Peddling a Fiction

How should New Yorkers greet the news that the United States Olympic Committee last week selected our city as the American candidate to host the 2012 summer games? With a great deal of skepticism, a sigh of relief upon realizing this is only the first hurdle for local Olympic boosters, and an obvious question: how can a city facing multi-billion dollar budget deficits consider such a scheme?

“We have said from the very beginning that this will be a privately funded Olympic games,” Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff told New York Newsday last week. Prior to joining the Bloomberg Administration, Doctoroff, a former investment banker, spearheaded the drive to bring the Olympics here. In the same news account, the Mayor agreed: “This will be a games basically done with private money.”

Note the crafty hedge here— “basically”. Although the New York plan does use a number of existing facilities (Yankee Stadium, Madison Square Garden, the Javits Center, the tennis center in Flushing), the big ticket items—$1 billion for an Olympic Stadium on the far west side of Manhattan; a $1.5 billion Olympic Village in Long Island City; and an extension of the Number 7 subway line over to the Hudson River—would cost about $5 billion. The bulk of that would be paid for by tax increment financing (TIF).

TIF allows state and local governments to borrow money to build public infrastructure; the governments then pay off the debt (a good word to remember) by taxing the higher values that development brings. So, in theory, the office towers that sprouted south of 42nd Street once public transportation was introduced to the neighborhood would in time pay for the extension of the Number 7 line.

“We shouldn’t host the Olympics if it means taking money away from the schools,” Alexander Garvin said recently at an event sponsored by the Institute of Urban Design, pushing the pro-games party line. Garvin, who worked with Doctoroff in organizing the bid prior to becoming vice president for planning at the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation, went on to say that a new stadium for the New York Jets (one of the games’ so-called “legacies”) and the 42nd Street subway extension were likely to happen in the future anyway. In other words: better now, than later.

Cities often want to host the Olympics because they think it will force them into making much needed (and long overdue) infrastructure investments. This is a valid reason for seeking them. But what will New York actually get for the 2012 games? A football stadium in Manhattan (used, at best, a dozen times a year) and a subway extension that would benefit a handful of real estate interests far more than the general public that ultimately pays for it. In flush economic times, this would be a questionable deal. In the wake of September 11 and a budget deficit next year that the Bloomberg Administration warns could reach $5 billion, it’s ludicrous.

Categories: Cities