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.
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.