Final thoughts on SF’s failed Olympic bid

The Winter Olympics in Sochi and Summer Olympics in Beijing set new, possibly unreachable levels of state-sponsored expenditures, all to show how healthy and resurgent Russia and China were in front of the world stage. There’s no need for such a dog-and-pony show in the US, so it was smart for the USOC to look for smart, cost-effective bids for 2024.

Boston beat out SF, LA, and Washington DC despite being smaller in terms of area and population than all three. Boston’s land mass is almost the same size as San Francisco, though it isn’t organized into a neat seven mile by seven mile square. It’s uneven, spanning both sides of the Charles River. Several suburbs butt up right next to Boston, whereas SF is surrounded by water on three sides. Sprawl was always going to be an Achilles heel in SF’s bid. BASOC tried to show a compact bid to USOC, but USOC wasn’t fooled. Boston presented a truly compact bid. SF faked it, new stadium in Oakland or no.

As I looked at the various bids, it became abundantly clear that a different factor hurts SF, and will continue to hurt SF every time it chooses to submit bids for the Olympics. The reasoning is simple.

San Francisco lacks a large, major university campus in or near the city.

LA’s bid was structured around a downtown hub anchored by Staples Center/LACC and the LA Memorial Coliseum, which happens to be next to USC. Two other hubs were at the UCLA campus in Westwood, and in Carson at the CSU-Dominguez Hills campus. Boston’s winning bid utilizes facilities at the campuses of Harvard and MIT in nearby Cambridge. Previously, China built arenas at Beijing’s Institute of Technology. Atlanta has Georgia Tech close to downtown. Athens suffered by building to compensate for not having preexisting venues, including many secondary facilities normally found on college campuses.

SF has three universities within city limits: tucked away USF, facilities-poor SF State, and UCSF. None of those schools have campuses large enough to house the kinds of venues the Summer Olympics requires. The closest large campuses are in Berkeley and Palo Alto. The Cal campus is 12 miles away, Stanford is three times that. Such a spread is tough sell when competing against more compact bid structures.

Blame it partly on the Bay. From a historical standpoint, San Francisco Bay had huge strategic value as a military port. There are forts on both sides of the Golden Gate, plus bases in the North, East, and South Bay regions. The government chose to build two large shipyards within SF city limits: Hunters Point in the southeast part of the city, and man-made Treasure Island. Protected harbors aren’t a dime-a-dozen, so you can’t blame the Navy from being protective. Had the Bay been filled in as was proposed at different junctures during the mid-20th century, we would’ve seen a much different scope of development with more density on infill closer to SF.

The Reber Plan would have filled in the Bay, provided new freshwater reservoirs, and new deep water harbors along the East Bay

The Reber Plan would have filled in the Bay, provided new freshwater reservoirs, and new deep water harbors along the East Bay

With more shipping uses in the new infill areas, SF’s waterfront could have been freed for redevelopment, including perhaps a major university at Hunters Point, or the Central Waterfront. There could’ve been a large campus with big time athletic facilities and mass transit built to accommodate the school. That’s what SF lacks now, and will lack for the foreseeable future. Ironically, SF eventually approved an expansion of the UCSF campus in Mission Bay, but UCSF is a graduate school, not a traditional four-year school with an athletic program.

Thankfully, the Bay was never filled in. It remains a visual and environmental treasure as well as a psychological barrier. The Bay is a body of water that makes SF seem elusive, adding to the unique form of provincialism Bay Area residents exhibit on a regular basis. There’s precious little room in SF for new permanent facilities. As a result SF will always be at a disadvantage compared to other bidders who only have to cross a river to navigate their respective regions. Bay Area civic leaders were smart not to approve filling in the bay. No number of Olympic hosting opportunities is worth it.

16 thoughts on “Final thoughts on SF’s failed Olympic bid

  1. I keep hearing about the geography and how “spread out” the bay area is, least we forget, the Atlanta (I lived there at the time) games had a horse park in Conyers which is about the same distance from Oakland to San Jose, canoeing and such in Tennessee and soccer events in Birmingham, Al, and Washington D.C, can you imagine the most popular sport in the world, in the Olympics being played in Texas!!??

    • The Olympics soccer tournament is meant to be a sort of mini-World Cup, so the bid is expected to use stadia in other markets. Slalom canoeing and kayaking require a special facility and conditions. In previous Bay Area bids that meant using the American River. It’s the indoor events and outdoor stadium events that the USOC and IOC want to keep clustered.

