The Gentrification Scheme Behind Los Angeles’s “No-Build” Olympics

Olympic host cities face accelerated gentrification, displacement, privatization, debt, environmental harm, and police militarization, while developers reap cold hard cash. The outcome of Los Angeles’s 2028 Summer Olympics will be no different.

Former Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti looks on beneath the Olympic Rings during a press conference following an International Olympic Committee session on July 11, 2017 in Lausanne. (Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images)

This January, activists gathered in the center of the gymnasium at Cathedral High School in Los Angeles’s Chinatown. They stood surrounded by info placards and screens promoting the construction of a one-mile gondola that would ferry passengers from Union Station in Downtown to nearby Dodger Stadium, with a stop in Chinatown. The gondola project, a $300 million collaboration between former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and Los Angeles Metro, is slated to open in time for the 2028 Olympics, and the gymnasium event, the project’s third public hearing, was billed as an opportunity for the community to offer input. But anyone who wanted to give public comment was instructed to do so behind a curtain in a corner of the room. Refusing to accept the premises of what amounted to a promotional event, activists took over the meeting, clearing space for residents to voice their opposition to the gondola for the next hour.

Phyllis Ling, a Chinatown resident who organizes with the group Stop the Gondola, spoke first, encapsulating protesters’ frustration with a project being forced on a community already besieged by developers that would send van-sized cabins stuffed with forty people over their homes on a daily basis in anticipation of the 2028 Games. “This project isn’t for us,” Ling said. “It’s for Frank McCourt, who’s a developer. It’s for the Olympics, which is for developers. It’s for the politicians, who are in the pockets of developers. Frank McCourt wants to build right over us, forty feet over my neighborhood.”

Gondola proponents, meanwhile, paint the project as an environmentally friendly, traffic-relieving measure for the benefit of Chinatown residents, Dodgers fans, and tourists alike. Aerial Rapid Transit Technology, an LLC owned by McCourt’s family, first submitted a proposal for the project to Metro in 2018, and Metro, with the “pretty unabashed” support of then mayor and Olympics superfan Eric Garcetti, agreed to act as the agency lead for the environmental review process. (It remains unresolved if, given Metro’s involvement, taxpayer money would go toward construction or maintenance of the gondola. Metro did not respond to Jacobin’s request for comment).

The resulting Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR), paid for by McCourt’s company and released in October 2022, glowingly asserts that the gondola would likely ferry 20 percent of game attendees to Dodger Stadium while taking three thousand cars off the streets before and after games, leading to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and transportation-related pollution. However, a study carried out by UCLA’s Mobility Lab contradicts these findings, demonstrating that the claims in the DEIR are inflated and that the gondola is “unlikely to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and traffic overall.” Moreover, the gondola towers, some of which would be built on city land — including in Elysian Park and Los Angeles State Historic Park — would sacrifice public and green spaces, helping a developer generate profits through a project that serves no discernable public transit needs. (A free Dodger Stadium shuttle bus already covers the route on game days.)

As activists pointed out during the January meeting — and again at a February hearing that was moved to Zoom because activists, according to Metro, made it “impossible” to give public comment at the January event, Metro’s attempt to force public comments behind a curtain notwithstanding — the greenwashing enacted through the misleading DEIR camouflages the actual intentions behind the gondola project: intensified gentrification of Chinatown.

Recently, McCourt submitted plans to build over five hundred units near the stadium using Transit Oriented Communities incentives, with only a small fraction of units being made temporarily affordable. He’s also rumored to be planning an entertainment district around Dodger Stadium in the vein of the LA Live complex — McCourt owns 50 percent of the stadium parking lots — which would explain why the gondola is projected to run seven days a week. Why else would people pay up to twenty dollars for a seven-minute aerial ride to what is, the majority of the time, a closed baseball stadium?

The project, one of several large-scale developments being proposed and implemented across Los Angeles in anticipation of the 2028 Olympics, is illustrative of city officials’ and developers’ fever-pitched excitement about the games — and residents’ very rational opposition to their impact on cities. From Rio to Tokyo, Vancouver to Beijing, London to Atlanta, hosting the Olympics has come at a devastating cost for local residents who’ve experienced accelerated gentrification, displacement, privatization, municipal debt, environmental damage, and militarization of police alongside the implementation of permanently ramped-up surveillance regimes.

