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Thread: Toronto 2008 Olympics: A city that might have been

  1. Default Toronto 2008 Olympics: A city that might have been

    A city that might have been

    Waterfront renewal painfully slow seven years after Toronto lost Olympic bid to Beijing

    July 13, 2008

    Gabriel Eidelman


    For most Torontonians, today is just an ordinary Sunday. Yet today marks an important, albeit forgotten, anniversary.

    Seven years ago this day, in a Moscow hotel, delegates from the International Olympic Committee gathered to decide the host city of the 2008Olympic Summer Games.

    Final tally: Beijing 55 votes, Toronto 22, Paris 18, Istanbul 9.

    For China, the victory marked a new beginning. For Toronto, it marked an end.

    Having lost the Games for the second time in little more than a decade (the city finished third in voting to Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Games), Toronto's own Olympic era was ostensibly laid to rest.

    Still, even in defeat, talk of an Olympic legacy endured.

    "We lost the Olympics, but we won the waterfront,"
    mayor Mel Lastman assured us.

    With a firm commitment of $1.5 billion from all three levels of government, the wheels of waterfront "revitalization" were finally in motion. The impossible would soon become reality.

    Today, seven years later – with developers just now set to break ground in the West Don Lands, the East Bayfront still mired in planning and the Portlands locked in industrial slumber – reality has yet to impress.

    Without the eyes of the world upon us, progress on the waterfront has remained painfully slow.

    But imagine, for a minute, what might have been.

    All but three of 28 proposed Olympic venues would have been situated along a six-kilometre stretch of redeveloped waterfront extending from the CNE grounds in the west to the Portlands in the east.

    The showpiece of this "Olympic Waterfront" would have been the Olympic Stadium, a 100,000-seat coliseum located where Cherry St. now meets Commissioners St., the backdrop for the Games' athletic events, soccer finals and opening and closing ceremonies.

    To the north, on the banks of the Keating Channel near the mouth of the Don River, would have stood the Olympic Aquatic Centre, the second of three marquee sites planned for the Portlands. Featuring separate diving and swimming pools, with seating for 15,000 to 25,000, the pod-like Aquatic Centre would have been home to diving, water polo, swimming and synchro events.

    To the south, encompassing what is now Cherry Beach and Waterfront Park, would have been the Olympic Village, a state-of-the-art neighbourhood with accommodations for nearly 17,000 athletes, coaches and trainers. A grid of walkways, streets and boulevards would have linked this self-styled "environmentally responsible and progressive community" of townhouses, lofts and apartments (rising up to six stories) to a private beach, along the lake, and public promenade, facing the city.

    After the Games, with festivities complete, plans called for the Olympic Stadium to be scaled down to 20,000 seats, serving as a much-needed national training centre for athletics. Same for the Olympic Aquatic Centre as well as the Olympic Regatta Centre, a world-class rowing and paddle sports facility that would have been carved out of the now-desolate shipping channel south of Commissioners St.

    Along the western waterfront, the CNE would have inherited a new Equestrian Stadium, a secondary Aquatic Centre, and an 8,400-seat Olympic Velodrome and Multi-sport Centre for indoor cycling and wrestling (where BMO field is today).

    While these developments may sound impressive, skeptics, such as Councillor Michael Walker, the bid's most outspoken critic at the time, would insist that we dodged a bullet. And in certain respects, they would be right.

    Despite a guarantee from the province to cover any financial shortfalls, the economic risks inherent in staging such a monumental event were never fully debated. Even the IOC Evaluation Commission, in its final report, "was uneasy about the manner in which the budget was produced and presented."

    The Olympic Village, intended as a test site for the city's 20-year plan to bring 100,000 new residents to the waterfront, would likely also have brought various social challenges.

    Consider that the village was designed largely for the short-term needs of the athletes, not the long-term needs of future communities. Funded entirely by the private sector, the plan's focus on "studio lofts" and "garden apartments" makes no mention of affordable housing options, rental or otherwise.

    From an ecological perspective, however, the Games may have represented an important catalyst for change. The pressure to follow through on the Olympic development plan would have helped accelerate an array of environmental initiatives, such as the cleanup of thousands of acres of contaminated industrial lands, which, although part of Waterfront Toronto's mandate, are currently inching forward at a snail's pace.

    Other environmental priorities, such as transit improvements, would also have been fast-tracked.

    The proximity of most venues to the Olympic Village and downtown core – many within walking distance of one another – would have required spectators to use alternative modes of transportation. Projects still languishing on the drawing board, such as enhanced GO Train service along the lakeshore, renovations to Union Station and the long-overdue Pearson-Union rail link – plans for which resurfaced again last week – would have finally moved ahead, contributing to fewer smog days, less air pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

    Is Toronto worse off for losing the Games? Maybe. Maybe not.