  2. Marine Layer, I think you exposed an inherent fault in the geography of San Francisco as a supposed leader of the Bay Area region.

    The fact of the matter is that SF is not centrally located in the region and has been artificially designated as the commerce center of the Bay Area through media perceptions and by having folks bypass centrally located Oakland while forced by the hundreds of thousands from the East Bay and across the Bay Bridge. The truth is that Oakland is where San Francisco should have developed.

    UC Berkeley started in Oakland, borders Oakland, and part of the campus is still within Oakland city limits. Oakland is actually better geographically situated for an Olympics bid than is San Francisco. UC Berkeley has track facilities at Edwards Stadium, Memorial Stadium for opening ceremonies, Haas Pavilion for many indoor events, while Oakland has Lake Merritt for rowing, the Kaiser Auditorium, the Fox Theater, and the Paramount Theater which could be used for various events. Oakland even has areas for equestrian activities near Skyline in the regional parks.

    Another thing that hurts SF is the hubris and arrogance where they refuse to work with the entire region. It took until the final minutes for San Francisco to enlist Oakland’s help in the bid. Up to that point, San Francisco wanted to waste 350 million dollars to build an ugly pop up stadium next to a freeway in Brisbane.

    Another example of provincial San Francisco thinking is to propose using a sub-par facility like the Cowpalace in Daly City for boxing purely because it’s on their side of the bridge. It’s pure arrogance and it’s why this is the fourth time “San Francisco” has failed in an Olympic bid.

    San Francisco is in the right place as a tourist center but in the wrong place as a business center and as a place to hold large sporting events and it contributes to their insecurity about working with other major cities in the region. As an example of SF’s faulty geographic location, Downtown San Diego isn’t across the Coronado Bridge and people aren’t sent over bridges to work in office buildings just because a place may have pretty views.

    Until San Francisco realizes that it can not hold an Olympics without the help, input and cooperation of the entire Bay Area region, it will continue to fall flat in its face because of its hubris and arrogance.

    • Elmano – If Oakland were to launch its own Olympics bid, everyone outside Oakland would think Oakland was joking. Oakland doesn’t have a major university campus within its own city limits. Oakland would be reliant on Cal to do much of the heavy lifting. Oakland has only 400k residents and has practically negative cachet compared to SF. You have completely missed the point of the post. Reaching out to involve other communities doesn’t help SF in this era, when the USOC and IOC want a more compact games. There’s no point to hosting in SF if two-thirds of the events are outside SF. Unless SF has more homegrown facilities within city limits it will lose out for the foreseeable future.

    • Dude, Oakland was never going to be the center of attention for the Olympics and will never be the center of attention for the Bay Area. Just deal with it like a rational adult (a tall order for you, I know) and move on.

      • This is about finding ways for the Bay Area to someday be able to host an event such as the Olympics. Your negative views of Oakland cloud your judgement in using the best possible locations and venues in the Bay Area.

      • Don’t lecture me about clouded judgment. There’s not a single person on this site who is as narrow-minded and willfully blind as you are. Do us all a favor and stick to your repeated promise to not post.

    • @ Elmano
      I love Oakland, and not unlike you, I believe a lot of Oakland’s bad rep is undeserved. There are so many wonderful things about Oakland (San Jose too), but your constant everything Oakland cheerleading, gets nauseating. The only reason San Francisco is not centrally located, is because the Bay Area grew eastwards then southwards, it’s not as if Oakland was the center of the region to begin with.
      Oakland is cool it doesn’t need your help defending it, especially when you say things like “SF, not being the commerce center of the Bay Area”, is that even true? Oakland/Eastbay, San Jose/South Bay, San Francisco/Peninsula, North Bay, are all vital portions to the San Francisco Bay region. No disrespect intended you seem like a really inelegant person that could bring so much more to the conversation.

      • Lakeshore, I appreciate your comments and views.

        San Francisco developed because of the gold rush. The ships docked there but the emphasis was always about getting to the “mainland” across the Bay. In those times San Francisco was considered a cold, dirty, windy and unpleasant place to live. As San Francisco developed, wealthy San Franciscans would come to Oakland for the bucolic settings, the views and the better weather. Wealthy San Franciscans built retreats in the Oakland hills while Lake Merritt was surrounded by beautiful Victorian homes. The wealthy of San Francisco also chose to be buried in beautiful Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland when their time came.