Gigi Droesch from NOlympics, a coalition of groups within Los Angeles and abroad organizing against the Olympics, told Jacobin: “All of these processes would be going on without the mega events, but the mega events make them happen faster. There’s a deadline, and it gives everybody a nice, convenient excuse.” In response to these accelerated processes, a growing movement of activists are mobilizing, including through transnational alliances, to either cancel the Olympics altogether or, at the very least, to block individual policies or developments — like the gondola — that are forced onto populations in service of the games.

Since 1960, the Olympic Games have exceeded their projected budgets by an average of 172 percent, leaving taxpayers on the hook for years to come. But in spite of the well-documented negative outcomes, cities clamor for the opportunity to host mega events like the Olympics. Intertwined with global flows of entertainment and sports-industry capital, the Olympics intersect with the visions of entrepreneurial municipal governments that view gentrification as a key strategy in the space marketing of cities. This form of governance is deliberately designed to encourage investment and maximize the attractiveness of the city for corporations, developers, and more affluent residents. According to this logic, the Olympics — and flashy but pointless projects like the gondola — are valuable weapons in the global place wars precisely because of the processes they accelerate.

Or, as Jacobin contributor Jules Boykoff has put it: “Per the machinations of capitalism, hosting mega-events like the Olympics tends to enhance urban exchange value as it kickstarts gentrification, even if the project loses money for the host governments.”

How Los Angeles “Won” the 2028 Olympics

On July 1, 2013, his very first day in office, Mayor Eric Garcetti notified the United States Olympic Committee that he intended to submit a bid for the 2024 Olympics. “I did that because the [1984] Olympic Games captured something in my heart when I was a 13-year-old boy growing up in this city. . . . those sixteen days transformed our city, touched each one of us, that legacy still resounds here strongly every single day,” Garcetti later said of his first decision as mayor.

Over the next couple of years, Garcetti put together a private bid committee composed of the city’s business and entertainment elite — many of whom were set to profit from a successful proposal, including Live Nation and the real estate development company Westfield Property Management, which each donated $1 million to the bid. Garcetti also traveled to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics to promote Los Angeles’s 2024 proposal to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and to Doha, Qatar to address a general assembly of National Olympics Committees.

By 2017, the field of competitors for the 2024 Olympics had dwindled to just Paris and Los Angeles. Hamburg and Budapest withdrew their bids after a referendum and a petition against the games, respectively, while Rome bowed out citing cost concerns. (Boston had originally been selected over Los Angeles by the United States Olympics Committee to compete for 2024, but the city terminated its bid due to public opposition.) The IOC, concerned that interest in hosting the event was diminishing, decided to allocate two Olympics simultaneously for the first time since 1921, giving the 2024 games to Paris and the 2028 games to Los Angeles. A lack of bids has also led the IOC to consider a rotating city arrangement for the winter Olympics.

Naturally, there was substantial opposition to hosting the Olympics in Paris and Los Angeles too, but when Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to approve the 2028 games — and to serve as the financial backstop in the seemingly inevitable event that the $6.9 billion budget falls short — it did so without allowing critics to voice their dissent, ramming the games down the throats of the public, many of whom remember what happened last time the city hosted in 1984.

Contrary to the fond memories of Olympics enthusiasts like Garcetti, many recall how the games accelerated mass arrests, police brutality, and the militarization of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). A week before the 1984 opening ceremony, LAPD captain Billy Wedgeworth famously told the Los Angeles Times: “We’re trying to sanitize the area,” referring to the mass sweeps his department had ordered of unhoused people, drug dealers, and “suspected” gang members, particularly in East Los Angeles, Downtown, and South Central. The military-grade equipment acquired for the Olympics remained with the LAPD and continued to be used against marginalized communities, as did the expanded powers granted to police, culminating in violent enforcement programs like Operation Hammer and ultimately contributing significantly to Los Angeles’s 1992 uprising.

Those wary of how the 2028 games will impact policing and the unhoused community witnessed a dress rehearsal during the 2022 Super Bowl, held last February at Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium. The Super Bowl brought federal enforcement agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Secret Service, and Customs and Border Control to the city, leading to increased surveillance, criminalization, and sweeps of street vendors and homeless encampments around the stadium — echoing the “sanitizing” efforts undertaken in 1984. The 2028 games, however, a designated National Special Security Event, will see even more sophisticated surveillance technology such as AI algorithms to monitor crowds and facial recognition technology to conduct mass surveillance.

