Maybe what we need around here, to unstick our sluggish planning and get some major projects built, is a Summer Olympics. Or, better, a Phantom Olympics that delivers the benefits but without the Olympics. Calm down, and let me try a mostly-in-jest thought-experiment.
First, we need to review the bidding. London gets the next Summer Olympics, in 2012. Chicago, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, and Tokyo are the leading candidates for 2016. Copenhagen, Prague, and Rome are major contenders for 2020, with Detroit, Philadelphia, and St. Paul the leading American candidates. Way out in 2028, one finds Seattle listed mysteriously as a potential site, along with Amsterdam and Vancouver (site for the 2010 Winter Games). Twenty years is too long to wait. By then, we'll even have Sound Transit running, and Mayor Greg Nickels will have just left office. So we need to shoot for 2020.
After all, Birmingham is. Not England. Alabama. That city's sudden bid for the 2020 Olympics is being led by the mayor there, Larry P. Langford, who appears to be the sort of person who looked at the Beijing Olympics with an impressionable eye. In his first term as mayor of a city of 230,000 souls, Langford has advocated a $500 million domed stadium, a $33 million trolley network, and now an Olympics bid. If Birmingham, why not Seattle, you might ask.
Birmingham needs an Olympics because it's nowheresville. Seattle needs one because we're processville. The deadline of an Olympics bid, not to mention an actual Olympics, forces the feuding city interests to agree on Some Big Things, and the threat of international embarassment makes them happen. Historically, we've used world's fairs, the next best thing, to do the trick. The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909 gave us the plans for the University of Washington campus. The Seattle World's Fair of 1962 cleared out the space and put up some of the buildings for Seattle Center.
Seattle famously pulled a fast one on the international community for that 1962 exposition. Under the rules of a top-tier world's fair, you are not supposed to use the funds to sneak in permanent buildings, but that's just what we did (by settling for a second-tier status) in building what became KeyArena, the Science Center, the upgraded Opera House, and Intiman Theatre. Other world's fair sites were leveled afterward, and usually became parks. Seattle snookered the authorities and ended up with a cultural center.
Another important fact to keep in mind in playing this game of leveraging new facilities is that most of those awesome structures put up for the Olympics rarely pay off. Athens in 2004 and Montreal in 1976, particularly, got taken to the cleaners, putting up expensive stadiums that couldn't be filled, didn't work functionally, and ultimately became known, as in Montreal, as the "Big Mistake." (The Montreal Expos, recall, ultimately fled town for Washington, D.C.) Often there's no natural function for these mammoth buildings, and the much-admired Bird's Nest in Beijing will likely be home to a lousy Chinese soccer team that has been drawing about 10,000 to their games.
Now, I don't believe that Seattle has enough civic coherence actually to win such a bid. Think of the objections to the traffic, to the hardships on the homeless, to the regressive taxes (all we have out here) to be levied to make it happen. Ugly! Better, then, to outsmart the authorities by having a mock campaign for the 2020 Olympics, using the excitment of the bid to get some big ideas on the table: proper renewal of Seattle Center, a great central waterfront, a snazzy new arena for the Post-Sonics, Sound Transit Phase 3 (the mag-lev version), an Olympics Village that becomes a University of Washington Everett campus, a new hiking and biking trail circumnavigating the, ahem, Olympic Mountains — and some cunning plans for how to use these facilities, post-failed-bid. We might even dust off a fine old idea for the Olympics, competition events for the arts, such as sculpture and painting.
If we are shrewd, we lose the bid, blaming it on the evil folks in Philadelphia, and then console ourselves by building these things anyway (probably scaled back to local needs). We'll show 'em! New leaders will have emerged, along with an agenda for what in Paris they called Grands Projets That was a grand scheme to erect major new buildings across Paris, resulting in the Musee d'Orsay, La Villette (a park with a science center that is an intriguing model for Seattle Center), the Institute of the Arab World, L'Opera de la Bastille, and the monumental La Defense arch to the west of the city. Paris could do this because it still pines for past glory. Seattle could do it because we aspire to greatness without any of the inconvenience of actually hosting an Olympics.