        Oakland was also a major and important city with more theaters than San Francisco, it’s own trolley system downtown ringing all the way to Rockridge and the Piedmont Avenue neighborhood.

        After World War ll, Oakland’s image began to change because of an influx of African Americans who came to work in the shipyards. The San Francisco centric media began to define Oakland with out of context references like “there is no there there” to marginalize Oakland and to keep businesses and residents on their side of the Bay.

        Oakland should have been the center of the Bay Area. The congestion caused by thousands of cars parked at the Bay Bridge toll plaza has a domino effect on traffic all over the Bay Area. If Oakland were the financial center of the Bay Area, the region would have been much better off than it has been because of a forced financial center on a small 49 square mile peninsula connected to other parts of the much more populous East Bay by congested bridges.

        This is why Oakland is also much better suited for an Olympics than is San Francisco. Of course, Oakland would have to add about 20,000 hotel rooms and rebrand itself after its image was destroyed by decades of San Francisco centric machinations by the powerful San Francisco corporate media.

    • Wow, I actually agree with much of what Elmano stated re SF’s arrogance and how the traditional Bay Area SHOULD have developed: the East Shore being the major population/commercial/skyscraper center and the current SF being more Marin County – suburban in nature. Interesting thought Elmano.

      To all: apologize for my occasional “shitty” attitude towards anything NOT San Jose re the A’s. I guess that’s what continued “enslavement” to SF interests will do to you after over 10 years…(whether SJ or Oakland, I guess we’re all in some ways “slaves” to the interests of the world renowned city)

  3. Marine Layer, part of UC Berkeley is actually within Oakland city limits while the headquarters of UC Berkeley is located in downtown Oakland. UC Berkeley is closer to Oakland than Harvard is to Boston. The Clark Kerr Campus at UC Berkeley is actually in Oakland city limits. Most people don’t realize how far north the Oakland border extends. You can practically hit Panoramic Way in Oakland with a long pass from Memorial Stadium in Berkeley.

    Sure, you’re right about Oakland not having the “cache” but there’s also a manufactured reason for that.

    I also neglected to mention Oracle Arena and the Coliseum in a Oakland/ Berkeley “Bay Area” Olympics and the fact they are all connected to other Oakland and Berkeley venues by Bart. I know, It’s laughable to some because that’s how we’ve been conditioned to think about Oakland here in the Bay Area.

    Did you know Oakland was once actually considered the “Athens of the West” before its image was reshaped by the San Francisco-centric media?

    • Nav – Nobody – except maybe you – cares about the “Athens of the West.” Especially the IOC. There’s UC student housing in Albany. It’s not a big deal. Don’t make it more than it is. For all intents and purposes, Cal is a Berkeley institution. If the Bay Area were picked for the Olympics, an enormous media center would have to be set up. Guess where that’s not going to be? SF, not Oakland. The cachet of a city is what makes the city competitive. The technical details are what makes the bidding city win. This is not about Oakland. This is entirely about what SF can and can’t do. An Olympic bid lives and dies with that.

      • Part of your argument is that San Francisco doesn’t have a major university nearby. Oakland does. You’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole when it comes to San Francisco having to be the center of an Olympics. San Francisco is the front but there is no beef. That’s the problem. When someone once suggested filling the Bay just to accommodate San Francisco, you know the emperor has no clothes.

        Also, Atlanta hosted an Olympics with a population roughly the size of Oakland. Is Atlanta better than Oakland and its great and scenic Bay Area location? I don’t think so.

      • Nav – Each city is missing a major component. SF lacks facilities. Oakland lacks cachet. They’re too far away from each other for the USOC/IOC to be impressed. If SF and Oakland were separated by a river that would be one thing. They’re separated 6 miles by a bay, and the bridge spanning the two doesn’t support pedestrians. No amount of shifting things around can fix that.

        Atlanta is clearly the hub of large metropolitan area, spanning into northern Alabama and eastern Tennessee. Oakland is at best the hub of the East Bay, and for many outside observers, is a semi-suburb of SF despite Oakland’s assertions of independence.

  4. The Reber plan that was shown above wasn’t dismissed out of hand. Despite the fact Reber worked in theater and had no professional experience in engineering, geology or hydrology, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Bay Model in Sausalito to study whether it would work; it didn’t. However, they kept the model and as a result have greatly improved their knowledge of how the bay works.

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