, there is a long way to go before it becomes the asset it could be.

Ted Leonsis for one, would like to see people swimming in the Anacostia from a beach along its shores. The Wizards, Capitals and Mystics owner, who served as vice chair of the 2024 effort, has given speeches about the importance of cleaning the Anacostia and has touted its potential.

“Sadly, the Anacostia has been neglected. If we clean it up, only good things occur for our community and our next generation,” Leonsis wrote in a blog post.

Though the USOC judges have left, the needs of the Anacostia remain. Fish there regularly sprout tumors, and cleanup efforts to make the river swimmable are expected to take at least another decade and cost potentially more than $1 billion.

[A swimmable Anacostia River? Something to look forward to]

Andrew Altman, a former director of planning in the District, created a framework for revitalizing the Anacostia under Mayor Anthony Williams. He then went on to plan the London Games. Altman said the District has “made good on a lot of parts that dream” for the Anacostia waterfront and that as the river becomes more of an attraction, the entire region’s center of gravity would move east — helping residents and investors see the river “more as a center of the city than the edge of the city.”

The 2024 organizers envisioned events up and down both rivers, taking place at National Harbor in Prince George’s County, along the redeveloped Southwest Waterfront, on East and West Potomac Park and in Arlington at Long Bridge Park, where the team planned an aquatic center for swimming and diving events.

The planners also envisioned a series of new pedestrian bridges, including one that would cross the Anacostia near RFK stadium and a temporary one across the Washington Channel from the Southwest Waterfront to East Potomac Park.

Despite the current toxins in its waters, the Anacostia does have an advantage over the Potomac, the planners decided. Because it is much narrower, it would actually allow for easier and more inviting walks from bank to bank.

“You can walk across the Seine real quick,” said Gensler’s Robert Peck, referring to the river in Paris. “The Potomac is not the same way.”

There is already some momentum here, too. An enormous series of tunnels being dug beneath RFK promises to take out 98 percent of sewage and stormwater overflow in the next decade. And several proposals for improved river access and crossings are already being considered, among them the 11th Street Bridge Park that would span the Anacostia and a gondola that would connect Georgetown to Rosslyn.

Goldstein said he was convinced Washington had “the best technical plan” for a walkable, urban games — and that the USOC said as much in its feedback. He and other organizers of the Olympic bid think the city’s bad political reputation damaged its proposal.

To much of America, sick of partisan gridlock and government dysfunction, “Washington” has become a dirty word. Its association with Congress has led it to poll worse than traffic jams and cockroaches.

Russ Ramsey, who made a mint as an investment banker before chairing the bid, said creating a new image for the city in the eyes of the world was his driving reason for leading the effort.

“Something needs to serve as a catalyst to re-brand Washington, D.C.,” he said. Altman said the team’s plan would have changed the way people think about Washington — from the seat of federal government and the backdrop for “House of Cards,” to a lively city unto itself.

Without the Olympics, Washington can still work to improve its image — and its changing economy could serve as the catalyst. In the past 65 years, the share of the region’s economy attributable to the federal government has consistently lessened, from 38 percent of jobs in 1950 to 12 percent in 2013.

Today, the Washington area has top-notch American restaurants. It also has more and more jobs in technology, media, education and health care, and there is a greater focus on entrepreneurship.

These factors could, in the next decade, provide Washington with homegrown business leaders and benefactors the way Coke has for Atlanta, General Motors has for Detroit and Microsoft has for Seattle. Forget corporate sponsors for the Games. If Washington becomes less of a government town, these emerging private-sector leaders could hold increasing sway over Washington’s growth by 2024.

Local elected leaders often cannot agree on how to fund Metro, alleviate traffic or combat homelessness. They frequently engage one another in nasty bidding wars, just so a company and its jobs will move a few miles into their jurisdiction.

When it came to the 2024 Olympics bid, however, they were almost unanimously on the same page. That is rarely true for the city; it wasn’t the case even when Washington angled for the Olympics in the past. Peck worked on the 2012 bid, which proposed holding events from Baltimore to Richmond as a way of placating political needs. Back then, he said, “there was this sense that everybody needed their shot at this thing. This time, everybody came together.”

For the region to do big things in the future, Ramsey said it will have to find additional opportunities to get big corporate philanthropists on the same page as public officials and community leaders.

During the bid, Ramsey several times spoke glowingly of Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who is putting millions of dollars of investments and donations into Detroit. Gilbert is driving the city’s resurgence.

It’s possible we could witness something similar in the District — partly because government budgets are strapped. “You can argue what you want, but we don’t have rich governments anymore,” Ramsey said.

He also said that because governments aren’t addressing these big problems, such as traffic, it’s creating more opportunity and necessity for public-private cooperation. “Somehow you have got to get the governors at least talking about an outer beltway and some larger, major planning,” he said, “because these choke points are going to be an economic drag.”

The question is, who will be the private-sector leader for the future of Washington? Ramsey? Leonsis? Is either ready to continue the effort now that the USOC judges have left town? Ramsey said he is mulling what role would fit him best.

“I hope we’ll keep it going,” Ramsey said. “I just need a path to the win.”

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz