Olympic backers press case in latest public meetings

The crowd of more than 400 at the start of the city's public meeting at the Condon School had thinned to roughly 150 people by 9 p.m., shortly before the meeting concluded. Photo by Lauren Dezenski

After two public meetings held this week to consider the contours and costs of Boston‘s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics Games, two themes have emerged: Anxious citizens are looking for hard facts about the effect of the Games on their lives and on their neighborhoods, and backers of the bid are reluctant, even unwilling, to offer hard answers about an international event that is nine years in the future.

In the midst of all the back and forth, Mayor Walsh and three members of Boston’s political delegation made news of their own:

Walsh announced on Tuesday that the city and the US Olympic Committee had revised the so-called Joinder Agreement, a statement of mutual obligations that both parties had signed onto earlier, to strike language barring city employees from offering their opinions about the city’s pursuit of the games and obliging the mayor to oppose any ballot referendums on Boston’s bid.

On Wednesday, state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry signed on to co-sponsor a bill from state Representatives Michael Moran of Brighton and Aaron Michlewitz of the North End that, if enacted, would give the Legislature substantial oversight over public participation in developments leading up to the Games.

At a city-sponsored forum on Tuesday night at the Condon School in South Boston, more than 400 people packed the elementary school’s cafeteria for more than two hours as questions in search of those hard answers were posed to a group of bid backers, including Mayor Walsh, the developer John Fish, the architect David Manfredi, and Boston 2024 CEO Rich Davey, who were careful to maintain that they are in the “proof of concept” phase while noting that specifics can change. They spoke of the planning leading to the Games in Japan and London games, which changed between 40 percent and 50 percent from the bid proposal to the start of the competition.

The mayor, who showed up in the second hour of the meeting, again fielded questions about the city’s financial risk in the process while defending the pursuit of the bid. In response to questions, Walsh said he had met with a number of groups, including businesses from Widett Circle and the opposition group No Boston Olympics. “Their concerns are legit,” he said, “the peoples’ concerns are legit.”

Despite that concession, community members who attended Tuesday’s city-sponsored meeting and those who were at the Boston 2024 session held Monday night in Roxbury spoke about their frustrations at the lack of solid answers from Games proponents.

A woman from Fort Point asked for details about the proposed media compound sited for Fort Point, a 27-acre plot of land abutting the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center–Boston 2024’s plans for the location, detailed in bid documents but not included as a part of Tuesday’s presentation. In the exchange that followed, Fish defending withholding those details from the meeting, noting that the broadcast center in London was only 60 percent occupied because it was designed so far ahead of the games that it did not keep up with rapid changes in technology. “You know, in fact, it’s going to change,” he said. “But it’s 29 acres you’re reserving,” the woman replied, striking a theme echoed by many questioners. “I know it’s a building there; just tell us what is in store for us.”

Fish, in line with later comments from the city’s Boston 2024 liaison John Fitzgerald and others, called the idea that that the group would simply “reserve” or take the land proposed in the bid without a process is a “misnomer.” “No one has promised us this land,” Fish said. “I believe we need to vet this over next 18 to 24 months.” The woman continued: “Let us understand what it’s going to mean for those of us that are going to live next to it.” Fitzgerald then cut in, saying he would personally attend every neighborhood group and association in an area involved with the Games bid.

During the first hour of the meeting, state Rep. Nick Collins asked audience members from South Boston to raise their hands. “About half,” he replied after surveying the hands that shot into the air. Boston City Council President Bill Linehan, a South Boston resident, defended the proposal. “Do we need to host the Olympics?” he asked. “No we don’t,” a man in the audience shouted. “Yes we do!” Linehan responded: “Why can’t Boston host the Olympics? It would be an extraordinary achievement in our city to be among the great cities of the world to be able to do this.” Linehan added that community members should “formulate questions” for their elected officials “to drive the agenda home and resolve these issues, so we can have a collective, really good feeling going forward for city of Boston.”

The atmosphere at the meetings was not entirely querulous. A number of community members voiced support for the Games as being beneficial for the city and a boost to jobs and investments. At the beginning of the meeting, the crowd cheered for a brief speech by retired hockey player Dave Silk, a member of the 1980 Olympic hockey team that won the gold medal in Lake Placid.

At Monday night’s session, Fish offered that the boost might involve 100,000 to 125,000 jobs “between volunteers and newly created jobs.” That statistic was not raised on Tuesday night.

On the whole, a number of key items posed at the meeting were not answered, including specifics about the amount of transportation funding that will go into the preparation for the Games and the specifics of back-up locations for sited facilities.

Sen. Dorcena Forry, married to Reporter publisher and editor Bill Forry, went right to that point with the backers: “I think it’s important that when we talk about money needed that you come out with it directly,” a specific reference to talk about upgrades and/or alterations to JFK/UMass Station, Kosciuszko Circle, and Franklin Park. “I think it’s important that we talk frankly about it and put it out right now and just talk about the cost.”

For his part, Davey was clear in saying that the additional Red and Orange Line cars, scheduled to be delivered to the commonwealth beginning in 2018, were the only transportation upgrades necessary to benefit the Games. However, last month, the Reporter found that the transportation improvements including a Kosciuszko Circle overhaul, JFK/UMass station upgrade, and the South Station expansion, were not in the state’s pipeline of funded projects as Boston 2024 had initially stated. Boston 2024 has since walked back those statements, and did so again on Tuesday night. Davey said that “discussion” of the South Station expansion, Green Line extension, and a rail link between the Boston Convention and Exposition Center are all things “we think the Olympics can help push, prod, and frankly, there’s nothing like a deadline when you’re working in transportation.”

Earlier in the meeting, Manfredi addressed the matter of an upgraded JFK/UMass station, saying the Games could be a “catalyst” for JFK/UMass station improvements as well as other Columbia Point upgrades. Boston 2024 has said that the group was mulling a public-private partnership to upgrade JFK/UMass station. Additional bus platforms would be added to the station to accommodate the Olympic Lane buses shuttling athletes and visitors to and from the Athletes Village on Columbia Point, according to statements by former Boston 2024 president Dan O’Connell, who stepped down last month.

Davey specifically addressed the nightmare traffic rotary at Kosciuszko Circle, listing it as a location in need of “traffic improvements that isn’t currently funded. Kosciuszko Circle is among improvements that could happen” because of the Olympics.

As to the larger picture, Davey conceded that while Boston 2024 is still in a listening and fact-finding mode, the group could “put a new plan out and infer feedback” from residents, possibly before the September deadline to submit a bid to the International Olympic Committee. Boston 2024 will then be able to continue to tweak the bid over the following two years until the final host city is selected in 2017. After the meeting, Fitzgerald told the Reporter that community meetings will be “ongoing even after September. They’ll be ongoing from here on out, until we know whether we have it or not.”

Tuesday night’s meeting was the second of nine city-sponsored meetings about the Boston Olympic games. The next city-sponsored meeting will be held at the Harvard Business School on March 31 at 6:30 p.m.

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