More than 300 people came out to Suffolk Law School Thursday night for the first of nine meetings put on by the City of Boston to discuss the 2024 Olympics bid.
The meeting, twice delayed by snowstorms, ran about three hours and drew both supporters and skeptics. No Boston Olympics, the nonprofit group that is campaigning to keep the games out of the city, brought signs and distributed them to their supporters, calling for more focus on transportation, housing and education instead of the Olympics.
While this was the city’s first public meeting, bidding group Boston 2024 also held its own public meeting a couple of weeks ago. No Boston Olympics held its own the week before. Eight more city meetings are scheduled through September.
Here are some of the takeaways from the first one:
Boston 2024 and City Hall are, at this point, a team.
For a meeting hosted by the city, it was somewhat striking to see upon entering that the panel of speakers would be Boston 2024 representatives—namely, Chairman John Fish, CEO Richard Davey, architect David Manfredi, Executive Vice President Erin Murphy and Paralympian Cheri Blauwet.
Boston Redevelopment Authority Project Manager John FitzGerald got the meeting started, but quickly turned the floor over to Boston 2024. Fish addressed the crowd first, before turning it over to Manfredi and Blauwet, who gave essentially the same presentation they provided at Boston 2024’s first public meeting in January. All told, Boston 2024 controlled the first hour or so of the meeting.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh arrived at the meeting after that first hour. Once the presentation from the bidding group was finished, the floor was opened for questions. They were fielded both by Boston 2024 and by Walsh, depending on who was best suited to answer. Multiple residents said they wished Olympics critics had been included in the panel. (Walsh, who is scheduled to meet with No Boston Olympics on Friday, said that kind of event may be possible in the future.)
That setup created the impression that the city and Boston 2024 are at this point in lockstep as it applies to the bid. That’s not quite a new dynamic—Walsh described the city’s relationship with Boston 2024 as team-like in an interview with Boston Public Radio last week; the United States Olympic Committee said when it selected Boston that the teamwork between Boston 2024 and City Hall helped to win them over; and a top Walsh aide, Joseph Rull, took a job with Boston 2024 this week at Walsh’s insistence, The Boston Globe reported.
Shortly upon arriving, after the second question from the audience, Walsh offered a fiery defense of the city’s bid. “I see the Olympic discussion as a way to advance’’ city planning, he said. And, he stressed that he would not let the bid get in the way of other priorities.
“My top priority is to represent the taxpayers and residents of the city of Boston,’’ he said. He said things like education and transportation remain toward the top of his priority list—a nod to the concerns of Olympics opponents in the audience. “I see the signs,’’ he said of the ones Boston 2024 handed out. “And thank you for coming.’’
Transit improvement is a hot topic.
Perhaps this was exacerbated by the horrible week on the T, but many members of the audience focused on the opportunity for improved infrastructure. Davey, whose last job was as the state’s secretary of transportation, eagerly took most of those questions on. At least two people at the meeting suggested Boston 2024’s transportation plans don’t go far enough, and that the group should utilize the Olympics bid to connect North and South stations by rail—long on the wishlist of transit activists. Another person said that officials should consider working new track for the Green Line into the bid.
Others spoke for the potential added water transportation should the games come, and pedestrian improvements. Davey at one point suggested that a representative from WalkBoston, which focuses on making Boston more walkable, get in touch after the meeting lest he “nerd out’’ for too long on the topic.
There was more talk about a referendum.
Walsh was asked by one resident who said he loves the Olympics and loves Boston, “but not the two of them together,’’ whether a referendum would kill the bid. Walsh said it would depend on the wording of the question and whether it was binding or nonbinding. “If it’s a binding referendum and the voters say no, it’s binding—it’s done,’’ he said.
Walsh has said he does not support the idea of holding a referendum, but told The Wall Street Journal last month that he wouldn’t stand in the way of one. City Councilor Josh Zakim is moving to place four nonbinding questions on Boston ballots this fall, and former third party gubernatorial candidate Evan Falchuk has gotten the ball rolling on a possible statewide ballot question in 2016. No Boston Olympics has regularly cited a ballot question as a possible outlet for its own opposition.
People didn’t like the Boston Common volleyball idea.
At one point during Mandredi and Blauwet’s presentation, they showed a rendering of the proposed beach volleyball stadium on Boston Common. That idea drew hissing from multiple members the crowd—enough so that FitzGerald later asked that attendees refrain from hissing for the rest of the evening. No other venue shown during the presentation drew an audible reaction.
And during the question and answer session, at least four people complained about the Boston Common plan. Beacon Hill neighborhood groups had previously said they think beach volleyball should be brought elsewhere.
Davey acknowledged that it had seemed divisive. “A lot of people tonight don’t like the beach volleyball idea,’’ he said. Walsh, speaking to the press after the event, said that one meeting wasn’t enough to show total distaste for the Common plan. “In one meeting, I’m not going to say it’s not the right place,’’ he said.
Boston 2024 continued to stress throughout the night that it is in a “proof of concept’’ phase, and that its plans for any number of venues could change. (Earlier Thursday, it had said it was doing away with a controversial part of its bidding documents—a part that suggested spectators could live in off-campus student housing during the summer of 2024.)
John Fish made another promise about public money.
Boston 2024’s plans include three separate budgets. The first is an organizing budget to operate the Olympics, which the group says it will cover entirely. The second is an infrastructure budget of about $5.2 billion, to cover transportation upgrades. That would be publicly financed. The third part of the budget is described as a $3.4 billion budget for public-private partnerships to create things that are needed for the games—namely, an Olympic Village (planned for Columbia Point, and including eventual student housing for UMass Boston), media and broadcasting centers and other venues. Work required to prepare for a stadium at Widett Circle is also included in this budget, though the actual costs of the stadium, which would be part of the organizing budget, are not.
The bidding documents released to the public by Boston 2024 in January said the group hoped to find private developers to finance these projects, but did not give much in detail. On Thursday night, asked to elaborate further on these projects, Fish said: “There will be no taxpayer money whatsoever.’’
It may be hard to quell questions about civic priorities.
Walsh and other leaders have said several times that they will not let the Olympics bid get in the way of other city plans and priorities. But residents may find that hard to believe. Members of Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee questioned why things like affordable housing and a cure for AIDS couldn’t get the resources and attention that an Olympic bid might.
Walsh replied by saying that the city is already prioritizing housing and pointed residents to his housing plan for 2030. He also said that a benefit of hosting the Olympics could be increased tourism and further attention from global companies that could look to invest in the region could create more resources for the state and the city to take on other issues.