    The point is had we won, change would be here by now.

    And for a city starving for a new waterfront, that alone is something worth imagining
    .


    Gabriel Eidelman is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science and Centre for Environment at the University of Toronto.


    Louroz


  2. #2

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    Thanks for posting that.

    I think it's easy to look at all the good things that would have come from an Olympics, simply because we have a list of them as laid out above. It would have been fantastic, but also Toronto would be a very different city right now and it's hard to say what the city would look like with the international eye focused on it. Backlash and problems tend to occur when billions are spent on these type of things though. Vancouver is seeing a lot of protests and is getting a lot of scrutiny from people who don't like the fact that an already high cost of living has skyrocketed and the poor/homeless are being driven out in droves. London is getting even more flak over the escalating price they'll be paying to host the games.

    However, it would have been great to see all of these athletic buildings in the city. We're a region that is in desperate need for top-notch athletic training facilities and it would have been great to see not only a waterfront legacy but also an athletic one.

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    As much of a catalyst the Olympics would have been, one has to wonder whether the changes are necessarily better than what we'll get. For one, I can see West Don Lands being a waterdowned, relatively ill thought out plan given the tight schedule and land use demands.

    Ditto the Don-Mouth/Portlands - I highly doubt they would have been able to develop a plan as innovative as the one put forth by MVVA.

    AoD

  4. #4

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    I think Toronto will eventually get the waterfront envisioned for the 2008 Games. The waterfront, by default, has become the proposed stage of any major event bid for the city, whether it be the Commonwealth Games, Pan-Am or Expo.

    From an urban design (but perhaps not architectural) perspective, it would have been so much better that Toronto won the Olympic bid than Beijing. Toronto badly needed the Olympics to revitalize the waterfront. Beijing, as we have clearly seen from the news, is using the Olympics as just another excuse to raze its historic neighbourhoods of hutongs to put up development and infrastructure for the Games, and forcing inner-city residents out to its suburbs.

  5. #5

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    Wylie, I'm not sure. I think mentally, in terms of confidence and self-esteem they need the olympics far more then we would. The waterfront land jump-start argument has some merit but contemplate the present real estate boom for a second. We have seen and stand to see so much construction, but the waves have barely lapped the shore of the eastern waterfront and portlands. You can will plans into action but you can't really will markets into behaving how you want them to. Ultimately someone has to fill those proposed residential and commercial spaces. Speaking of the portlands specifically I personally think we are still two boom / bust cycles away from realizing the visions of the 2008 olympics. Meaning even after the decline of this boom, the next boom will still not see substantial redevelopment occuring in the portlands. From a historical perspective that would suggest 25 plus years. Hey, by then the city may even win itself the olympic games and the 2008 plan will finally make sense organically.

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    This is too true:

    "The point is had we won, change would be here by now. "

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    I remember when the IOC came to town in March of 2001 and we showed them presentations of CGI streetcars trundling along eventual rights of way in the Waterfront. It was on that day that I knew (as if it wasn't already obvious) that we were going to lose our bid.

    It's one thing to lose to a top contender because the other city has so much more riding on a win, but it's another to lose to a contender because the package you put together is unsophisticated and amateurish.

    Power point presentations on LRTs might woo TTC officials and David Miller, but they're unlikely to sway worldly officials who plan international games and events.

  8. #8

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    Indeed, nothing less than huge bribes have been shown to win the IOC over.

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    Yes, US, huge bribes that would have been necessary so that we can have a horde of drugged up freaks compete with each other to do something or other is .00018 second faster than the others on our portlands.

    I cannot think of anything better for our waterfront than having lost the bid. The last thing we needed was an even larger unused stadium built at taxpayer's expense and later flipped to the private sector for nothing. We've been there before and don't need to go there again.

    On a more personal level, I consider having lost the Olympics to have directly resulted in avoiding thousands upon thousands of whining posts at UrbanToronto about every single aspect of the planning and execution of the games.

    Beijing is welcome to the whole bloated, overwrought, corrupt parade of grotesqueries that is the Olympics. Slow and steady on our portlands will result in a far better project.

  10. #10

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    Quote Originally Posted by Hipster Duck View Post
    I remember when the IOC came to town in March of 2001 and we showed them presentations of CGI streetcars trundling along eventual rights of way in the Waterfront. It was on that day that I knew (as if it wasn't already obvious) that we were going to lose our bid.

    It's one thing to lose to a top contender because the other city has so much more riding on a win, but it's another to lose to a contender because the package you put together is unsophisticated and amateurish.

    Power point presentations on LRTs might woo TTC officials and David Miller, but they're unlikely to sway worldly officials who plan international games and events.
    Our bid was the best technical bid. Other countries have used it as a model in their own bids and its proven to be successful. Beijing's win had nothing to do with our presentation and everything to do with politics.

