This is not a story about how the streets could be paved with gold (medalists, that is), chain-smoking Eurotrash tourists, imperious camera crews, and potentially the worst pop-kitsch deluge since Lionel Richie crooned "All Night Long" in Los Angeles in 1984. It's also not about how that faux ticker-tape parade, staged this month for a promo film, seemed like a bit of a reach -- a high-school nerd going to bizarre lengths to seem cool. The arguments against hosting the 2012 Olympics are legion, and you've heard most of them by now.
What you may not have heard, though, is how the actual plan is equal parts daffy and daring and, yes, extremely cool. The Olympics may or may not be our best hope for bouncing all the way back from September 11 and the coming fiscal crisis. But it's hardly every day that we get a chance to sweepingly reinvent our city.
On November 2, the U.S. Olympic Committee selects either New York or San Francisco. The International Olympic Committee makes the final pick from a global list of nominees in three years. Assuming Mike Bloomberg's ad-lib electioneering in Athens hasn't backfired, we have a decent shot -- yet on paper at least, the Olympics plan has already succeeded. While everyone from the architectural community to the 9/11 victims' families has been hammering lower-Manhattan planners about thinking too small, here, right under our noses, is a plan that thinks really, really big -- bigger than the city has thought since . . . well, since David and Nelson Rockefeller decided to build at the bottom of Manhattan.
February 1996. Alexander Garvin, a Yale professor who headed New York's city-planning commission during the Koch years, gets a phone call from a man named Dan Doctoroff.
Garvin has never heard of him. But he's supposedly rich, and a fan of Garvin's latest urban-planning opus, The American City: What Works, What Doesn't. So, soon enough, Garvin finds himself in Doctoroff's office.
Doctoroff is as advertised: a minority owner of the New York Islanders and partner of billionaire investor Robert Bass. Tall and square-jawed, but also pale and a little schlumpy -- Dudley Do-Right by way of Albert Brooks -- he shakes Garvin's hand and gets to the point: "What do you think about having an Olympics in New York?"
"Terrific," Garvin says.
His host looks stunned. "Everybody else thinks I'm crazy. Why do you think it's terrific?"
"Why," Garvin says, "would you turn down $5 billion?"
"Could we do it? Could we really run the Olympics in New York?"
"How?" To which Alexander Garvin -- who wrote the book on what works and what doesn't in American cities -- shrugs and says, "I haven't a clue."
The idea they came up with is a sort of Whitman's sampler of projects linked together under one banner. Aside from the "Olympic X" -- the crisscrossing ferry and train lines that could allow athletes to roam the city without bringing everything else to a screeching halt -- New York's bid for the 2012 Olympics sprinkles fairy dust on projects that armchair urbanists have lusted after for years: the 7-subway-line extension, a way to bring Metro-North to the West Side and connect it to the Long Island Rail Road, a much-needed Jacob K. Javits Convention Center expansion, and the biggest new housing development since Battery Park City. And Bloomberg has given the plan his imprimatur by making Doctoroff his deputy mayor for economic development.
"It's completely consistent with the direction in which the city should proceed, on the scale of Robert Moses," says Donald Elliott, a city-planning-commission chairman under John Lindsay who marshaled the city's last master plan, in 1969. Indeed, the vision of a platform shouldering hulking buildings above the old unused Hudson rail yards is consistent with the 1969 plan's Jetsons-like people mover running through a grand west-midtown park. "The No. 7 extension does what we were going to do with the people mover," Elliott says, adding sheepishly, "and probably better."
But can New York make over downtown and midtown and Queens and bits of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island -- all at the same time? The planners understand that this is not an age of great ideas -- which makes the Olympics the ultimate window of opportunity. "What you need is a catalyst," says Garvin, "and that's what Dan understood so well."
You hear the word catalyst a lot when you talk with people about the Olympics. It turns out the Olympics are not all about pentathlons and triathlons, or even all about money; they're about building stuff. The rationale goes like this: A lot of the new stuff -- the Javits Center expansion, including a West Side stadium (which Doctoroff believes "would basically be paid for by the Jets"); the Queens West housing development along the East River -- would happen someday anyway. What the Olympics supply is a deadline. "When you invite somebody to your house," Doctoroff says, "you tend to clean it up, because you don't want your guests to think you live like a slob."
On the other hand, it's a game of chicken. "Shotgunning everyone, saying 'You have to do it, the whole world is coming,' it's a good strategy, but I wouldn't want to have to pull the trigger," says Matt Scheckner, who once headed the city's sports commission and wrote the bid for the 1998 Goodwill Games. "The people who sued over Westway are going to be lining up like it's a Sunday at Zabar's."
The Olympics bring their own momentum. In June, Doctoroff's team secured a ten-year no-strike pledge from unions. Not a penny of the budget is designed to come from the ground-zero till or (in the case of the transit hub) higher commuting costs. Money for projects like the Hudson Yards platform might come from "tax-increment financing" -- taxes from dozens of buildings erected in a new business corridor. It's the If You Build It, They Will Come scenario -- "essentially self-financing," Doctoroff says.
There are, of course, numerous critics. "Given the glut in the market right now, this is stupid," argues John Fisher, president of a group called the Clinton Special District Coalition. But that's not how planners think: Doctoroff and Company are talking posterity here -- building in time for the next boom. The real question, they say, may be whether we can afford not to do it: Midtown west's taxes actually went down by about 20 percent in the past decade, missing the boom entirely. In a town that will see a projected $135 billion in construction over ten years, is a $5.5 billion Olympics (the estimated total, including non-Olympic items like the transit improvements, Hudson Yards platform, and Javits Center–Jets stadium) that much of a stretch? There's a case that New York may be one of the few places where the Olympics actually make sense.
Some guys have a fantasy-baseball lineup; Dan Doctoroff has a list of some of New York's greatest developments. At the top is the Erie Canal, "which completely changed New York's position in the world economy." Then comes Central Park. Then the Brooklyn Bridge. Then the subway expansion that started in 1913 and united the boroughs. Then the United Nations, if for no other reason than that the plan came together in 96 hours. The World Trade Center? No chance. "My definition is a project whose impact reverberated or was felt beyond itself," he says.
Not so for the Olympics. "I think we may be at a unique moment. People are completely committed now to making the city better than it was before. But time does dim memories, and that spirit will naturally fade. And the notion of a goal ten years out is very powerful."
In other words, the Olympics are a catalyst. Forget the decathlon -- for Doctoroff, the catalyst is the main event.