Feb 3, 2023
Beijing’s Awkward Olympic Legacy Shows Risk of Venue Reuse
(Bloomberg) -- About 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of Beijing’s historic Forbidden City sits a rare success story in urban revitalization.
Shougang Park spreads out over more than 8 square kilometers on the Yongding River, on the site of a massive steel factory that first opened in 1919 to smelt iron ore from the nearby Longyan mine. Once the most advanced mill in China and a key contributor to urban smog, the Shougang complex was relocated by the government after Beijing won the rights to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, as part of a wider effort to help clear the city’s skies. It sat idle until 2015, when Beijing was chosen to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, becoming the first city to host both Summer and Winter games. The city government parlayed that victory into a massive redevelopment plan for the area, which would seek to preserve and highlight its industrial past instead of bulldozing over it.
Today, one of the mill’s blast furnaces serves as a visitor center — a former line worker, dressed nattily in a blue suit, gives tours and explains the steel-making process. A former cooling pond acts as a reflecting pool for a nearby hilltop temple. Old warehouses are home to a mixed-use development that features restaurants, car dealerships and hair salons, as well as offices for more than 200 companies. A coal power plant has been converted into a Shangri-La hotel, replete with a champagne bar, restaurants and a lobby filled with plants and standing water. Between the complex’s hulking industrial towers, sunsets gleam orange.
“Shougang ended production due to the Summer Olympics, and was reborn due to the Winter Olympics,” said Yu Hua, head of the planning and design for the Beijing Shougang Construction Investment Co.
But there’s a small problem at the center of this success story. Or, more accurately, a 60-meter (197-foot) tall one: The site’s most iconic development for the Winter games — and a much-lauded poster child for reuse — has limited plans for the future.
A year ago at Big Air Shougang, Olympic skiers and snowboarders were hurtling through the air performing death-defying spins and flips against a skyline of smokestacks. The events were even more successful in China than organizers could have hoped, with Chinese athletes Eileen Gu and Su Yiming both winning competitions and earning the park the honorific nickname “Blessed Place of Dual Gold Medals.” Following the games, President Xi Jinping lauded the site and mocked foreign commentators puzzled by the industrial backdrop.
“I heard someone ask, ‘Was the ski jump held at a nuclear power station?’” Xi said in a speech in March. “They just don’t understand that this is a green transformation. We have transformed the steel industry into the sports industry.”
The transformation may be a victim of its own success. Originally park operators envisioned the site as a year-round attraction — turning the ramp into a water slide or grassy slope during the summer — but that would mean reducing the terrifying slope to make it safer. After ski jumping went big, officials said they decided to keep the ramp as is so it might play host to future professional events, even if that meant it could only be used a few times a year during winter.
Now Big Air Shougang sits unused for months at a time, as pieces of white carpet used to keep artificial snow sticking to it peel off and expose the steel structure underneath. Last year was particularly bad due to China’s stringent Covid restrictions. But even after a reprieve in December — when the facility was temporarily reopened as a snow theme park, and visitors could slide along a gentle slope at the bottom of Big Air — the purpose of the venue beyond winter remains a question.
For events like the Olympics or the World Cup, figuring out what to do with multimillion-dollar — or multibillion-dollar — facilities once the games are over has been a tricky proposition, and watching them fall into disuse has fueled public opposition to hosting in many global cities.China made some early progress in tackling these so-called white elephants. About 60% of the venues for the Beijing Winter games were existing or temporary, according to the International Olympic Committee. For instance, the National Aquatics Center, a.k.a. the “Water Cube,” hosted swimming and diving events during Beijing’s Summer Olympics in 2008. Last year it was reborn as the “Ice Cube” for curling.
But no one has cracked the white-elephant issue writ large. When Qatar spent $300 billion to host the World Cup this year, its plans included building seven new world-class soccer stadiums (and renovating one more) for a country of about 350,000 native Qataris. Experts immediately questioned the realism of Qatar’s vow to find new uses for many of those stadiums moving forward.
One year on from Beijing’s Olympics, the roaring crowds are noticeably missing at Shougang, even as the park slowly comes back to life following the end of Covid. China’s capital successfully became the first city to hold a Summer and Winter Olympics, but Beijing still needs to prove there’s life for all of these facilities now that the games are over.
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