Poverty-stricken East London wonders whether it will gain from nearby Olympics

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 10, 2012 

— One of the enduring stars of the London Olympics isn’t an athlete but a structure: The swooping, wavelike aquatics center designed by Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid and built at a cost of $422 million instantly became one of the city’s iconic buildings.

About a mile away, however, sits a far less glamorous athletic facility: the Atherton Leisure Center, used by residents of the hardscrabble neighborhood adjacent to the Olympic Park. The center’s pool – the only public pool in the area – was closed last year after local officials decided not to spend roughly $390,000 to repair the roof.

It didn’t escape notice that the Olympics aquatics center cost more than 1,000 times that amount.

“It’s an irony that in an Olympic year, they chose to close the nearest public pool to the Olympic Park,” said Mubin Haq, the policy director for Trust for London, a charity.

As London celebrates the end of triumphant Summer Games – marked by sold-out venues, a groundswell of patriotism and a medal count that exceeded most Britons’ wildest expectations – the Olympic legacy in its own neighborhood is less clear.

Organizers won the games in part on a promise to catalyze the redevelopment of the city’s long-suffering eastern boroughs. Billed as the most sustainable Olympics ever, they include plans to open the 500-acre park and its world-class facilities to the public, generate jobs and housing, and complete the cleanup of an area that’s historically been one of England’s poorest.

Residents, however, are skeptical about what will happen once the world spotlight fades.

They note with some bitterness that the games took place on their doorstep, yet they were largely locked out because of ticket prices that exceeded what many here earn in a week.

They mutter about the giant billboards plastered on public housing projects and the gaudy treelike sculpture outside their old shopping mall – erected at a cost of some $4.7 million – which they suspect were meant to shield Olympic visitors from the shabbiness of an area where unemployment is higher and life expectancy lower than the national average.

“The community is being decimated, and yet it’s weird what the council chooses to spend its money on,” said Adele Ratenbury, an 11-year resident of the Newham borough, adjacent to the Olympic Park.

Then there’s the story of the Atherton pool, which closed several months ago after the discovery of asbestos caused a dramatic rise in anticipated repair costs.

The London Legacy Development Corp., the nonprofit agency charged with overseeing Olympic facilities after the games, says the aquatics center will reopen – like much of the park – in spring 2014 and will be available for public use. But it’s also slated to become a training facility for elite swimmers and may occasionally host international competitions, meaning the public could be restricted from using it at certain times.

“We don’t really know what’s going to happen to it,” said James Lowe, a 25-year-old Newham resident who used to swim in the Atherton pool. “It would be cool if we as the public could use it. Till now I’ve only seen it on TV.”

There’s no doubt that the five boroughs next to the Olympic Park – the others are Greenwich, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest – are in need of rejuvenation.

A 2009 report by the boroughs described the area, home to 1.25 million people, as “the greatest cluster of deprivation in England and Wales.” A former industrial wasteland – the aquatics center was built atop a refrigerator dumping ground – the area had seen its employment base dry up when the nearby docks fell on hard times more than a generation ago.

Olympic organizers say the games spurred the improvement of transit links that tie the area to its surroundings, including a high-speed train that whisks travelers from central London to the park in seven minutes. When they arrive, they’re greeted by Westfield Stratford City, the largest indoor shopping mall in Europe, which had been in the works even before London won the games as the linchpin of economic redevelopment in the area.

Already, a nearby cluster of high-tech businesses – dubbed the “Silicon Roundabout” because of their proximity to a traffic circle – has brought new energy to East London. Inside the park, it’s hoped that the 90,000-square-foot media center used during the games will attract even more technology firms.

Qatari Diar, a mega-construction firm based in the oil-rich Persian Gulf emirate, is involved in redeveloping the athletes’ village into a new housing complex dubbed the “East Village.” By next year, 2,818 new homes, including housing for low-income residents, will be ready for move-in, with a total of 8,000 homes due to be ready by 2015.

“There can be no white elephants when the games are over,” the elected mayor of Newham, Robin Wales, told McClatchy in a statement. “Olympic venues . . . are helping to transform the East End by kick-starting regeneration and creating opportunities to further motivate and engage our people in sport and physical activity.”

Part of Wales’ plan is to get University College London to set up a new campus on Carpenters Estate, a plot of public housing and businesses at the edge of the park, in sight of the red-spiraled ArcelorMittal Orbit. Over the past several months, Newham officials have been trying to get residents of Carpenters to resettle in other areas.

Osita Madu, a 39-year-old resident of one of the largest apartment blocks in Carpenters, said the Newham council had been trying to strong-arm residents by forcing them to accept buyouts below the market values of their properties. Madu, who owns a one-bedroom apartment, said local officials had offered roughly $156,000 if he’d vacate his place, although a comparable flat in the neighborhood cost about twice that.

“You can see it’s not realistic for anyone to want to sell, let alone be able to afford a new place if they want to sell,” Madu said.

It’s not that Carpenters residents were opposed to the Olympics. British flags fly outside homes just as in other parts of London. Madu, who’s lived here for a decade, said he didn’t want to be forced to accept a raw deal just because officials were bent on ensuring a favorable legacy for the games.

“We just want to make sure they do things fairly and properly,” he said. “It’s not as though we’re investors: This is our home. I bought my apartment because I wanted to live there. And that was in 2003, before we even knew they were getting the Olympics.”

Email: sbengali@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @Sbengali

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