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Vancouverism and the Seven-Year Itch

Seven years after winning their bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, how are Canadians feeling about the upcoming games? Denis Du Bois talks with Vaughn Palmer, political columnist for the Vancouver Sun.

This is a highlight from the Building Priorities Briefing.

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Of course, hosting a green Olympics isn't all about energy savings.

VANOC's sustainability plan covers a multitude of environmental measures, from reducing landfill waste, to measuring air and water quality, to protecting wildlife and habitat.

Still, There's been plenty of criticism.

After committing, in its 2003 bid, to "move toward zero-emissions games," VANOC waited five years to come up with a plan for "carbon management," and then only under public pressure. In 2009 it took half-steps to mitigate its carbon emissions, and tried to find new, last-minute sponsors to pay for the carbon offsets -- while long-time sponsors were withdrawing their support for the games due to the economic downturn.

You don't have to look far to find vocal critics of the new highway through old-growth forest, the high cost of seats, the lodging shortage, the byzantine ticketing process, and the seemingly endless inconvenience to the locals.

Bloggers accuse the Olympic Committee and the Canadian government of greenwashing. Headlines routinely decry the cost overruns, the mounting public debt, and the desertion of major sponsors.

Our next guest is Vaughn Palmer, a political columnist for the Vancouver Sun. He also gives a weekly commentary on Canadian news on NPR station KUOW, in Seattle where this program is produced. He's based in the Provincial capitol of Victoria.

Vaughn, have the venues been a political tool?

Vaughn Palmer:
In general terms, the government tried to use the Olympic venue construction and building program to point in the direction that it wanted construction to go in the province in the future. So they brought in LEED standards. And one of the other things they did, for instance, was that they dictated that wherever possible wood would be used. And that's because the forest industry is the mainstay industry in British Columbia and it's also in serious trouble, so they wanted to set an example.

So, if you went to see our new convention center, which was built in part so that they would have a media center for the Olympics, you'll see a building that has just got some stunning use of wood all the way though. If you went to look at the skating oval in the municipality of Richmond, again, you'll see a wooden roof.

So they used public construction as sometimes governments do to make some statements, and they made a double statement with these projects. One, they wanted them to be green. And the other, they also wanted them to make use of the province's reserves of natural wood.

How are canadians feeling about the olympics in general?

I think with the Olympics in general -- you know, they always say, it's one of the most popular brands in the world. People get very excited about the Olympics.

British Columbia -- because we're paying for the games and games-related projects -- have been, the last few months, consumed with a lot of stories about cost, cost overruns, about security costs, and just about the massive disruptions that you have in a major city when you stage a world event.

Having said that, I expect that what will happen is when the games actually open next month, the focus will turn to the athletes and the events. And if the Canadian team does well at the Olympics, I expect the Canadians will be feeling pretty good about it.

Sustainability is a big part of VANOC's messaging around the games. How well is that message breaking through all the noise?

Their most recent report on it, I think, identified the dilemma. And that is that you can do many, many green things and you can do many things associated with a big event like this that makes the event carbon neutral. And you can have building codes.

You can do all of that. The problem they have is that one of the biggest greenhouse gas contributions of the Olympics is the massive amount of air travel that's involved in bringing people here. Tons and tons of CO2 and CO2 equivalents. And the only way you can deal with that is, basically, to buy offsets. So last report I saw, it looked as if the Olympics would be buying about 50 percent of their emissions. They would be dealing with those by buying offsets.

Now, everybody buys offsets, so it's not like it's a scandal, but the big contributor to the Olympics is air travel and the only way to do that is to buy offsets.

"Legacy" is an important conept to the IOC. The games aside, did these communities have a shortage of stadiums and such?


The biggest thing we built that there'll be some controversy around, in terms of lasting legacy, may be the skating center in Richmond. I don't know how much we needed that.

They're using existing hockey rinks, for example. The International Olympic movement agreed to use a North American-sized ice surface instead of the larger European-sized ice surface, so we wouldn't have to build new hockey rinks. So they're using existing facilities.

They're using the existing Whistler ski facility, which is one of the largest in world. I should say, one of the largest in North America. They did develop a second ski resort development at Callahan Valley, but that's going to be useable anyway.

The convention center was controversial, because it had a huge budget overrun. But that'll be used by the Olympics for a few weeks, but then it'll be available as a convention center. The bookings for the convention center are looking pretty good.

They built the new transit line from the airport, linking downtown Vancouver. It's an elevated light rail system. Very expensive, $2 billion. It's already in operation and very popular with the public. It's meeting its ridership projections, and of course it'll be there after the games are over as well.
So when I point out, and others have pointed out, the enormous cost of the games and the games-related projects, the people associated with the Olympics movement will come back and point out that there are a number, as you say, legacies that are associated with these games.

And unlike, I guess the most egregious example is that giant birds nest thing in Beijing. Which I think has been used once since the closing ceremonies in Beijing. We don't have anything that big and big expensive and will only be used for the games and not have a lot of use afterwards.

There is some controversy around that, but we were able either to use existing facilities or what we built has other uses down the road.

The one controversy we haven't mentioned is the Olympic Village in Vancouver, which is massively expensive. It's going to be turned back to what is called "affordable housing." But the only it will work as affordable housing, affordable to anyone in Vancouver who even pays taxes, they're going to have to subsidize the operations of it in some form or eat some of the debt associated with it.

Because some estimates have suggested that the actual cost of construction of that Olympic Village, once the renovations are completed and it's turned into housing, if you include the price of the land as well which was donated by the city. You're looking at [CAD] $600, 000 to $750, 000 per unit.

Well, that may be affordable in some circles, but it doesn't meet my test.

There's more public land surrounding the Olympic Village. Does Vancouver have an appetite for more green building?

One of the things that I'd say there was a piece in the "Los Angeles Times" recently that remarked on this. One of the thing that I think Vancouver is looked to is a measure of success in getting people living within a downtown core and effectively using the cheapest form of public transit, which is they walk to work.

The city has brought a lot of development into walking distance from the city core, and the Olympic Village site is on the edge of that. You'd have to walk across a bridge to get downtown, but it's not a long walk.


I am so glad that Chicago dodged the Olympic bullet. Reading about the cost overruns in Vancouver, the green "smoke and mirrors" neutrality by buying offsets, the destruction of old growth forests I know that it would have been worse to the infinite degree in Chicago under the Daley regime.