Stratford City's main street, in East London, is a seedy mess.
Many storefronts are boarded up, though Workplace, the local employment office, is doing a thriving business trying to find work for the hopelessly unemployed. Some of the ugliest modern apartment blocks ever designed line the streets, interspersed with handsome but run down old buildings, like the Stratford town hall, shabby fast food joints and discount shops.
The poverty is made all the more jarring by geography. Just to the west lies a pocket of wealth - the shiny towers of Canary Wharf, stuffed with investment banks, BMWs and men in Brioni suits. Stratford City could be on a different planet.
But turn the corner, and there it is - Europe's biggest urban mall. Called Westfield Stratford City, the £1.45-billion, U.S.-style monument to shopping is nearing completion and will cover 1.9 million square feet. That's just the start, for the mall will be the gateway to the 2012 Olympic Games. The Olympic stadium, with 80,000 seats, is 90 per cent finished. The other structures, from the Calgary Saddledome-style velodrome to the aquatic centre, which looks like a great white stingray, are going up quickly. With 23 months to go before the opening ceremonies, the site's 10,000 workers are at the peak of what is known as "the big build."
A lot has changed since London won the Olympics five years ago, when the city was Europe's premier boomtown. The 2008 financial collapse saw the British government take part or full ownership of at least three big banks while an estimated 133,000 jobs in banking, investment banking and asset management disappeared during the height of the financial crisis. Then came the recession and, with the election of David Cameron's Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in May, a brutal austerity program to prevent the country from following Greece down the economic toilet.
Which leads to the question: Can London afford £9.3-billion for the Games and will the investment revitalize perennially depressed East London?
The street-level views from Stratford City vary considerably.
Victoria Ezeani, a 34-year-old law school graduate of Nigerian descent who is a regular visitor of Workplace, isn't optimistic. "I've been looking for a job since May - there's nothing," she says.
Won't the new mall soak up every idle body in sight? Not as far as Ms. Ezeani is concerned. She believes the 300 stores, when they open next year, will hire "friends of friends" or import employees. "Plus, no employer is willing to take you without experience," she says, noting that not many young people in Stratford City have experience in anything but looking for work.
Bonita Anthony, 48, who works for a social housing agency, thinks the Westfield development and the Olympic site will revitalize the whole area. "There is a lot of wasteland around here," she says. "The mall is far too American for my liking, but if it brings people to the area, it'll be a good thing. The question is: What will happen after the Games?"
Good question. Olympic cities, from Montreal to Athens, generally have a dismal record of leveraging the Games into lasting economic and social benefits.
London's surprise victory over front-runner Paris to host the 2012 Olympics seemed confirmation that London was on top of the world. It also gave the city an opportunity to revitalize the struggling East London, a pitch that appealed to the International Olympic Committee. But it would come at a price. When London launched its Olympics bid in 2003, the cost was estimated at £4-billion - £3-billion for the Olympic Park and £1-billion for regeneration of the River Lea, the Thames tributary that flows through the park.
After London was awarded the Games in 2005, the price tag was revised upward to £9.3-billion, thanks to rising construction costs, tax, beefed up security, extra transportation expenses and a disturbing lack of private funding. A £2.7-billion contingency fee was tossed into the sum. When the financial crisis hit, the amount seemed extravagant and perhaps unaffordable. But David Cameron's new government left the budget largely untouched.
Tony Travers, the London School of Economics (LSE) professor who is a director of the Greater London Group, which researches the city's competitiveness, said the government had no choice but to leave the budget intact. By the time the austerity program was launched, the Olympic Park was more than half built and on schedule for early completion.
"The budget was made before the recession and austerity program," he said. "Once you're signed up, you have to see it through a pretty much whatever cost."
The government was, and continues to be, under unrelenting pressure from the deprived areas of East London to keep the Olympic Park budget intact and commit to "legacy" developments after the athletes have left town. In an LSE speech late last year, Roger Taylor, director of the Olympic Host Boroughs Unit (composed of the five generally poor boroughs around the Olympic Park) cited "the desperate need for physical regeneration that could bring benefits to a very deprived community" of 1.25 million residents.
Mr. Taylor noted that by almost every social and economic measure - employment skills, jobless rates, life expectancy, child poverty, violence - the area ranked near or at the lowest in all of London. The borough of Newham, for instance, has the city's lowest employment rate at 56 per cent. The Westfield Stratford City mall and the Olympic Park are essential economic drivers, but guaranteeing regeneration will require "a sustained commitment over 20 or more years," in education, employment, housing, health and crime reduction, he said.
Australia's Westfield Group, the developer of the Westfield mall, considers the mall the commercial anchor for a whole new East London metropolis, one that will stretch east from Canary Wharf into the five boroughs. The 87-acre site was not scaled back in the recession and will be anchored by Britain's biggest retailers - Waitrose, John Lewis and Marks & Spencer.
When it opens next year, about 8,500 people will work there, eventually rising to as many as 18,000 when all the retail and leisure phases are complete. Westfield is also sponsoring an on-site retail academy to train the unskilled. "These initiatives will play a key role in helping to reduce unemployment," said Peter Miller, Westfield's chief operating officer.
Mr. Travers said the construction of the mall and the Olympic Park is something close to a development miracle, the equivalent of a "Hoover Dam-style project," essentially compressing potentially decades of development into a few years. He notes that two other big London revitalization projects - the King's Cross area and Battersea Power Station, Europe's largest brick building - are nowhere near finished because of on-again, off-again efforts since the 1980s.
The Westfield mall will be a permanent East London feature. But the Games are a one-shot wonder and the fear is that the Olympic Park will go from economic asset to liability the moment the closing ceremonies finish. In an effort to prevent the park from reverting to wasteland, a public agency called Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC) was formed with the goal of turning it into a vibrant commercial, housing, leisure and sports centre.
The OPLC will start off on good footing, because it will inherit the Olympic Park land debt-free. Plans are already being made to sell the Olympic stadium (minus 50,000 removable seats), possibly to the West Ham soccer franchise. A mix of social and upscale housing will be essential to the project's success, as will the development of food markets, performance space, festivals and light industry. So far, there are only expressions of interest.
Will it work? Mr. Travers said there are no certainties, given the hefty ongoing investment that will be required to keep the Olympic Park alive during tough economic times and the potential fall-off in political interest in reviving East London once the Games are history. "It's a gamble," he says. "Everyone says they want a proper legacy but it's not at all guaranteed that it will work."
If it doesn't, the £9.3-billion spent on the Olympics will seem like a waste of valuable resources when Britain was essentially broke. But if the amount does rejuvenate a hard-pressed corner of Britain, it will be considered money well spent. The trouble is, no one will know for years.