Why the Olympics wash­ing­ton didn’t win could still trans­form the city

Wash­ing­ton’s Olympic plan pro­vides a mas­ter road map for the city’s fu­ture

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY JONATHAN O’CON­NELL

For more than a year, some of Wash­ing­ton’s most ac­com­plished ar­chi­tects, en­gi­neers and plan­ners as­sem­bled a vi­sion for how the re­gion could look a decade from now. Hud­dled in se­cret brain­storm­ing meet­ings, they plot­ted the most idyl­lic Wash­ing­ton and in­ner sub­urbs they could imag­ine for living, work­ing, vis­it­ing and ad­mir­ing. They dreamed of a city that had ad­dressed its tran­sit woes, har­nessed the po­ten­tial of both its rivers and es­caped its rep­u­ta­tion as a breed­ing ground for po­lit­i­cal dys­func­tion.

Their goal was to win the 2024 Sum­mer Olympic Games. And they failed.

But even though the Olympic bid was lost, their plan presents a strong case for still ex­e­cut­ing that vi­sion. Now, for the first time we get to see the de­tails: the closely held ar­chi­tec­tural ren­der­ings for how the city would have rapidly trans­formed over the course of the next 10 years.

Be­cause ev­ery bid­ding city now has to demon­strate how its in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ments will have benefits for years to come — no va­cant sta­di­ums or other white ele­phants that lit­ter the host cities of yes­ter­year — Wash­ing­ton’s Olympic plan is in fact a mas­ter road map for the city’s fu­ture.

“We wanted to get the Olympics, but, more than that, we thought this would be a trans­for­ma­tional vi­sion for the city,” said Jor­dan Gold­stein, man­ag­ing direc­tor at the ar­chi­tec­ture firm Gensler, who led the ef­fort. “It was re­ally im­por­tant for us to show the Wash­ing­ton of to­mor­row, not the Wash­ing­ton of 20 years ago.”

Dur­ing the jock­ey­ing to host the 2024 Games, the Wash­ing­ton area achieved some­thing fleet­ing: co­op­er­a­tion among two gov­er­nors, a le­gion of county of­fi­cials, mem­bers of Congress from both par­ties and a slate of pow­er­ful cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives and phi­lan­thropists. Th­ese are many of the same in­di­vid­u­als who have long failed to suc­cess­fully ad­dress chronic is­sues fac­ing the re­gion, in­clud­ing fi­nan­cial prob­lems at Metro, de­te­ri­o­rat­ing in­fra­struc­ture like the Me­mo­rial Bridge, en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions and hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity.

When the U.S. Olympic Com­mit­tee se­lected Bos­ton in Jan­uary, it ended the idea that Wash­ing­ton would host the Olympics any­time soon. But that blue­print for the re­gion’s fu­ture re­mains, idling on a server in Gensler’s K Street of­fice build­ing.

In the past months since los­ing the bid, some lo­cal lead­ers have in­quired with the Olympic plan­ning team about how to still in­cor­po­rate their ideas. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said in a speech that she had chal­lenged her eco­nomic devel­op­ment team “to fig­ure out how we can har­ness [the bid’s] im­mense thought power and in­flu­ence around this coun­try, to make sure thatwe con­tinue to fo­cus on how we speed up devel­op­ment.”

Big events and dead­lines mo­bi­lize ac­tion, but there’s no rea­son we need an Olympic bid to pull off bold changes. The price tag for the orig­i­nal plan was in ex­cess of $10 bil­lion, but Wash­ing­ton would have been on its own to raise those funds re­gard­less. So why don’t we just build it any­way?

The plan­ning team has shared its blue­print ex­clu­sively with The Wash­ing­ton Post. Here is a look at five ways the city could carry for­ward the torch that was lit.

The Dis­trict needs an eastern gate­way

When French en­gi­neer Pierre L’En­fant laid out his plan for Amer­ica’s new cap­i­tal, he cre­ated a grid of ur­ban streets and grand boule­vards con­nected by public squares and cir­cles. More than 200 years later, many of those have be­come sym­bols of the world’s most pow­er­ful city — the Mall, Lafayette Square in front of the White House — tread by the 19 mil­lion an­nual vis­i­tors to Wash­ing­ton.

Not so for the eastern end of the city. Though the ter­mi­nuses of East Capitol Street and Mas­sachusetts Av­enue, along the Ana­cos­tia River, fea­tured just as promi­nently in L’En­fant’s orig­i­nal plan, that area’s po­ten­tial has largely gone un­ful­filled.

