London Succeeds Where Prior Olympics Fail for DerelictThomas Penny
A lime green fence surrounds the future site of a 330-year-old ballet company’s hip-hop academy and a new campus for a university boasting 28 Nobel Prizes.
The eclectic combination marks the latest phase in the transformation of an east London toxic-waste dump into an urban oasis that has drawn planners from around the world. Two years ago, it attracted athletes and spectators to the Olympic Games.
While cities from Athens to Sydney have struggled to make use of facilities built for their games, London has used them as a springboard to breathe new life into the Stratford district, spurring the eastward development of the U.K. capital.
“The perception of Stratford as a no-go area has completely evaporated and it’s become an area to go to rather than avoid,” said Dennis Hone, chief executive officer of the London Legacy Development Corporation. “This is about economic growth in this area, rebalancing the London economy and job creation.”
London’s winning bid in 2005 featured their impact on the city as a central rationale. Then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said they would be “not only a celebration of sport but a force for regeneration.”
The future usefulness of venues was assessed and, where it couldn’t be guaranteed, the planners put up temporary structures, including the basketball and hockey arenas, which were taken down after the closing ceremony. They also located the media center, which they said has the best fiber-optic connections in the U.K., where it could link with East London Tech City, an arc of media and technology companies stretching to Old Street’s “silicon roundabout.”
“The key thing was legacy, which was there from the beginning; it can’t be retrofitted,” said Allan Brimicombe, a professor of geo-information overseeing the state-funded Economic and Social Research Council’s Olympic Impact study. “Having cross-party agreement meant the workings of government suspended the ‘can’t-do’ attitude and put in place a ‘can-do’ attitude.”
That approach is alive and well in Hone’s office, 10 floors above east London. On a wooden model of the Olympic park, plastic blocks indicate the buildings that will be occupied by a 600-seat theater for the Sadlers Wells ballet company, its hip-hop school, a branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum and facilities for University College London.
Mayor Boris Johnson also has championed the development under the name “Olympicopolis,” a nod to “Albertopolis,” an 86-acre complex of museums and arts and educational facilities in west London built by Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, with the proceeds of the 1851 Great Exhibition.
The park, which opened to the public in April, has drawn crowds attracted by meadows of wildflowers, a cycle park and the chance to pay 3.50 pounds ($6) to swim in the pool where Michael Phelps broke the Olympic medal record. From 2016, the Olympic stadium will host professional soccer as the new home of West Ham United. Work has started on the building where the Financial Conduct Authority, the U.K. financial-services watchdog, will be based, next to tech firms and Westfield Corp.’s Stratford City shopping center.
It is all a far cry from the one-time railroad yard covered with factories and waste dumps that then-Mayor Ken Livingstone earmarked as the location for the 2012 games. The lure was spending 30 years of development money in less than a decade. Some 2.3 million cubic meters of contaminated soil had to be cleaned before work could begin.
No White Elephants
The transformation, and the lack of unused facilities -- a panel of House of Lords lawmakers said they hunted for “white elephants” and didn’t find any -- has drawn interest from cities including Philadelphia, Boston and Tokyo. They want to learn from London’s management of the 8.77 billion-pound Olympics.
In the midst of the success story, critics say locals are being squeezed out as the Legacy Corporation seeks to repay its debts to the government. In April, the corporation’s planning committee voted to reduce the target for affordable housing to 31 percent from 35 percent, which jeopardizes Straw’s promise of “transformation for the people of the area,” said Penny Bernstock, head of sociology at the University of East London and author of a book about the housing legacy of the games.
“If every time we regenerate a place it becomes unaffordable to people on low incomes, or even middle incomes, that’s a real problem,” Bernstock said. “East London has traditionally housed working-class populations -- where are they going to live?”
The area’s been swept up in the London-wide boom. The average price of a home in the wards around the Olympic Park has increased to 282,915 pounds from 195,415 pounds, or 44.5 percent, in the nine years since London was awarded the games, according to data compiled by Savills Plc, a London-based property company. The average gross annual pay of workers in Newham, the borough that includes most of the park and stretches to the east, was 27,000 pounds in 2011, according to the Office of National Statistics.
A marker for economic success will be the first train to leave Stratford International rail station for continental Europe. Its name notwithstanding, no one has traveled out of England from the station, which was built as part of the Olympic development. Eurostar Group Ltd., which operates cross-channel trains, has resisted requests to add a stop there to its services to Paris and Brussels.
“All the research we do with passengers is they don’t see the benefit of stopping outweighing the additional journey time,” Eurostar spokesman Leigh Calder said.
For Hone, the buildings going in now are just the first phase. He’ll know the project has worked when they start to be knocked down and new ones put in to replace them.
“You know it’s a success when it reinvents itself, when the private sector does it without pump priming from the public sector,” he said, citing the cranes that populate the U.K. capital’s skyline as evidence of the city’s constant renewal. “If it’s as good as the rest of London it will never be finished.”