London's legacy: New urban center in games' wake

Sep 27 2010 - 4:38pm

LONDON -- With less than two years to go before the 2012 London Olympics, the company in charge of the post-games legacy is already working on plans to create a new community in the area where the event will be centered.

The Olympic Park, located in east London, is a 560-acre swath of land that will be home to facilities including the main Olympic Stadium, the swimming venue, velodrome, athletes' village and two main media centers.

But it is around the International Broadcast Center and the Main Press Center that the Olympic Park Legacy Company envisages the heart of a new commercial and residential zone in an area about 20 minutes by train from central London.

"What we're really trying to create is the sense of a place. The sense of a district," legacy chief executive Andrew Altman, an American urban planner, said during a recent tour of the area. "It's almost a bit like a campus. You can imagine the kind of setting this would be for people who want to work here."

The legacy plan calls for the two huge media buildings -- they will cater to about 20,000 journalists during the Olympics -- being constructed in the northwest corner of the park to be sold to businesses after the games. With a park-like area on one side and a canal separating the Olympic Park from the city on the other, the site is the park's prime piece of real estate.

"It will become a mix-used district," Altman said, noting the nearby athletes' village will leave 2,800 homes for the London public. "This is a place where we hope we'll be able to generate jobs in legacy."

To get the plan really moving in the right direction, the legacy company is asking for "expressions of interest" from companies around the world -- more than two years before they'll even get a chance to open for business. The legacy company said it has already received interest from a variety of sectors, including creative, retail, education and culture.

"You're in the market three years ahead, that's why we wanted to get out now, to test this, let people know we're serious," said Altman, a former deputy mayor of Philadelphia. "You couldn't move in before spring 2013, (but) you could start doing work, transitional work, in the fall (of 2012)."

However, the plan has come under fire, and some British news reports say that the broadcast center will be torn down after the Olympics because no one wants to move in.

Pauline Schaffer, the senior project manager for the legacy company, disagrees.

"The opportunities here are vast," Schaffer said, adding that the buildings are only wired for cooling but that heating capabilities can be added. "Everything is possible here, that's the good thing about it."

The broadcast center is a massive structure that can be cut into four completely separate buildings once the games are over, possibly housing television studios. The press center is a smaller, five-story building that would likely be used as office space, with a 1,200-car parking structure nearby.

"There's no intention right now to demolish the broadcast center," Altman said. "We certainly wouldn't demolish the press center."

The 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium, which will be the venue for the track and field competition and opening and closing ceremonies, has also been criticized, with some predicting it will become a white elephant. The stadium was originally designed to be reduced to a 25,000-seat facility after the games, but various other configurations are being considered.

The legacy company has already received interest from the West Ham soccer club and American sports and entertainment giant AEG, which revived the former Millennium Dome site near the Olympic Park into the successful O2 Arena. The stadium is to retain an athletics track.

"We're getting responses back by the end of the month on what the potential uses of the stadium will be," Altman said. "We're getting a lot of interest."

But the biggest challenge in drawing new businesses to east London may be convincing potential tenants that the Olympic Park is close enough to the inner city.

"It's an easy commute in," Altman said, pointing out the various London underground and aboveground stations nearby. "The perception of distance is often greater than what it actually is."

The legacy company is also working with Hackney, the area of London just across the canal from the media centers. Hackney Mayor Jules Pipe said in a statement that the buildings "offer an unprecedented opportunity to create a new employment hub" in the area.

And more jobs so close to new housing is just what Altman is hoping for.

"The point is to create a sense of community," Altman said. "The goal is not to be a sterile campus but part of the city."

 

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