The ar­chi­tects be­hind the 2024 bid saw no ar­chi­tec­tural rea­son for that im­bal­ance to con­tinue. They viewed the L’En­fant plan as a doc­u­mented road map for where the city was al­ways des­tined to go. It gave them a crit­i­cal ad­van­tage when map­ping the Dis­trict’s fu­ture. “No other city had this,” Gold­stein said.

Work­ing with the firm Brails­ford & Dunlavey on fa­cil­i­ties and Clark Con­struc­tion to es­ti­mate costs, the 2024 team plot­ted to build a new Red­skins sta­dium ei­ther on the site where RFK Sta­dium stands or on Poplar Point. They en­vi­sioned turn­ing the Pepco fa­cil­i­ties on Ben­ning Road NE into a jobs hub. And they de­cided that Hill East, a 67-acre wa­ter­front par­cel next to RFK Sta­dium, should be­come af­ford­able hous­ing, a top pri­or­ity for the Dis­trict. Dur­ing the Olympic Games, th­ese would have tem­po­rar­ily served as the main sta­dium, a broad­cast cen­ter and the Olympic Vil­lage, re­spec­tively.

Ev­ery elected mayor in the city’s his­tory has tried to re­vi­tal­ize neigh­bor­hoods along the Ana­cos­tia, so this is no easy bit of work. The 2024 plan­ners did not solve dif­fi­cult prob­lems such as where to put an ex­ist­ing methadone clinic or what to do with the D.C. Jail.

But other as­pects of this devel­op­ment are afoot. City of­fi­cials have nearly com­pleted a study on how to re­de­velop the RFK prop­erty. The Red­skins have be­gun dis­cussing a new sta­dium. And con­struc­tion will begin next year on a 354-unit apart­ment build­ing with ground-floor re­tail at Hill East.

Gold­stein said open­ing this “eastern gate­way” would be eas­ier than he first ex­pected. The streets al­ready feel con­nected to Capitol Hill and down­town through the his­toric plan, and much of the needed land is con­trolled by just two en­ti­ties, the Dis­trict gov­ern­ment and the Na­tional Park Ser­vice.

In Gold­stein’s mind, the cam­eras for the 2024 Olympic Games would swoop down the Ana­cos­tia River from Prince Ge­orge’s County to the Olympic sta­dium and show a new side of Wash­ing­ton to the world.

“The idea was to cre­ate a front door out of some­thing that was a back door, and that should still be the idea,” he said.

A denser city re­quires bet­ter trans­porta­tion

The Dis­trict may not be grow­ing by 1,000 peo­ple a month, as it was a year or so ago, but the pop­u­la­tion is still in­creas­ing and prop­erty val­ues have risen so quickly that many res­i­dents view the high price of hous­ing as one of the area’s ma­jor stum­bling blocks.

As part of the 2024 team’s mission, mem­bers had to en­vi­sion how the city would op­er­ate with its nor­mal pop­u­la­tion plus mil­lions of fans and 17,000 ath­letes and of­fi­cials. It was a anex­er­cise in ex­am­in­ing the pres­sure points that a larger pop­u­la­tion would put on the city’s in­fra­struc­ture.

Wash­ing­ton al­ready has the lo­gis­tics in place to host mas­sive sin­gu­lar events such as pres­i­den­tial in­au­gu­ra­tions, Fourth of July cel­e­bra­tions, the Cherry Blos­som fes­ti­val and days when the Na­tion­als, Wiz­ards and D.C. United play on the same day. But the three-week-long Olympics called for more last­ing im­prove­ments, some of

“Some­how you have got to get the gov­er­nors at least talk­ing about an outer belt­way and some larger, ma­jor plan­ning, be­cause th­ese choke points are go­ing to be an eco­nomic drag.” Russ Ram­sey, chair of the Wash­ing­ton 2024 Olympic bid

which the re­gion might bor­row as it grows.

The or­ga­niz­ers copied an idea from Lon­don, which cre­ated ded­i­cated traf­fic lanes for shut­tles be­tween events when it played host. They pro­posed pulling out park­ing me­ters along In­de­pen­dence Av­enue, cre­at­ing a new lane in each di­rec­tion for tran­sit.

They also fig­ured out how to add a Metro sta­tion at what could be a frac­tion of the usual cost. The key was to in­sert it along an ex­ist­ing line, elim­i­nat­ing the need to dig new tun­nels. Just as an above­ground sta­tion was added for NoMa be­hind Union Sta­tion and one is in the works for Po­tomac Yard in Alexan­dria, the 2024 team imag­ined tack­ing on an Or­ange Line sta­tion be­side RFK Sta­dium, though closer to the Ana­cos­tia.