The “sanitizing paradigm” from 1984 is also reflected in current policies such as Municipal Ordinance 41.18, which City Council has steadily expanded in an apparent effort to “banish” unhoused people from public view, and in the LAPD’s long-standing campaign to use the 2028 Olympics as an argument for increased police spending — policies and budgetary priorities that have been met with fierce opposition from the tenants movement, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, NOlympics, and others.

Yet in spite of the nonexistent competition from other cities and the undemocratic measures undertaken by City Council in endorsing the games and assuming financial responsibility, the IOC continues to contend that Los Angeles “won” the bid, and IOC members have praised the city’s existing facilities as a key reason for the choice. This type of statement plays into the sustainability and fiscal responsibility narrative that proponents of hosting have sought to cultivate to fend off the criticism leveled at other Olympic host cities: that the 2028 games will be a “no-build Olympics,” an absurd assertion considering the Olympics-fueled construction boom the city has witnessed in recent years, and the legislative moves facilitating that process.

A Convenient Excuse

According to press material from the Los Angeles games, “No new permanent construction or infrastructure is needed to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Los Angeles.” Since Garcetti announced his intention to host, however, three new professional stadiums set to be used during the 2028 games have been approved (BMO Stadium and SoFi Stadium have been completed; Intuit Dome will open in 2024), and the city has adopted the Twenty-Eight by ’28 initiative, promising to complete twenty-eight transportation infrastructure projects before the Olympics — not including the gondola — to alleviate the city’s notorious traffic issues and increase accessibility to venues during the games. Besides blatantly contradicting the “no-build pledge” and increasing construction costs by expediting timelines, these projects have already had severe consequences for residents.

There’s no doubt that Los Angeles needs to expand its public transit infrastructure, but projects need to be undertaken in a responsible way that limits displacement, as public transit expansion tends to spur gentrification in surrounding areas by incentivizing further development. Stadium construction, meanwhile, lacks the basic utility of public transit expansion and accelerates the same process. Nowhere do these processes converge more intensely than in Inglewood. A massive influx of capital and development has followed the construction of the $2.1 billion, 8.5 mile Crenshaw/LAX Line, known as the K Line, which includes a stop in Downtown Inglewood. The municipality now features a new entertainment district centered around three venues: the revamped Kia Forum; the new Los Angeles Clippers stadium, Intuit Dome, set to open in 2024; and SoFi Stadium, the $5 billion home of the Rams and the Chargers, which opened in 2020, hosted the 2022 Superbowl, and will house the Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies alongside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Since SoFi Stadium was approved in 2016, median home-sale prices in Inglewood rose 87 percent over a five-year period, while a one-bedroom apartment that rented for $1,100 per month in 2016 cost $1,750 in 2022 — roughly double Los Angeles–wide rent increases over the same period. As a result, Inglewood residents have experienced intensified displacement pressure. At the same time, they’ve experienced increased noise and traffic-related pollution, as SoFi Stadium has brought half a million more cars through the area every month since its opening. City Council bypassed a petition for a referendum on the stadium, which was approved six weeks after its announcement, circumventing the typical environmental review process for projects of that scale.

While the two stadiums are privately owned and located in Inglewood, an independent city within Los Angeles County, Garcetti played a leading role in luring the Rams to Los Angeles, publicly supported the construction of SoFi Stadium in 2016, and boasted about the stadium in the city’s Olympics bid, emphasizing the opportunity to “[capitalize] on the world’s most technologically advanced stadium to deliver captivating in-stadium, city-wide and global television events.”

Alexis Aceves, who organizes with the Lennox-Inglewood Tenants Union — many of whose members are beleaguered by rent increases, harassment, and eviction notices from landlords seeking to capitalize off the SoFi goldrush — said of the decision to build the stadium in Inglewood: “The real estate in Inglewood is much cheaper than in Beverly Hills, and they came here for a reason; because they expect a high return. It’s premeditated, and it’s not new. This is a formula that’s been implemented in so many places, and now it’s Inglewood’s turn.”

Aceves is narrating a pattern seen not just in Olympics host cities but in cities across the globe, wherein entrepreneurial municipal governments use incentives to attract development, including mega-developments like stadiums, to spur gentrification in specific areas — usually those with the largest “rent gaps,” whose residents tend to be working-class people of color and subject to displacement as a result of “revitalization” efforts. City governments utilize “geobribes” like subsidies, opportunity zones, and public land privatization (as well as infrastructural upgrades such as installing fiber-optic cable or expanding public transit) to stimulate spatially targeted development, leveraging public financing in service of gentrification.

