Olympics $14 Billion Turns Junkyard Into Meadow, Studios

2012 Olympics
The parklands that will become part of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park after the 2012 Olympics. The ridged landscape, designed by San Francisco landscape architect Hargreaves Associates, and six kilometers of waterway are among elements organizers hope will attract nine million annual visitors. Photographer: Anthony Charlton/Olympic Delivery Authority via Bloomberg

I can see a bit of the London Olympic Stadium as traffic roars next to me along the busy Stratford High Street.

I’m in a neighborhood that is supposed to benefit from London’s 9.3-billion pound ($14.5 billion) investment in the games, which open on July 27. It has a way to go.

London hasn’t built a showy assortment of stadiums and arenas. It has created “a piece of city,” on the 600-acre (80 hectare) main games site, according to Richard Burdett, a former adviser to the Olympic Delivery Authority who directs the London School of Economics’ Cities program.

For a slideshow of the development area, click here.

Organizers targeted London’s games investment to unleash a wave of growth in largely poor, isolated east London neighborhoods. The London Legacy Development Corporation takes charge when the games end.

For all the cash, success is hardly assured.

I learn that on my walk along the busy street with Jamie Hodge, the communications manager of the Stratford Renaissance Partnership.

Amid worn social-housing towers and empty storefronts, you can already see new residential developments that offer views to what will become the lush meadows and waterways of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Developers are also drawn by transportation investments that now bring nine tube and regional-rail lines to the Olympic park’s main entrance at Stratford. Trains whisk people from central London’s St. Pancras station in less than 10 minutes.

Mall Fortress

Unfortunately, spectators will first encounter the needlessly fortresslike Westfield Stratford City mall. It won’t be easy to get them to venture into the neighborhood.

A nearby 26-acre site covered with derelict industrial buildings has greater revitalizing potential.

LandProp, an investment arm of the Ikea home-furnishings chain, has begun renovating historic buildings for housing and commercial space designed to attract tech firms and designers. The Copenhagen urban designer Jan Gehl, known for helping to make New York City streets friendly to pedestrians, is a consultant.

Hodge guides me along winding streets to a 1776 mill driven by the tidal waters of Bow Creek and a restored peaked-roof early 19th-century distillery. This part of London cradled the industrial revolution and industry has shaped the area ever since.

Unexploded Bomb

To prepare the site, organizers dismantled an enormous rail yard, removed piles of spare tires, and cleaned polluted soils (where an unexploded bomb from World War II was found).

A portion of the future park has been prepared for the games. It could be as alluring as any in London’s impressive portfolio.

Landscape architect George Hargreaves has brought meadows, lines of low forest, and water-loving shrubs right to the edge of the Lea River and tributary waterways that lace the park.

After the games, the permanent venues will remain as landmarks amid greenery while bands of new commercial and residential development will extend like fingers into the park from surrounding neighborhoods.

I don’t see the drooping tubular-steel ArcelorMittal Orbit by Anish Kapoor becoming the hoped-for visitor magnet.

The Olympic Delivery Authority estimates that 75 percent of its capital investment will serve subsequent uses.

Future Clubs

A walk through Fish Island and Hackney Wick, neighborhoods just to the west of the games site, offer a glimmer of the future. Brick industrial buildings are getting makeovers for clubs and artist studios.

Trees gracefully overhang a peaceful biking and walking trail along a canal that edges the games site. It had long been an industrial sewer. The Olympics makeover will extend the publicly accessible waterways to six kilometers.

The canals and railway lines will be spanned by some 30 new bike and vehicular bridges. They will link the neighborhoods to development sites, one of which is the massive Olympics broadcast center. It may house studios or tech startups.

The organizers prepared 200 acres for private development, which makes me wonder if it will become a chic realm unto itself (like the massive mall), rather than spurring growth beyond the site.

I visit a commercial street in Leyton, historically short on good jobs, where storefront signs hawk goods in a dizzying variety of scripts and languages. A couple of cross streets lead toward the 2,800 apartments of the athletes’ village.

Mediocre Design

The development is supposed to link Leyton to the luscious parklands, but the mediocre apartment-building design and ennui-inducing streetscape is not the way to lure locals, nor draw a projected total of 9 million annual visitors.

While Hodge spoke of promised additional investments in education and social services, those may be hard to maintain with Britain’s economy still strapped. Success can’t fairly be measured for years, Burdett told me.

Many will be watching. Urban revitalization at this scale and with this cash is all but unknown.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars and Rich Jaroslovsky on technology.

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