Boston 2024: city eyes many challenges and opportunities in bid to host Summer Games

Hosting the Olympics offers a chance to remake Boston. Boston 2024

Editor’s Note: Last month the United States Olympics Committee picked Boston to lead the US bid to host the Summer Games in 2024. Mayor Martin Walsh recently began a series of community meetings intended to answer questions citizens have about the city’s bid and what hosting would mean for them. We asked two civil engineers and two architects at Wentworth Institute of Technology to assess the opportunities created and challenges posed if the International Olympics Committee were to choose Boston when it makes its selection in 2017.

Boston can put on quite a show if needs be. Shutterstock

Boston boasts many assets, but aging infrastructure is a problem

Ilyas Bhatti, Associate Professor of Construction Management

Boston is a great city to host the Olympics. It is among the most walkable in the world. You can easily stroll to the Boston waterfront and enjoy all the amenities – museums, restaurants and shops. The city is accessible by three major airports: Boston’s Logan, TF Green in Rhode Island and Manchester in New Hampshire.

Metropolitan Boston also has a wide variety of recreational facilities, with three major rivers and a magnificent esplanade on the banks of the Charles River, where the renowned Hatch Shell hosts the annual 4th of July concert and fireworks extravaganza.

In spite of all these assets, hosting the Games would pose major challenges for Boston’s planners, mostly due to the aging transportation infrastructure.

The transit system is in a state of disrepair. The trains and trolleys often break down. Although the state has made significant progress in repairing bridges, it still has 416 that are classified as structurally deficient.

People mobility and safety would be the top priority. As commissioner of the city’s Metropolitan District Commission from 1989 to 1995, I had to undertake road closures during major events such as the 4th of July celebrations, major concerts at the Shell and the historic visit by Nelson Mandela. Mobilizing resources of police, public works and of private enterprises takes a huge effort in planning.

The city and state would have to greatly accelerate plans to repair and upgrade Boston’s infrastructure to be ready for the Olympics in 2024. That also includes the so-called invisible infrastructure of water, sewer and power grids. The last major improvements to the wastewater systems were made in the 1980s and 1990s in conformance and with federal and state financial support under the federal Clean Water Act. Such systems are getting old and would require system upgrades by the time the Olympics take place.

Boston’s history of repairing and upgrading major bridges is not very promising because of financial woes. A case in point is the rehabilitation project on the Longfellow Bridge, which was begun in the late 1980s and is only now being completed. Also, scheduling construction projects would have to be done carefully in order to avoid major gridlock in the city.

The biggest question that must be addressed is how to finance all of this. Planning must start now to pull it off in time.

Back in 1967, the city envisioned a sports stadium (bottom right corner), just one block north of where the current Olympic stadium complex has been proposed. Boston Redevelopment Authority, 1967

Opportunity for a revitalized vision

Mark Pasnik, Associate Professor of Architecture

Shortly after Mayor Walsh’s election last year, my colleagues and I suggested in an editorial in the Boston Globe that one of the most important initiatives he could pursue is to prepare a comprehensive vision for the city. It’s something that’s urgently needed and hasn’t been undertaken since the general plan of 1965/1975. That’s forty years of piecemeal planning rather than a bigger vision to address the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Enter the Olympics. The Games provide an exciting catalyst that will prompt Bostonians to have open discussions about what type of city we would like to become. Bidding for such a major event on the world stage will require Boston to be more innovative in its design aspirations and undergo careful, city-wide planning exercises about infrastructure, transportation, communities, housing and environmental issues.

The city should use this as a chance to respond to large-scale challenges, such as the need for broader access to housing, the prospects of sea-level rise and the urgency of improving our schools, parks and institutions. The question is, how to develop into a denser urban center, fully linked to the surrounding region and supported by increased services and expanded economic opportunity for all of Boston’s citizens.

Unfortunately, the effort isn’t off to a good start. The Olympics proposal was initiated privately and, by USOC standards, without public input. Its planning has been headed by leaders with deep ties to developers and the construction industry. As a result, questions have already arisen broadly as to whose interests the bid will serve.

If there isn’t a change of course, Boston might end up with the same lack of civic vision seen in the recently developed Innovation District, an area adjacent to downtown Boston that has been heavily criticized for its mediocre buildings and lack of neighborhood vitality. “Merely functional” buildings, as the mayor himself termed them, have served their developers’ bottom lines but do little to create vibrant interconnected communities, livable streets and ennobling public spaces.

