Forget the gleaming Olympic Stadium, the aero­dynamic velodrome and the Orbit observation deck that looks like a deconstructed Eiffel Tower. Of all the new buildings going up in this city’s downtrodden district of Stratford ahead of the 2012 Summer Games, the one the locals can’t stop talking about is the mall.

Perhaps that’s no surprise when the mall in question is the largest urban shopping center in Europe, luring 10,000 jobs and the likes of Prada and Hugo Boss to a quarter of East London better known for tough housing projects and Britain’s highest unemployment rate. Located right across from the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the mall is underscoring Britain’s push to use the Games to transform a hardscrabble swath of London nearly one-third the size of Manhattan.

For the Beijing Games four years ago, China rolled out an astounding $40 billion citywide upgrade that saw the rise of architectural glories even as whole neighborhoods were displaced. In contrast, observers say, London’s $15 billion effort is shaping up as the most targeted attempt in a generation to improve life in a poor area of a host city.

The London Games, commencing in July, will also showcase sites far more familiar to a global audience — think tennis at Wimbledon, triathlon at Hyde Park and beach volleyball a spike away from No. 10 Downing Street. But leading experts say the move to concentrate new Olympics-related construction and its longer-term benefits in historically poor neighborhoods will amount to a test case of just how much the Olympics can be leveraged to effect social change.

“The UK is doing several things different from past host cities,” said Joe Montgomery, Europe chief executive of the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit foundation of developers, architects and urban planners. “They’ve made these Games relatively compact, focusing on one area in clear need of urban regeneration. But they’ve also started planning for the legacy of the Games years earlier than other host cities. This is novel, and London’s approach could emerge as a model for future host cities.”

A map locating the Stratford neighborhood in London, England. (By Laris Karklis/The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
Shaping a legacy

Still, Olympic legacies — or the marks left on cities after the Games — are notoriously hard to predict, with examples ranging from Barcelona’s remarkable rebirth of a derelict waterfront in 1992 to the piles of debt and abandoned stadiums left after the 2004 Games in Athens. And there are substantial challenges to the push for long-term change in East London.

Just a 25-minute ride on the London Underground from Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, Stratford still feels a world away. A densely packed neighborhood of immigrants, the elderly and the British underclasses, it experienced only drops of the rapid gentrification that swept over London in recent years as the city became the preferred playground of Saudi sheiks, American bankers and Russian oligarchs.

By relying partly on collapsible stadiums to be removed after the closing ceremonies, London is moving to avoid the damaging white elephants left after the Games in Athens and even Beijing. But there may be at least one: Stratford’s spanking-new international rail terminal, where planners once envisioned direct links to Paris on the Eurostar bullet train.

Although the terminal enjoys a new eight-minute direct service to the major London rail hub at St. Pancras — where high-speed trains to Europe now depart — no company has yet pledged to link Stratford directly to continental Europe and, thus, open a sought-after engine of growth.

Nevertheless, the clutter of cranes on the Stratford skyline suggests the speed and scope of the redevelopment effort.

Here in Stratford, an ugly lattice of toxic canals, dilapidated warehouses and piled-up scrap heaps has been replaced with the Olympic Park — London’s largest new green space since the 1700s. A major British university is negotiating to open a new campus near the park, which will also house one of London’s most advanced new schools for 1,800 children ages 3 to 18.

South of the Olympic Park, German giant Siemens has unveiled plans to build an eco-museum to display sustainable technologies to schoolchildren and tourists. Swedish retailer Ikea is putting up a 26-acre environmentally sensitive “model village” with 1,200 homes, office space and a 350-room hotel. Internet upgrades for the Games, meanwhile, will give a neighborhood once known as “Stinky Stratford” — for its flows of waste and pollution — the more pleasing distinction of overtaking Daegu, South Korea, to claim the fastest broadband on Earth.

Planning ahead

After the Games, temporary stadiums will be replaced with landscaping and new structures, among them roughly 15,000 family-size apartments. The Olympic Village will be remodeled and sold off as condos by a Qatari investment fund, with one-third reserved for low-income residents. More than 2 million square feet of commercial space could anchor further job growth.

“Since the Brits don’t do basketball, why keep the basketball stadium?” said Rickey Burdett, professor of urban studies at the London School of Economics. “After the Games, it would have ended up like the taekwondo stadium in Athens, surrounded by chain-link fences and roaming wild dogs.”

Grand plans to transform depressed parts of East London predate the city’s Olympic bid. But by planning for post-Games uses years earlier than some previous host cities, observers say, London has managed to speed up regeneration in Stratford by at least a decade. The massive new mall, for instance, opted to start construction six years earlier than initially planned to tap into Olympic fever.

Still, experts caution it is too early to judge London’s success. To its credit, the city — which won the Games in 2005 — is the first host to have a long-term plan for every new permanent venue built before the events even begin. Of those eight venues, six have contracts for new owners after the Games end. But a few key deals must still be worked out, including who will take over the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium. And even if London’s urban regeneration effort goes as planned, its success may be hard to replicate.

Though Stratford, Hackney and other East London neighborhoods are indeed home to some of Britain’s worst pockets of urban poverty, they are also blessed with pre-existing pluses that future Olympic host cities might not enjoy — including 11 convenient rail and subway lines. That and their proximity to the bankers’ paradise at Canary Wharf make them prime candidates for regeneration.

Yet in a global capital where the average center city rent tops $6,000 a month, gentrification can be a terrifying thing for the poor. Though only 430 residents were relocated to make room for the new Olympic Park — compared with tens of thousands or more in Beijing — some Stratford residents fear they may be pushed out later.

To capture benefits for locals, Olympic organizers and city officials moved early to secure dedicated pools of jobs and new housing. At least 2,500 positions at the new Westfield mall — which has a 96 percent occupancy rate and is drawing about 800,000 visitors a week since its September opening — were set aside for locals, many of whom attended a newly established retail academy set up to retrain unemployed residents.

In addition, in a community with a 10-year waiting list for public housing, roughly 35 percent of new units going up inside the Olympic Park will be earmarked for low-income residents. But given the Conservative-led British government’s recent welfare reforms, most of the new units will be offered on less generous terms than existing public housing.

Community activists have cautiously welcomed the Games. But for some poor residents in Stratford, fears of being pushed out are an already materializing reality. From his living room window, Osita Madu, a 38-year-old unemployed Nigerian immigrant, can see the beautiful new Olympic Stadium. But perhaps not for long. The Stratford public housing complex that he and dozens of other poor residents call home — and where some have lived for decades — appears set to be demolished to make room for a new university campus.

“They’re going to drive people like us out,” Madu said. “Even if we find somewhere else to live nearby, rents will go higher, and then what? We move again. They’re improving the neighborhood, but a lot of us might not be around to see it.”

Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.