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Seize the Games' Golden Opportunity

For the Olympics to pay off, we must see and exploit this unique chance to transform Vancouver.

By Lance Berelowitz 14 Jul 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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What could the 2010 Olympic Winter Games mean for Vancouver's future after the flame is doused? It's not too soon to ask.

A city seemingly poised for so long at the cusp of something bigger is about to get the chance of a lifetime to reinvent itself. Vancouver stands to emerge from 2010 far more dynamic, creative and mature. Beyond hosting the Olympic Games themselves - an event of perhaps questionable value in and of itself - the real prize could be our willed evolution into one of the world's great cities.

That is what Barcelona and Sydney did with their Olympics. Can we?

If so, we must thoroughly exploit the golden opportunities the Olympics offer. Here are four:

The Olympics exert a unique gravitational force on money.

Vancouver is a long way from the political and economic centres of Canada, as every alienated westerner knows. Huge opportunity lies in the major capital flows -- federal, provincial and corporate -- that only a hallmark event such as the Olympic Games can pull to a city so far from power.

While Vancouver's 2010 submission to the IOC made explicitly clear that its bid didn't hinge on major federal infrastructure projects, infrastructure is the name of the game. And not just roads or even mass transit, but the cultural infrastructure that supports a more competitive, workable and attractive city.

The recent federal and provincial government agreement to proceed with the expansion of Vancouver's Trade and Exhibition Centre is a good example. By creating the facilities to compete with convention centres worldwide, it helps put Vancouver on the global city map. Event planners worldwide will automatically consider Vancouver, just as they now do other world cities. That has a huge benefit for a city that is pinning its future economic prospects on tourism and quality of life over the number of corporate head offices or auto plants. It is this kind of international exposure that in turn could help lead Vancouver towards a more sustainable, diversified economy based less on the fluctuating fortunes of primary resources, and more on creative ideas and knowledge.

The Olympics can fast track solutions to our inevitable needs.

The on-again off-again Richmond Airport Vancouver (RAV) rapid transit line and other regional transit infrastructure investments are a lot more likely to find financial support than they were before Vancouver won its bid.

And make no mistake, while the high-cost RAV project has its local detractors, many of whose arguments are credible, and who may have succeeded in derailing the project for now, this is a public infrastructure project that - sooner or later - Vancouver will need to invest in, in one form or another. No leading city in the world can afford not to make efficient public transit to and from its airport, its global gateway, a key priority.

And fast-growing Richmond is not going away. Yes, the northeast sector of Greater Vancouver is still awaiting its long-promised rapid transit connector, which is just as critical a piece of the region's public transit puzzle. But the RAV line will be one less critical piece of the puzzle to put in later.

These projects do not get any cheaper if we wait, nor do we have the choice of doing something else with the money. The federal cash is pegged to the project - that's Canadian political reality - and Vancouver should seize the opportunity.

We may not all like the realpolitik involved, but winning the 2010 Olympic Games has helped make it that much easier for the feds (and the private sector) to come to the table to ensure this key transit project proceeds. Vancouver will be the winner if it does.

The Olympics can showcase the values and skills we need to advertise.

The City of Vancouver has spent most of the last decade trying to figure out what to do with its Southeast False Creek lands. The 2010 Games will kick start the first phase of redevelopment of this prime site as the Vancouver Olympic Athletes Village. Again, the real benefits to the city go far beyond the 17-day Games themselves.

If done right, Southeast False Creek would generate many imitators, inspiring and encouraging land developers across the region to move towards much higher standards of sustainability. The big prize here would be Vancouver becoming a global standard-bearer of urban sustainability.

With a mix of market and non-market housing along with community facilities, Southeast False Creek will complete the transformation of the east False Creek basin into a vibrant, diverse urban neighbourhood. It is also a smart way to leverage the Olympic Games for much-needed affordable housing.

Beyond Southeast False Creek, the Olympics will spur other lasting developments: A renewal of historic Hastings Park. Improvements to BC Place and GM Place stadiums. And upgraded community centres, including the new full-service centre that will emerge out of the 2010 Winter Games Curling Rink facility in the heart of Vancouver's Riley Hillcrest neighbourhood, replacing the substandard old centre and deteriorating indoor pool (which in turn could free up land for a major regional recreational pool facility, something Vancouver needs).

The Olympics are a chance for a city to rethink its public image and appearance.

Much of Vancouver's public realm- the streets, squares, parks and civic amenities where the public life of the city is played out - is, to put it politely, underwhelming. But the Olympics could help change that. If this at first seems like a trivial focus, consider Sydney's Olympics buildup: over $300 million invested in civic facilities and streetscape improvements in the central city core. This scale of investment, from both the public and private sectors, has transformed that city into a Pacific Rim cultural superpower and global tourist destination.

Sydneysiders emerged from their Olympic Games experience with an enhanced self-confidence, can-do ability and cultural expectations that are impossible to quantify but are the priceless qualities of a city and a society that is backing itself and embracing its destiny. That may sound like hype, but it's what I heard over and over again on a recent visit. And it is this sense of creating a culture of excellence that the Lord Mayor of Sydney emphasized when he addressed the Greater Vancouver Community Leadership Summit here in 2001. Sydney has become a city of the future, and it knows it.

In the same way, metropolitan Vancouver might expect to become a quite different place post-2010: new and improved roads; better and more public transit; new community and recreation facilities; completion of the wholesale transformation of False Creek into a more complete, sustainable community and urban waterfront; an enhanced public realm; cultural critical mass and raised standards. But even more than these physical changes, is the prospect of developing a culture of excellence. And the ineffable, empowering sense of pride and self-confidence that citizens of all great cities evince.

A tall order for a two-week sports festival to deliver? You bet. Lots can go wrong. And the anti-Games proponents are right to temper supporters' expectations with healthy doses of social conscience. But just as the Olympic Games are a metaphor of elitist waste for some, they are also a compelling metaphor as agent of positive change.

The 2010 Games might well be a wonderful experience for many. Yet what should excite Vancouverites more is the long-term transformation this opportunity offers our beautiful but still so young city. The power of such an event in the life of an emerging city should not be underestimated.

Lance Berelowitz ufa@telus.net was the Vancouver 2010 Bid Book Writer/Editor. He is an urban planning consultant and past Chair of the Council-appointed Vancouver City Planning Commission. His book about Vancouver's emerging urban form will be published by Douglas & MacIntyre in spring 2005.
 [Tyee]

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