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Pie in the Sky or in the Oven Baking?: The 2012 Olympics in Williamsburg

image by Gabriel Held

Members of NYC2012, the privately funded non-profit group serving as New York’s Olympic bid committee, came to Williamsburg community groups over a year ago with a slickly packaged plan to make the five boroughs over into an Olympic city. Local leaders took in the dreamy computer renderings of bright green fields and gleaming waterways, shook themselves and went back to work. “it was so pie-in-the-sky at the time,” says Peter Gillespie, founder and head of Neighbors Against Garbage (NAG), one of the groups the bid committee met with. Community Board One, NAG, and other groups, asked a few specific questions at the time about what Olympic spoils their neighborhoods might see. “Maybe we should give them a call,” Gillespie muses now.

He is sure to get someone attentive on the line at NYC2012, which continues to pitch the Olympics to New York and to pitch New York to the post-World Trade Center world. Now, as ever, according to founder Dan Doctoroff, two essential reasons exist to host the Olympics in New York City. One is the Games’ symbolic value, which he contends was present long before September 11. “I founded the whole effort to host the Olympics on the notion that New York’s spirit and people are what the Olympics is really about,” he says, citing New York’s traditions of fostering competition, bringing cultures together, and providing “a place where people can go to pursue their dreams.” That said, he also admits the symbolic pull of the Games is strong after the events in which “terrorists struck at the promise that New York offers the world , which happens to be the same thing the Olympics represent.”

With flags whipping and bagpipes heaving in New York’s breeze these days, Doctoroff could almost win the city over on symbolism alone. But practical New Yorkers will still want to know more about his second reason to host the Games—what we’re going to get, measured in concrete. NYC2012 has a grand vision of the “legacy”—stadiums, parks, transportation, and the rest of the infrastructure required of a city playing host to the world—that the Games’ planning projects and deadlines will spur. The necessity to build and finish such facilities on time “has created an almost magical sense of focus in communities” that have done it in the past, Doctoroff avers. “As great as I believe an event like the Olympics would be,” he says, “this isn’t worth doing if it’s only about seventeen days in 2012.”

In northern Brooklyn, Olympic planners are focused on a site that has suffered under other legacies for more than twenty years. When the Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal closed its rail-to-barge operation in 1979, the stretch of land between Kent Avenue and the East River, from N. 4th to N. 11th Streets, became a campsite for the homeless, who were displaced in 1984 by a waste transfer station. The station closed only to make way for a “clean” fill operation, a heap of construction-related debris. In 1994, when it seemed likely to Peter Gillespie and his cohorts that, with tipping fees raised at waste transfer stations, the entire waterfront would be seized by garbage, they formed NAG to advocate for community use of waterfront land and to protest being surrounded by dumps.

“Our vision has always been to have the site be as much public open space as possible,” says Gillespie. When NAG successfully fought off the waste transfer industry, the vacant portion of the land in between 7th and 9th Streets became an unstructured, spontaneous open space. It provided an outlet to the water, where women in bathing suits sometimes set up their plastic chairs on the “beach” facing Manhattan; skateboarders built a “volcano” ramp; local artists exhibited their work; and movies were shown in the summer. Audiences sat on a bed of concrete just a short, ankle-twisting walk from the dead end of 7th Street.

That stretch of the waterfront has been less accessible since New York State agreed to buy the six acres between 7th and 9th, began repairing fence gaps, and destroyed the skateboarding structure. NAG helped solidify the agreement between the state, which bought the site through the Trust for Public Land, and NYU, which will lease and manage the future park for 49 years, offering what is not in use by their athletic teams to the public, about fifty percent of the time. Proponents of parks on the old terminal site trudged the long way through bureaucratic negotiations and community meetings to create a semi-public green space on the post-industrial land. The deal with NYU “wasn’t our first choice by any stretch of the imagination,” says Julie Lawrence, head of Community Board One’s Waterfront Committee. But it was also a small triumph for open space advocates, who lost a bid for another part of the old BEDT site, between 4th and 6th Streets, to 4Gs Trucking, and who continue to face industrial and financial obstacles to making the waterfront public.

Contested former industrial site, meet the cosmetic imperative of beach volleyball. If the U.S. Olympic Committee selects New York over contenders like Houston, Washington D.C., and San Francisco in 2002, and if the International Olympic Committee then picks New York instead of a town like Rio or Johannesburg or Rome (the Italian city has promised, in that case, to bow out and hand the sympathy vote to New York) in 2005, NYC2012 will become the New York Olympic Committee. And the BEDT site will, in one fell swoop, become “Williamsburg Waterfront Park,” 25 acres of trees and grass, and 20,000 stadium seats for new beach volleyball courts and archery fields.

