More than 300 people turned out for the city of Boston’s first public meeting about the summer Olympic games in 2024 at Suffolk University on Thursday night as organizers made their case for a bid that is still being formulated.
The three-hour meeting was moderated by John Fitzgerald, the city’s liaison to Boston 2024, the private nonprofit organization behind the city’s Olympic pursuit. After a 20-minute bid presentation, both city officials and Boston 2024 executives were on hand to answer community questions “until there are no more questions,” Fitzgerald explained.
Much of the night was spent “nerding out on transportation,” as new Boston 2024 President Rich Davey, former state transportation secretary, put it to the crowd.
Boston 2024 chairman John Fish set the tone for much of the meeting by reiterating the group is in its “proof of concept phase,” making aspects of the proposal highly fluid.
“Venues may change. Therefore, transportation recommendations from Boston 2024 may also change,” said Fish, addressing outstanding questions about taxpayer funded upgrades to the city and region’s roads and rails. Davey, Fish, and others repeatedly insisted that the games would not require any additional taxpayer funds for infrastructure improvements, beyond what is in the state’s pipeline.
“We want to spend money that is already in the queue,” said Fish, referring to projects that are already funded or “near completion.” He added: “The transportation spend we're talking about is not for the Olympic games themselves.”
Those projects, specifically noted in last year’s transportation bond bill, include new generation Red and Orange line trains, which are desperately needed to modernize the T’s exiting, antiquated fleet. Fish and Davey said other major transportation improvements which have not been specifically funded yet— such as South Coast rail, an expanded JFK/UMass Station, and a link between North Station and South Station— are not necessary for the proposed games.
Fitzgerald, Fish, Davey, Mayor Martin Walsh, Architect David Manfredi, and Paralympian Cheri Blauwet fielded questions from the crowd. A dozen attendees silently held signs reading “Better Schools, No Olympic Games” as the city and Boston 2024 officials entered the room.
A handful of Dorchester residents registered their questions and concerns around the proposed games during the roughly two-and-a-half-hours of questions, ranging from concern about beach volleyball on the Boston Common to a suggestion to create an independent commission studying the games’ walkability. The community comments were a patchwork of concern, opposition, support, and questions.
Longtime Columbia-Savin Hill resident Bruce Schatzwell took issue with the city taking over currently needed resources to set aside for the games nine years from now.
“We do not want anything in the queue to stop,” for non-Olympic development on public or private land, Fish said. “We do not want to be a hindrance on the plan.”
The Boston Teachers Union, located on Columbia Point and in the heart of the proposed Athletes Village, was the subject of a BRA-sponsored community meeting on Thursday evening to examine BTU’s plan to build a new headquarters on its current site over the next three years. Fish did not address those specific plans.
Orlando Perilla, the chairman of the Harbor Point Community Task Force, asked whether Boston 2024 and the city were looking into remodeling or fixing Columbia Point’s infrastructure.
“The traffic is horrendous,” he said, adding it took him 40 minutes to travel from Harbor Point’s exit on Mount Vernon Street to Morrissey Boulevard that day. “How are you going to open more ways to exit Columbia Point?”
“We will study it and have studied it to date,” Manfredi replied. “The mayor has insisted we study and report back to him.”
In an interview with the press after the meeting, Walsh clarified: “We’re talking about the ability to plan what the traffic patterns would be around Kosciuszko Circle,” Walsh said. “I think a potential Olympic bid would allow us to speed up the process and really address the issues around Kosciuszko Circle, which don’t just benefit Harbor Point or Morrissey Boulevard, it’s a whole regional approach.”
Walsh added: “It allows us the opportunity because JFK/UMass station is also commuter rail, and it allows us the opportunity to upgrade that station as well, and it’s also Red Line for both Ashmont and Braintree lines, so there’s a lot of opportunity with the bid to potentially upgrade those services.”
As the Reporter originally reported last month, there is no state money specifically allocated in the latest transportation bond bill for upgrades to the notoriously congested rotary nor an update to JFK/UMass Station. Former Boston 2024 President Dan O’Connell said in January that the organization could pursue a public-private partnership to build out JFK/UMass MBTA station for the Olympic games.
Dorchester resident Dan Curry, who lives near JFK/UMass station, spoke at the meeting and said it is "undemocratic" for the USOC to select Boston w/o public input, taking issue with the US organization’s selection process.
“Now there’s only one way for USOC to learn the lesson: lose or withdraw the bid for the summer games,” said Curry.
A number of speakers voiced concern over the public process up until now, with some asking what impact a referendum would make on the bid. Walsh clarified a binding referendum, such as the one proposed by United Independent Party Chairman and Founder Evan Falchuk, could stop the bid process. City Councillor Josh Zakim, whose district includes the Back Bay, introduced a measure this week to put four non-binding questions about the Olympic games on the November ballot.
The presenters also fielded a number of questions about a proposed 60,000 seat temporary stadium at Widett Circle and what that would mean for the existing businesses there.
“There are other options available to us,” for stadium locations, said Fish, who added that it will take the next six to seven months to flesh out specific plans for siting the stadium and other venues. At the bid unveiling on Jan. 21 and again last night, Boston 2024 reiterated that they sought to move the food production businesses at Widett Circle to other locations in the city without any loss of jobs. In a previous interviews with the Reporter, New Boston Food Market, the cooperative of food production businesses located at Widett Circle, have repeatedly said they are not interested in leaving.
Davey also addressed concerns about the condition of the public parks in play during the games: the Boston Common, which would be used for beach volleyball, and Franklin Park, whose William J. Devine Golf Course would be repurposed for an Equestrian event.
“Our budget includes restoring the parks to be in better condition than when we found them,” Davey said.
Per specific concerns about the historic golf course, the games would "largely stay off the largest parts of Devine Golf Course,” and would only be used for one day, Manfredi said during the bid presentation. This week, the Reporter wrote that the games would erect a 60,000-seat facility in the golf course and rely upon a previously agreed-upon improvement to Franklin Park’s White Stadium by the city and John Fish–currently mothballed due to prohibitive costs.
Vivien Le, of the Boston Conservation Commission, asked whether there was a timetable for Boston 2024 to talk to property owners about their land being used for Olympic facilities. In January, the Reporter found Boston 2024 had not approached landowners in Columbia Point and Widett Circle prior to releasing the bid documents to the public. Davey said those conversations with property owners are in the process now, with “some conversations further along than others.”
Last night’s meeting was the first of nine public meetings held by the city of Boston before Boston 2024 submits its bid to the International Olympic Committee in September 2015. The IOC then has two years to select its host city for the 2024 summer games. Boston’s competition includes Rome, Paris, Melbourne, and Doha, Qatar. The next public meeting is on Feb. 24 in South Boston’s Condon School cafeteria, beginning at 6:30 p.m.