The to­pog­ra­phy was such that pas­sen­gers would be able to walk right from the train plat­form into the Olympic Sta­dium. They also pro­posed adding a third, mid­dle track, like the sta­tion at Rea­gan Na­tional Air­port, where trains could stop and turn back with­out dis­rupt­ing regular trains head­ing in ei­ther di­rec­tion. Such im­prove­ments would be use­ful for the re­gion even with­out the Olympic Games, to ease con­ges­tion dur­ing large sport­ing and cul­tural events.

“You have the ca­pac­ity inthe city to do th­ese types of things. You don’t have to rein­vent your trans­porta­tion sys­tem,” said Robert B. Schiesel of Gorove-Slade, a trans­porta­tion con­sult­ing firm that worked on the bid.

River life needs to be ex­panded

L’En­fant planned the na­tion’s cap­i­tal from the Po­tomac River to the Ana­cos­tia River, and although boat­ing and recre­ation op­por­tu­ni­ties along the Ana­cos­tia have dramatically in­creased in the past decade, there is a long­way to go be­fore it be­comes the as­set it could be.

Ted Leon­sis for one, would like to see peo­ple swim­ming in the Ana­cos­tia from a beach along its shores. The Wiz­ards, Cap­i­tals and Mys­tics owner, who served as vice chair of the 2024 ef­fort, has given speeches about the im­por­tance of clean­ing the Ana­cos­tia and has touted its po­ten­tial.

“Sadly, the Ana­cos­tia has been ne­glected. If we clean it up, only good things oc­cur for our com­mu­nity and our next gen­er­a­tion,” Leon­sis wrote in a blog post. Though the USOC judges have left, the needs of the Ana­cos­tia re­main. Fish there reg­u­larly sprout tu­mors, and cleanup ef­forts to make the river swimmable are ex­pected to take at least an­other decade and cost po­ten­tially more than $1 bil­lion.

An­drew Alt­man, a for­mer direc­tor of plan­ning in the Dis­trict, cre­ated a frame­work for re­vi­tal­iz­ing the Ana­cos­tia un­der then-Mayor An­thony Wil­liams. It turns out he then went on to plan the 2012 Lon­don Games. Alt­man said the Dis­trict has “made good on a lot of parts that dream” for the Ana­cos­tia wa­ter­front and that as the river be­comes more of an at­trac­tion, the en­tire re­gion’s cen­ter of grav­ity would move east— help­ing res­i­dents and in­vestors see the river “more as a cen­ter of the city than the edge of the city.”

The 2024 or­ga­niz­ers en­vi­sioned events up and down both rivers, tak­ing place at Na­tional Har­bor in Prince Ge­orge’s County, along the re­de­vel­oped South­west Wa­ter­front, on East and West Po­tomac Park and in Ar­ling­ton at Long Bridge Park, where the team planned an aquatic cen­ter for swim­ming and div­ing events.

The plan­ners also en­vi­sioned a se­ries of new pedes­trian bridges, in­clud­ing one that would cross the Ana­cos­tia from RFK to Prince Ge­orge’s County and a tem­po­rary one across the Wash­ing­ton Chan­nel from the South­west Wa­ter­front to East Po­tomac Park. De­spite the cur­rent tox­ins in its wa­ters, the Ana­cos­tia does have an ad­van­tage over the Po­tomac, the plan­ners de­cided. Be­cause it is much nar­rower, it would ac­tu­ally al­low for eas­ier and more invit­ing walks from bank to bank.

“You can walk across the Seine real quick,” said Gensler’s Robert Peck, re­fer­ring to the river in Paris. “The Po­tomac is not the same way.”

There is al­ready some mo­men­tum here, too. An enor­mous se­ries of tun­nels be­ing dug be­neath RFK prom­ises to take out 98 per­cent of sewage and stormwa­ter over­flow in the next decade. And sev­eral pro­pos­als for im­proved river ac­cess and cross­ings are al­ready be­ing con­sid­ered, among them the 11th Street Bridge Park that would span the Ana­cos­tia and a gon­dola that would connect Ge­orge­town to Ross­lyn.

Wash­ing­ton needs a new brand

Gold­stein said he was con­vinced Wash­ing­ton had “the best tech­ni­cal plan” for a walk­a­ble, ur­ban games— and that the USOC said as much in its feed­back. He and other or­ga­niz­ers of the Olympic bid, how­ever, think the city’s bad po­lit­i­cal rep­u­ta­tion dam­aged its pro­posal.

