London Olympics: on time and under budget?

LONDON, U.K. — Economists were surprised last week when British output in the second quarter was revised upwards by a fraction of a percent. That fraction can probably be traced directly to the Olympic Park in Stratford, at the city of London's eastern edge.

Olympic organizers claim it is the largest building site in Europe. Ten thousand people are working there, 20 percent of them local hires. A 1.5-billion pound ($2.25-billion) Westfield shopping center, part of a local regeneration scheme independent of — but dependent on — the Olympics, is nearing completion close to the Olympic site. At the southern end of the Olympic Park, on a nasty four-lane highway that was once home to sketchy used car lots, a brand new Porsche dealership has opened up.

Happy days are most definitely here again in what was, until the Olympics arrived, one of the poorest and most socially deprived areas, not just in Britain, but all of Europe.

A recent bus tour of the 500-acre (202-hectare) Olympic site shows why, at this point, the good feeling surrounding the project is justified. Behind a 7.5-mile-long electrified security fence, buildings and stadiums are topped out or almost there, and there is still almost two years until the opening ceremony.

The Olympic stadium superstructure is finished and is being fitted with seats. The velodrome is already sealed off from the elements and having its "superfast" wooden floor laid. The biggest building, the broadcast and media center — 1 million square feet of space for an expected 20,000 journalists — is being wired up. The first section of the 2,800-unit Olympic Village, which will ultimately house 16,500 people during the games, is having its air-conditioning and ventilation units installed.

The building that is probably the farthest from completion is also the one genuine architectural masterpiece on the park, Zaha Hadid's Aquatic Center. You can tell it's a masterpiece because Hadid's building has become the focus of the British press' favorite game: building up false controversies. It's too expensive, they say; it's behind schedule, it is too difficult to build, etc. Even in its unfinished state you can see that Hadid's building, with its arcing roof that calls to mind a dolphin or a butterfly swimmer entering the water, will be one of the most beautiful buildings made so far this century.

Just as impressive as the building progress is the completed work to reclaim the site environmentally, according to Alison Nimmo, director of design for the Olympic Delivery Authority. The Olympic Park straddles the River Lee, a tributary of the Thames. For decades the stream was London's dumping ground for industrial waste, rubble from buildings destroyed during the Blitz, and just the flotsam and jetsam of modern life: shopping carts, old refrigerators, televisions and stolen cars.

"Four million tons of stuff has been 'remediated.' Ninety percent of the soil on the site has been decontaminated," Nimmo said.

Considering the Olympic Park is in a densely populated part of London, three and a bit miles from the financial district of Canary Wharf (roughly the distance from Wall Street to Chelsea in New York City), an observer can't help but be impressed by what is going on. Doubly so if he is familiar with London's recent history with big building projects.

The refurbishment of Wembley Stadium, home to the nation's football team, was completed 18 months late and reportedly 400 million pounds ($619 million) over-budget. The British Library, the nation's equivalent to the Library of Congress, was more than a decade behind schedule and comparably expensive. And those are just two examples. It's hard to think of a major infrastructure project in this country in the last two decades that has been completed on time and on budget.

The Olympics looks like it might be the one. Although the budget numbers may need some further investigation. The project began as a public-private partnership in heady economic times.

Today, the private sector has dramatically reduced its participation, although by just how much, Nimmo can't say. The government, despite its austerity budget, is committed to providing the funds necessary to see the project through. The Olympic Development Authority share of that budget now stands at 7.2 billion pounds ($11.2 billion).

What all this construction means to locals is difficult to assess. Prior to the Olympics coming, this area was best known for having the highest rate of tuberculosis in the Western world. 

Back at Stratford station, I came across a fellow named Sidney busking on his violin.

Sid has lived his entire 85 years in London's East End. A true cockney, born in the London Hospital in Whitechapel, he has seen the area bombed to rubble during World War II, neglected for decades afterwards, then become home to successive waves of West Indian, Bangladeshi and now African immigrants. He sits outside the busy station, where the London Underground, Overground and Dockland Light Railway intersect, playing his violin to top up his state pension, and to pass time. He is clearly popular with the ladies who keep a steady stream of coins dropping into his violin case.

He doesn't expect to be here in 2012. Not for reasons of mortality but because he doesn't fit the sparkling image London officials want to show the world.

"It's obvious," he said. "Temporary policeman have already started a campaign to smarten up the station. They are concerned about villains coming from the continent and they are moving every one along."

Sid is philosophical about it. Railroad stations are often places of drunkenness and petty crime but he wishes the authorities could see the distinction between a poor, badly dressed old man hanging around making music to earn a few coins and a bunch of young men loitering around drunk.

"It takes a long time to learn to play the violin," he cackled, showing a four-tooth smile. "It doesn't take too long to learn to get drunk."