Washburn

The Legacy of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver

Ray Tomalty is the co-author of America's Urban Future: Lessons from North of the Border, which draw lessons from Canada’s urban policy successes to offer ways to revitalize US cities and suburbs. Here, he looks back at the legacy of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

This month, the Olympic torch relay began in Brasília. After leaving the capital, the torch will visit more than 300 Brazilian cities and as it winds its way to Rio de Janeiro, gradually shift the nation’s attention from its political and economic troubles onto its Olympic hopes. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will give Brazilians 16 days to prove their athletic and organizational mettle, but many are hoping the massive public investment and world attention occasioned by the games will bring lasting economic and social benefits well beyond the closing ceremonies.

Although all host cities of major international sporting events hope their games will bring lasting benefits, not all have succeeded. While the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing brought accolades for the architectural icons built for the games, long term reuse of the facilities was not a high priority for planning officials. As a result, the billions of dollars invested in the world’s biggest sporting event left little of permanent importance.  A similar story can be told of the 2014 Winter games in Sochi, where much of the $50 billion spent on the Olympic build-up has now been all but abandoned.

Not all Olympic events have been followed by such unpleasant hangovers. Some, like the 2010 Winter Games hosted by Vancouver and Whistler in British Columbia, have made concerted efforts to repurpose infrastructure and leave a lasting legacy of sporting facilities, housing, and public infrastructure. Moreover, the Vancouver experience shows that that you can turn even relatively modest investments to lasting advantage: A total of $6-billion was spent between all three levels of government (federal, provincial, and municipal) to deliver the the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler, including the direct costs of Olympic facilities and the indirect costs associated with supporting infrastructure.

Mindful of mistakes by previous host nations, the Vancouver Organizing Committee set aside a $110 million legacy fund to ensure that public investment in the games would continue to pay dividends well beyond the games themselves. The trust fund is being used to sustain Olympic facilities indefinitely after the games. As a result, six years after the Olympics left town, these venues are in good shape, being actively used, and contributing to the vitality of the communities around them.

The Pacific Coliseum, which housed the figure skating and short-track speedskating events in 2010, is home to the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants and also hosts dozens of concerts and other events annually. The Richmond Speedskating Oval attracts more than 700,000 visitors a year by hosting a variety of championship events. The Vancouver Olympic/Paralympic Centre was built to host curling events at the games and now serves as a community centre with with ice hockey and curling rinks.

 The Richmond Oval. Photo Credit: adrian8_8 via Flickr

The Whistler Sliding Sports Center has become a training hub for luge, bobsled and skeleton. The Whistler Olympic park, which was used to host the Nordic events in 2010, today offers 130 kilometers of picturesque ski and snowshoe trails, along with biathlon, ski-jumping, tobogganing and baseboarding facilities. The Whistler Athletes’ Centre has transformed into a high performance training and accommodation facility for all levels of sport, educational groups, as well as art and culture organizations.

Another major legacy of the Vancouver Olympics is the Olympic Village, a mixed-use complex costing nearly $1 billion that housed athletes during the 2010 games. The village was built in an abandoned industrial area mostly covered in parking lots, at the southeast corner of False Creek near the Olympic Village SkyTrain station.  The private developer went under in the real estate meltdown of 2008-2010, but the project was taken over by the City of Vancouver and completed in time for the Olympics. The LEED-Gold certified project has 1100 living units, of which almost one third are designated as affordable rental or ownership. The development triggered further investment and is now at the hub of a vibrant mixed-use district, expected to reach a population of 20,000 by 2020.

The Olympic Village with Southeast False Creek in the background. Photo Credit: Kamiri78 via Wikipedia

When planning for the 2010 Olympic Games began, the Sea Salt Processing Building was one of the last buildings still standing from the industrial era along southeast False Creek. The abandoned factory was purchased by the Vancouver Organizing Committee and transformed into an entertainment venue for the athletes. Today, the LEED-certified building has been transferred back to the private sector and serves as a popular food destination with a micro-brewery, craft pub, bakery, café and restaurant.

The Salt Building: A venue for athletes turned into an eco-friendly and popular watering and eating spot. Photo Credit: Recollective

As another result of the 2010 Olympics, seniors across British Columbia are now being provided with much needed affordable living accommodations. Following an agreement between the provincial government and the Vancouver Organizing Committee, 320 modular housing units from the Olympic Village at Whistler are currently being relocated and converted into permanent, affordable apartments in six communities across the province.

Repurposed Olympic Legacy Modular Buildings Providing Housing for Low-Income Seniors. Photo Credit: Modular Building Institute

Almost half of the total public investment in the 2010 games was for supporting infrastructure like road and transit upgrades. The lion’s share of this indirect funding ($2 billion) went for the the Canada Line, a 19.2 kilometres (11.9 mi) rapid transit route linking the Vancouver International Airport with Olympic facilities and the downtown. Although it had been on the planning books for decades, the 2010 Olympics was the catalyst needed for it to hurdle from plan to reality. Although many criticized the investment as politically motivated and said other transit projects would give more bang for the buck, the Canada Line has turned out to be phenomenally successful. Unlike many transportation megaprojects where demand fails to meet rosy projections, actual ridership on the Canada Line is 50% higher than anticipated even by the project boosters. Moreover, the line has resulted in a building boom along its axis and around many stations.

The Canada Line at a station in Richmond surrounded by high-density development. Photo Credit: The Canada Line

The most remarkable makeover is happening in Richmond, a suburb south of Vancouver, which was until recently a bedroom community with a typical suburban landscape of low-density residential precincts, highway-like main streets, large low-rise malls and sprawling parking lots. City planners went into high gear as soon as the route was announced in 2005. Developers lined up early with projects and kept coming after the 2010 Winter Olympics focused the world’s attention on Vancouver. Now apartment towers cluster around stations and along the elevated track with many more projects in the works. By 2040, Richmond expects to see 30,000 more people living around the line with nary a surface parking lot remaining in sight. 

The Vancouver 2010 Olympics were anything but extravagant. No equivalent to the Beijing Bird’s Nest or the Montreal Olympic Stadium (the “Big Owe”) was built in Vancouver. Nonetheless, the Vancouver Olympics had its fair share of doubters. The Olympic organizers were dogged at every turn by vocal opponents who claimed the games would saddle the province with expensive “white elephants” that would go all but unused after the splash of the Olympics seeped away.  

Despite these warnings—or perhaps because of them—the games were far from a boondoggle. Careful planning, financial foresight, and exemplary cooperation among various levels of government have leveraged the Olympic investment into a boon – not only for the private interests that have benefited from the associated boost in tourism and land values, but also for the general public, who regularly use the legacy facilities. At the macro level, the 2010 Winter Olympics have helped in the realization of Metro Vancouver’s longstanding ambition to fashion the region into a network of transit-oriented, walkable, neighbourhoods with a world-renowned quality of life.