Vancouver residents are already Olympic winners

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

Infrastructure projects, public transit improvements and recreational facilities became priorities thanks to the Winter Games


It was more than eight years ago that I wrote in this space about the way the Olympics might shape Vancouver as a city.

I suggested then that the 2010 Games would help accelerate new infrastructure projects, showcase a new form of urban development with both Vancouver’s and Whistler’s Olympic villages and focus attention on environmental and sustainable development issues. I also pointed to evidence from other international studies that suggested at the time that residential real estate markets would be largely unaffected by Olympic activity — either pre-Games or post-Games.

Interestingly, a recent UBC study concludes that the hosting of an Olympic Games does not prompt an increase in local house prices, and that prices do not crash after the event is over.

Sauder School of Business researchers Tsur Somerville and Jake Wetzel said the results of their research of cities in the U.S., Canada and Australia, including those that hosted past Olympic Games, conclusively demonstrate that while construction employment dramatically increases in the period before the Games, house prices are the same as they would be in the absence of the Games.

However, their study also demonstrates that hosting the Olympics consistently increases the rate of growth in construction employment in the period before the Games in cities hosting the Olympics.

They also conclude that Vancouver may well experience an increase in participation in sports and an enhanced public wellness, along with a meaningful boost to our identity and sense of self as a result of hosting the Games.

Well, it will be some months, perhaps even years, before we can measure whether their predictions are true in some of these areas.

However, it is easy enough now to point to other areas where both my earlier observations and their study conclusions seem to be valid.

The Canada Line rapid transit project and the Olympic Line streetcar demonstration project are two great examples of major urban infrastructure projects that would probably still be on the drawing table if it hadn’t been for the Olympics.

The Olympic Line has yet to become a long-term reality, but if it can be transformed from demonstration project to a permanent line, it might just become the trigger for a whole series of public transit improvements that shape future livable growth both in Vancouver’s downtown area and throughout the first-ring suburbs.

There are also countless recreational facilities, both new and improved, including the Trout Lake arena, the Hillcrest Park project and the Richmond oval, that became public capital spending priorities because of the Olympic Games.

The Olympic athletes’ villages, both in Vancouver’s Southeast False Creek neighbourhood and in Whistler, are showcases for ultra-sustainable development.

Even if Vancouver’s showcase for new green living proves too expensive to be a true model to be replicated, it does demonstrate the full range of green building and energy efficient technologies that we must be deploying in future new development.

It also sets a new template for a pattern of high-density development quite different from the downtown highrises that, up until now, have defined “Vancouverism“.

Finally, we haven’t ridden an Olympic roller-coaster of housing prices. In fact, we have weathered the recent economic storm very well, already coming out of one of the worst downturns ever in North American real estate activity relatively unscathed -I repeat “relatively”– and much before most other markets.

This would have not been the reality if it hadn’t been for the local job creation that was sustained by the Olympic push.

So, we will have to wait some time yet before the real Olympic impact is defined.

Measuring our progress on the short track, it is fair to say we earned a spot-on the podium.

In the meantime, enjoy the Games and may the best men and women win.

Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with COUNTERPOINT Communications Inc. He is a former real estate developer who specializes in urban land use issues. E-mail: [email protected]

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