The Olympic proposal provides for more open space on north Brooklyn’s waterfront than local community groups could hope to get on their own. Its approval would confer $96 million and a ticket to ride through development obstacles that community planners can’t easily overcome. The City would be called upon to help or condemn the site and clear the way for building on the Olympic schedule. “We would like to see our vision realized through a rational planning process and recognition of community need,” says Peter Gillespie. The Olympic planners are not deaf to community concerns, but their sweeping approach would somehow be less than a victory for groups who have been chipping away at business and government to make room for green.

“It’s kind of a fallback position for us, and for that reason we support it,” says Gillespie of New York’s bid. “There are not so many other ways to create open space right now, except as an attachment to a private development.” At this stage, no community is counting on the Olympic initiative to accomplish planning goals. Gillespie says, “If everything else fails, that possibility is still there.” But if New York is selected, the possibility will become a mandate.

This is not to say that NYC2012’s job is or will be easy. The group takes the planning effort seriously, and they have done what Julie Lawrence of Community Board One calls “the right kind of outreach” to community organizations. For three years, NYC 2012 has been poring over surveys of every tax lot and every park in New York, finding at least as many vacant industrial sites and brownfields as existing sports and housing facilities, to construct their extensive plan—the bid they submitted to the USOC was over 600 pages long. President Dan Doctoroff, who was managing partner of an investment firm before he took to nonprofit work, says that NYC2012 has worked with every “key” city and state agency in its three years of privately funded planning. “In terms of the overall idea, I don’t think there’s been a single politician who’s come out opposed, and they’ve cut across ethnic lines,” he says. He estimates that around a thousand people have contributed to the planning efforts behind the bid.

Smaller, younger cities have caught on to the fact that the Olympics provide great PR. Atlanta was seldom pronounced in Japanese before it was announced as host of the 1996 Games. (It’s my home-town, and I found it much easier after 1993 or so to tell people where I was from and have them understand.) But the truly great cities—and those making the New York bid seem to consider it a pitiable oversight that Olympic officials have overlooked the greatest great city for over a hundred years—aren’t fighting for press. New York’s profit from the Games will be more than simply an image buff or just cold cash—instead, it will be a master plan, a “legacy,” to supplant the dominance of Robert Moses at last. The city could engineer an urban overhaul that would affirm its world supremacy and gratify its own inhabitants, with private funds that assure its comparably efficient execution.

The Olympics thus seem sometimes like a mere rallying point for NYC2012, which has emerged as an urban planning caucus on other topics as well, with the credibility-enhancing help of Planning Director Alexander Garvin, a New York City Planning Commissioner and Yale’s sole remaining professor of Urban Studies. NYC2012’s literature notes that the Games provide “a historic opportunity to modernize key parts of our aging infrastructure, especially mass transit.” Of eighteen planned new ferry stops, Doctoroff predicts that half would remain viable for commuting and recreation afterward. There are 15 ferry lines today, up from only one (the Staten Island Ferry) in 1986, and the trend in waterborne transortation might feasibly take off. A newly constructed light rail system would run from the Meadowlands in New Jersey to Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, and a new stop would be added to the number 7 line on the far west side of Manhattan.

Olympic planners would also have a hand in housing and other building, converting the Olympic Village in Queens into a mixed-use residential development, and creating a stadium on the west side of Manhattan, a building whose conception has already been so politically divisive that it can hardly be regarded as a mere sporting facility. Olympic advocates tout the community benefit of that structure: to Doctoroff, it is “really not a stadium, but an expanded Javits Center,” and, with its sprawling, park-like Olympic Square, is part of a master plan that would create a “vibrant 24-hour community” out of an area full of auto-body shops. Its planned muti-million-dollar conversion for the New York Jets would be the most significant alteration needed for future use of any of the venues, and it dramatizes the paradox of shaping ambitious, long-term urban plans around brief sporting events. It is hard to imagine the two-week Olympic imperative will always coincide with the long-term needs of the communities that will inherit the world-class facilities. Plans for a swimmable Central Park Reservoir may be the only ones to meet no resistance.

NAG’s Peter Gillespie has a condition for supporting the Williamsburg Waterfront Park: “that it be handed over to the community for community benefit and use” after the Games are over. That seems to be what NYC2012 plans, but there is no way to tell how other public and private entities might take over from the Games’ early organizers. After seventeen days of glory, the volleyball stadium on the East River would come down, though some sand would remain to gratify neighborhood beach bums. Much of the stadium seating would supposedly turn back into brass. And the NYU/State Park would resurface on six of 25 acres, with handball and basketball courts for those urban competitors who haven’t learned to draw a bow or serve a ball in bare feet. By that time, the NYU deal may seem an almost quaint memorial to the old methods of planning, a prototype of the public-private partnership that prefigured the Olympic clean sweep.


Phoebe Nobles

Phoebe Nobles is a free-lance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.


The Brooklyn Rail

JAN-FEB 2002

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