Did London beat the Olympic curse?
Image credit: Getty Images
Former host cities are notorious for leaving Olympic sites abandoned, but two Olympics on from London 2012, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park appears to have beaten the curse.
Hosting the Olympics is considered an honour for a host city, but what happens after the Games leaves town is often more embarrassing. From Rio to Athens and Beijing, it’s easy to find photographs of former swimming pools and Olympic villages fallen into disrepair. What about London? With Tokyo’s games finally taking place this year, we’re now two Games removed. What happened to the venues and the Olympic Park? Did London deliver its games a ‘legacy’ and has it beaten the Olympic curse?
“We spent 14 months repurposing the park, getting the permanent venues back into the long-term mode,” says Mark Robinson from the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), which is the body that was created to manage the post-Olympic development of the park and surrounding area, and which has planning authority within its boundaries, overriding that of the four London boroughs that meet in the park.
Of the temporary venues, the original basketball arena was fully dismantled as planned, with the seats relocating to Barnet football club’s new stadium as a permanent home. The hockey arena was relocated to a new site just to the north of the Olympic Park. And temporary wings on the Aquatics Centre were removed, reducing seating from 17,000 to a more manageable 3,000.
As for the Velodrome and Copper Box arena, they required little work, with the latter now in regular use as the home of the London Lions basketball team.
The most visible venue, however, was by some distance the most troubled in the years that followed.
“Originally the Olympic Stadium was going to be taken apart and reduced down to 20-25,000-seat capacity as a big open bowl,” explains Robinson. However, plans to turn the stadium into a permanent athletics venue were changed after the Games. Instead, after a long bidding process, the re-christened London Stadium eventually became home to West Ham United football club, which retained the structure at its original size.
This did not mean the transition was smooth. The new tenants determined that the stadium was poorly optimised for football, because of factors like the existing athletics track keeping fans too far from the action, so an extensive remodelling process took place, at an estimated cost of £320m. “We probably could have avoided some of that cost had we thought it through,” reflects Robinson.
The end result, however, is what Robinson claims is one of the busiest stadiums in the country, as in normal times it hosts both football matches and other events, such as concerts.
The biggest change to the park since the games is in terms of housing, which since the beginning was a key focus of leaving a Games ‘legacy’ that would benefit local people. LLDC has carved up the park into a dozen or so different parcels of land, and since 2012, developers have slowly in-filled the park, mostly with office towers and mid-rise blocks of flats.
“I think regeneration would have happened in East London anyway, but I suspected it accelerated it by about 30 or 40 years,” says Robinson. Today, flats can be found where the basketball arena once sat and the former security screening area is now home to offices for the likes of Transport for London and Cancer Research UK.
“What’s always struck me is that all the CGI and the drawings that were done before the Games about what the park would look like afterwards are remarkably accurate to what’s emerging now,” says Robinson, pointing particularly to the likes of Eastwick and Sweetwater neighbourhoods, which sit between the Copper Box and the former Media Centre, which is today an industrial and commercial space called Here East.
The plans have changed since the Games a little – most notably in the development of what former Mayor Boris Johnson called the ‘Olympicopolis’, which is today known as the East Bank, and will become home to a new branch of the Victoria & Albert Museum, a new theatre, a new BBC recording studio, and a new campus for University College London.
“There are lots of sites in East London where you can put houses, but there are not so many sites where you can put new museums and universities and so on and get a cluster together,” says Robinson.
Clearly then, the park has continued to expand, but it has not been without controversy.
“If you were to come down from a spaceship, you’d be impressed. You’d look around and you’d say, ‘Oh, wow, this is all really, really good’,” says Professor Penny Bernstock from the University of West London, who has devoted much of her career to studying London’s housing legacy. “However, there is a massive disconnect between the park and existing communities.”
She points to what she describes as the “growth-dependent planning paradigm”, in which public money is used to uplift the value of land, which is then sold to private developers to generate profits. This has failed to deliver better housing to existing, poorer residents of the Olympic boroughs, she says. According to her research, just 19 per cent of the housing approved for the park by LLDC was classified as ‘affordable’.
“The Games have resulted in spatial regeneration but the gains for local communities in terms of either jobs or housing has been negligible,” she says, “Moreover, the regeneration and the increase in land values is exacerbating the displacement of local communities.”
Dr Paul Watt, an urbanist at Birkbeck University, puts it even more starkly, pointing to how nine years on, waiting lists for housing among Newham residents and homelessness remain largely unchanged. “All it’s done in terms of housing is make parts of Newham into a speculative hotspot for speculative housing investors,” he says.
Has London beaten the Olympic curse? Walking around the park today, it is definitely not the ghost town we have seen in other cities. As the new neighbourhoods and signature buildings continue to emerge, there are still big questions to answer about just who the Olympic legacy will really benefit.
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