If your conclusion is simply to oppose the Olympics in Boston, however, you should hold your fire.

The discussion surrounding the bid could lead to long-term thinking and significant initiatives that will help Boston, one of the oldest urban centers in the US, become a better and renewed city. But that will only occur if this process is used to shape Boston in innovative ways that benefit the larger public – with or without the Olympics.

Then you can cross your fingers and hope that Rome beats Boston, knowing full well that second-place wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Getting kind of creaky. Shutterstock

Upgrading Boston’s creaking rapid-transit system

James Lambrechts, P.E., Associate Professor of Civil Engineering

Boston’s rapid-transit system is nearly at its saturation point. It requires significant new construction to aid circulation, bring social equity to disenfranchised neighborhoods and encourage thousands of auto commuters to avoid driving into the city, improving air quality.

Such an investment needs to be made regardless of the Games but will be essential if Boston hopes to accommodate the flood of sports fans that would descend on the city in 2024.

Over the past 20 years, the commuter rail system has expanded to bring thousands more riders into city center rail hubs. An upcoming extension of the Green Line to the suburbs of Somerville and Medford is projected to add 30,000 to 50,000 more riders each day.

However, the rapid transit system is currently under great pressure. The 2012 report “Hub and Spoke” by the Urban Land Institute noted that a big chunk of the Green Line is severely over-crowded, and that parts of several other lines are nearing peak capacity.

Much of this pressure can be relieved by extending the Blue Line west past Fenway and into the western suburbs. It would provide critical relief to the Green Line that would last for the next century and would also improve access to the airport and make it very attractive for suburban commuters to take rapid transit. Re-establishing rail transit to Dudley Square, south of downtown, via a new Green Line tunnel is another project that would spark intensive revitalization of the area. However, Dudley Square rail transit would be dependent on Green Line congestion relief.

These two projects have tremendous potential for alleviating inner-city rapid transit congestion and delivering real social-equity to many diverse segments of the greater Boston community.

Yes, there is still a mindset of “No more Big Digs,” a massive road and tunnel project plagued by escalating costs and delays, but such thinking will only stagnate the full potential of the core area of the city. These two projects have so many potential benefits that neither should be cast aside. My student group has evaluated the feasibility of each tunnel and made a reasonable estimate of US$3.5 billion to $5 billion. If construction were to begin by 2019, both would be ready in time for 2024 Olympic Games.

Boston Harbor at its best. Shutterstock

Restoring water’s role in Boston’s development

Mark Klopfer, Professor of Architecture

In recent decades, Olympic venues have brought some positive changes to their host cities despite the costs.

For the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, for example, cleaning up old brownfield sites and water quality improvements drove much of the re-creation of Homebush Bay, which was the primary venue for those games. Sydney was the first Olympic games that undertook a focused mission of sustainability as one of the core objectives guiding its development.

Similarly, the 2012 games in London sought to remake disused and industrial land in East London into new sports venues and housing.

The legacy of Vancouver’s games in 2010 was a large supply of new housing and a water-based transportation system of small ferries connecting a constellation of points across the city that lacked such direct connection before the games. Today they still serve this role even as the number of stops was decreased after the games.

Boston’s Olympic bid offers similar opportunities for brownfield remediation and the creation of alternative transportation in the often traffic-choked city. It’s a chance to remedy some of the environmental ills caused over the past two centuries by industrial use at some of the proposed venue sites. Water quality in the Charles and Mystic Rivers and the channel also could be improved.

Boston’s original settlement owes its early success to its storm-protected harbor and the marine-based industries it supported, yet the 20th century witnessed a decline in their importance. The Olympics could re-invigorate the use of this precious and bountiful asset.

Water shuttle services could connect the various venues to hotel and housing sites across Boston and Cambridge to take advantage of the water infrastructure without the need to build more roads or rails.

With nearly every proposed sporting venue within a few hundred yards of Boston Harbor, the Mystic or the Charles, the Games provides an opportunity for the city to fully realize the potential of water-based transportation through investment in land/water transportation hubs. These would easily and inexpensively connect and involve previously marginalized neighborhoods of East Boston, East Somerville, and Quincy as participants providing accommodations and easy access to the games.

And after the Games have come and gone, it will be at least one legacy that will provide benefits for many years to come.