To much of the United States, sick of par­ti­san grid­lock and gov­ern­ment dys­func­tion, “Wash­ing­ton” has be­come a dirty word. Its as­so­ci­a­tion with Congress has led it to poll worse than traf­fic jams and cock­roaches.

Russ Ram­sey, who made a mint as an in­vest­ment banker be­fore chair­ing the bid, said cre­at­ing a new im­age for the city in the eyes of the world was his driv­ing rea­son for lead­ing the ef­fort. “Some­thing needs to serve as a cat­a­lyst to re-brand Wash­ing­ton, D.C.,” he said.

Alt­man said the team’s plan would have changed the way peo­ple think about Wash­ing­ton — from the seat of fed­eral gov­ern­ment and the back­drop for “House of Cards,” to a lively city unto it­self.

With­out the Olympics, Wash­ing­ton can still work to im­prove its im­age— and its chang­ing econ­omy could serve as the cat­a­lyst. Inthe past 65 years, the share of the re­gion’s econ­omy at­trib­ut­able to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has con­sis­tently less­ened, from 38 per­cent of jobs in 1950 to 12 per­cent in 2013.

To­day, the Wash­ing­ton area has top­notch restau­rants. It also has more and more jobs in tech­nol­ogy, me­dia, ed­u­ca­tion and health care, and there is a greater fo­cus on en­trepreneur­ship.

Th­ese fac­tors could, in the next decade, pro­vide Wash­ing­ton with home­grown busi­ness lead­ers and bene­fac­tors the way Coca-Cola has for At­lanta, Gen­eral Mo­tors has for Detroit and Mi­crosoft has for Seat­tle.

For­get cor­po­rate spon­sors for the Games. If Wash­ing­ton be­comes less of a gov­ern­ment town, th­ese emerg­ing pri­vate-sec­tor lead­ers could hold in­creas­ing sway over Wash­ing­ton’s growth by 2024.

The re­gion can col­lab­o­rate

Lo­cal elected lead­ers of­ten can­not agree on how to fund Metro, al­le­vi­ate traf­fic or com­bat home­less­ness. They fre­quently en­gage in nasty bid­ding wars, just so a com­pany and its jobs will movea fewmiles into their ju­ris­dic­tion.

When it came to the 2024 Olympics bid, how­ever, they were al­most unan­i­mously on the same page. That wasn’t the case even when Wash­ing­ton an­gled for past Olympics. Peck worked on the 2012 bid, which pro­posed events from Bal­ti­more to Rich­mond as a way of pla­cat­ing po­lit­i­cal needs. Back then, he said, “there was this sense that every­body needed their shot at this thing. This time, every­body came to­gether.”

For the re­gion to do big things in the fu­ture, Ram­sey said it has to find ad­di­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties to get cor­po­rate phi­lan­thropists on the same page as public of­fi­cials and com­mu­nity lead­ers.

Dur­ing the bid, Ram­sey spoke glow­ingly of Dan Gil­bert, the founder of Quicken Loans and owner of the Cleve­land Cava­liers. His mil­lions of dol­lars of in­vest­ments and dona­tions into Detroit are driv­ing the city’s resur­gence.

It’s pos­si­ble we could wit­ness some­thing sim­i­lar in the Dis­trict — partly be­cause gov­ern­ment bud­gets are strapped.

And be­cause gov­ern­ments aren’t ad­dress­ing th­ese big prob­lems, such as traf­fic, it’s cre­at­ing more op­por­tu­nity and ne­ces­sity for public-pri­vate co­op­er­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to Ram­sey. “Some­how you have got to get the gov­er­nors at least talk­ing about an outer belt­way and some larger, ma­jor plan­ning,” he said, “be­cause th­ese choke points are go­ing to be an eco­nomic drag.”

The ques­tion is, who will be the pri­vate-sec­tor leader for the fu­ture of Wash­ing­ton? Ram­sey? Leon­sis? Is ei­ther ready to con­tinue the ef­fort now that the USOC judges have left town? Ram­sey said he is mulling what role would fit him best.

“I hope we’ll keep it go­ing,” Ram­sey said. “I just need a path to the win.”

In the top row, from left, stand Rob Schiesel, Glenn MacCul­lough and Chris Rzomp. In the bot­tom row, from left, stand Jor­dan Gold­stein, Chris Dunlavey, Bil­lMykins, Kari Fron­tera and Bob Peck.


For more than a year, they were part of the team that worked on cre­at­ing a set of plans for how the Wash­ing­ton area could trans­form to host the 2024 Olympic Games. It is un­clear if any el­e­ments of their vi­sion will still be re­al­ized now that the city has learned it will not host the games.



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