The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
The US Olympic Committee recently selected Boston as its candidate city to bid on hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics. Unfortunately, organizers are considering the notion of using eminent domain to take property to build a "temporary" 60,000 seat Olympic stadium which will be torn down after the games end:
What the public has learned, mostly through carefully orchestrated leaks to the media, is not encouraging. Rather than use existing facilities, the bid relies on building the four most expensive Olympic facilities from scratch. Boosters would use eminent domain powers to seize land for a "temporary" 60,000-person stadium which would be bulldozed after just six weeks of Olympic use.
I am a big sports fan and love watching the Olympics. But using eminent domain to build a sports stadium is a terrible idea. Studies by economists across the political spectrum uniformly show that the costs of public subsidies for sports stadiums outweigh the economic benefits to communities. In this case, the ratio of costs to benefits is likely to be even more lopsided than usual, because the site under consideration includes the successful New Boston Food Market, which employs some 700 workers and generates some $1 billion in annual revenue. Since the stadium will be torn down right after the Olympics, Boston is likely to exchange a thriving business for a massive vacant lot, plus the substantial costs of construction and demolition. Eventually, of course, some new facility might be built on the land. But that, too, will take time and money, and the property will remain unproductive in the meantime. That scenario is both unjust to the current owners of the land in question and their employees, and bad for the city's economy.
The misguided use of eminent domain to build sports stadiums is a particularly blatant case of the more general failure of "economic development" takings to generate the prosperity promised by advocates. As the sad history of Detroit suggests, cities that use eminent domain aggressively tend to undermine their economies rather than improve them. The better path to prosperity is respecting the security of property rights, which helps promote investment and strong neighborhood ties.
In fairness, the Boston plans probably won't end up forcibly displacing tens of thousands of people, as occurred in the case of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. But smaller-scale coercion of this type is still troubling.
More generally, hosting the Olympics tends to be a massive boondoggle for cities, as numerous recent examples show. Even failed Olympic bids end up wasting large amounts of public money. For example, Chicago spent some $100 million on its unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Olympics.
The one modern exception to this pattern was the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, which relied on existing facilities, and was mostly funded with private money. As a former longtime resident of the Boston area and an avid fan of the city's sports teams, I am not categorically opposed to having the Olympics there. But if Boston does host the games, it should follow the Los Angeles model of using existing facilities and relying on private funding. If the organizers cannot or will not accept such restrictions, Bostonians will be better off letting some other city host, and watching the games on TV.
UPDATE: I have made a few stylistic changes to this post in order to improve clarity.
UPDATE #2: One possible option is that the Olympic stadium may be "shrunk down" after the Games and turned into a soccer stadium for the New England Revolution. That plan makes little sense, both because professional soccer is not a very popular spectator sport in Boston, and because the soccer stadium is unlikely to be as valuable as the current uses of the land, and would not even effectively use all of it (since it would be smaller than the Olympic stadium).