    Indeed, nothing less than huge bribes have been shown to win the IOC over.
    Not so sure I'd go that far in recent times. Since the Salt Lake City scandal was exposed the selection process has undergone an incredible restructuring and its next to impossible for bribes and gifts to be a factor. IOC members have an extensive list of restrictions, and they're under intense scrutiny. If Toronto's bid was under the same circumstances, we would be gearing up as we speak.

  11. #11
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    While Steven Harper will not be attending the Beijing Olympics, he could have been attending the Toronto Olympics.

    Which side of the ledger would that be put on?

    The Tibet problem could have ended up on page 12, not page 1.

  12. #12

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    ^^ Stephen Harper wouldn't attend the Toronto Olympic Opening Ceremony either, given his contempt for this city.

  13. #13

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    You can already tell that we're preparing for the Olympics in a way with our Waterfront plan and the huge amount of hotels going up in the city. Particularly all the 5 star stuff.
    Toronto is becoming a much more competitive city for the future.
    We'll get the Olympics for sure. I think people here want to see that happen.

  14. #14

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    Quote Originally Posted by jn_12 View Post
    Our bid was the best technical bid. Other countries have used it as a model in their own bids and its proven to be successful. Beijing's win had nothing to do with our presentation and everything to do with politics.
    That's true. Toronto's bid was widely praised as the best presented and most technically proficient.

    I wanted the games because of the development that would occur. I knew it was an extreme long shot though. There was no way it wasn't going to Beijing.

    Long term, I don't think the infrastructure left behind was going to be too impressive from an urban design standpoint. Things are taking a lot longer, but I believe we'll end up with much better neighbourhoods.

  15. Default If we'd won the Olympic bid . . .

    Jul 15, 2008 04:30 AM
    Be the first to comment on this article...
    Royson James

    If the world were coming to Toronto this summer, we wouldn't be closing swimming pools our residents use and need for lack of a few million dollars in the school board budget. We'd be building new ones, a legacy of the Olympics.

    If the world were coming to Toronto, this week's city council debate on tearing down part of the Gardiner Expressway would have been over. Ditto the headaches from the construction.

    If the world were coming, Union Station would have been retrofitted already, the ridiculously narrow TTC platforms replaced with a modern facility fit for the region's most important transit hub. The rapid transit link from Union Station to Pearson airport would have completed its test runs, not stalled on the planning board.

    If . . . if . . . if only . . .

    Big projects are not to be feared, they are to be tackled and managed. With huge risks come huge opportunities. Toronto can continue to be complacent and cautious. And we'll continue to be nice. But we'll never reach our full potential or achieve greatness.

    That's just fine for many of our citizens. They are the ones who scoff: "Who needs all the fuss and bother and crowds of an Olympic Games?" They are the ones who would have booked time away from the city during the Games. They are the ones who tell pollsters they are lukewarm about such events. They are the ones who provide succour to the federal government, which is now pussyfooting around support of a Pan Am Games bid for the Golden Horseshoe in 2015.

    Such naysayers love to peruse bold plans so they can nitpick and find reasons why they can't be achieved. The enormous weight of their negativity simply overwhelms the enthusiasm and creativity of the proponents.

    When Toronto bid for the 1996 Summer Games, the housing advocates argued the Games didn't leave enough affordable housing. They protested and embarrassed the bidders. By the time 1996 came around, it was Atlanta that had affordable housing, not Toronto.

    Clearly, an Olympics would bring Toronto a legacy of more housing than it now has, better facilities, improved infrastructure and the like. If it causes disruption and angst for a few years, that's the price of progress.

    If Toronto had won the the 2008 Olympics, which start in 24 days in Beijing, most of the mess and fuss would have been over now. Instead, we have barely improved the waterfront and portlands that were supposed to be the greatest beneficiaries.

    Cost overruns? Think Montreal would trade in the 1976 Games even with the deficits?

    In Sydney during the 2000 Olympics, residents were over-the-moon ecstatic with the sports festival that enveloped their city. Person after person said they felt put upon for years, and it was only when the Olympic torch arrived, followed by the world's greatest athletes, that they understood the magic of the Games.

    I wrote then: "One can't help wishing this were Toronto. Who wouldn't want this on the shores of Lake Ontario, with a beautiful showcase waterfront community?

    "This moment, outside my hotel window in Kings Cross, the downtown sparkles. Earlier, the tops of downtown skyscrapers were dancing in a choreographed laser light show. And below, the throb, throb, throb of a happy town rides on the cool spring air."

    Every word written in 2000 continues to be true. If the world were coming to Toronto this summer . . .




    Royson James usually appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

    Email: rjames@thestar.ca

    Louroz

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