Inglewood mayor James Butts has been candid about his ambitions to “revitalize” Inglewood through the creation of an entertainment hub, and about his tactics to make the city appear business friendly to developers and sports-team owners. In 2020, for instance, the City of Inglewood privatized twenty-two acres of public land and later used eminent domain to seize properties that were then transferred to the Clippers stadium’s developers — echoing the city’s painful history of stadium-driven displacement through eminent domain at Staples Center and Dodger Stadium. (Uncoincidentally, perhaps, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer donated $350,000 to a committee for the 2018 reelection of Mayor Butts.) Recently, Butts secured city, state, and federal funding for a “people mover” that would connect the new entertainment district to the K Line — a project that will displace forty-four businesses. The people mover is scheduled to open in time for the 2028 games.

Droesch from NOlympics says of the recent transit projects that are being implemented in Inglewood: “Public transit in and of itself is good, but you have to ask: ‘Why is this neighborhood that could have used a metro line years ago suddenly getting it now?’”

These projects show how the Olympics serve to legitimate large-scale developments and accelerated timelines, as well as their extraordinary influence over public policy, priorities, and spending — a pattern that has continued under new mayor Karen Bass, who has hired former Los Angeles Olympics executive Chris Thompson as her chief of staff, raising concerns about conflicts of interests.

At Los Angeles City Council, meanwhile, the Olympics are also being used to justify ludicrous and shortsighted decisions. On last year’s leaked City Council recording, then president Nury Martinez discussed selling the Sepulveda Basin, a massive public resource, to the Rams in preparation for the Olympics. City Council has also approved taxpayer subsidies for hotel developments, citing a need for more hotel rooms before the games. And this February, while tenants are battling interconnected homelessness and affordability crises as well as a pending eviction crisis, City Council voted to sell public land that, for more than a decade, has been slated for affordable housing to a developer planning to build a luxury hotel. The vote was nearly unanimous, including progressive members who’ve previously sought to align themselves with the city’s tenant movement.

Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents District 8, where the lot is located, specifically mentioned the games in his celebration of the successful vote: “We will now be able to benefit from the upcoming Olympics in 2028 and other events being held in our city.” The lot, which is located in South Central (where a majority of residents are severely rent burdened), housed the Mary McLeod Bethune Library until it was demolished in 2010. It sits opposite the University of Southern California, near the new BMO Stadium and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where several Olympic events, including the opening and closing ceremonies, will take place — a prime location for a hotel.

In voting to sell the public lot to a developer, City Council overrode previous assessments by two regulatory agencies, the City Zoning Administrator and the South Los Angeles Area Planning Commission, which had denied conditional use permits for the hotel.

Cynthia Strathmann, executive director of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), a nonprofit that’s part of the NOlympics coalition and has been organizing against the hotel project alongside other groups through UNIDAD’s public land campaign, told Jacobin: “There’s an important lesson here: there’s public land available for public-serving uses, and there are structures in place to make sure that land is used for those purposes. The problem is elected officials not having the political will to solve problems by using the public tools available to them.” On March 3, SAJE filed a lawsuit against the city for failing to comply with the law by overriding the previous regulatory decisions.

Strathmann’s statement gets to the crux of the issue: the logic motivating urban governance prevents any meaningful change for residents who are struggling in an already hyper-commodified and increasingly financialized city. Under this paradigm, it’s not that projects of the sort described here wouldn’t exist without the Olympics, but rather that the games provide a pretext for elected officials and developers to accelerate and expand them, disregarding public opinion and need to advance an agenda that privileges profit maximization above anything else.

But due to the work of groups like SAJE, Stop the Gondola, NOlympics, Lennox-Inglewood Tenants Union, and many others who document, articulate, and draw attention to the interconnectedness of these projects and the games — and despite “sportswashing” efforts — there’s a growing public understanding of the politics and priorities underpinning the 2028 games and the actual costs to host cities, as evidenced by a thinly veiled Olympics tax getting soundly rejected on the ballot last year, the first time an Olympics-related decision has been put to a vote in Los Angeles. Moreover, by exposing the urban policies turbocharged by the Olympics and their intended benefactors — developers and landlords, but also middle-class consumers and tourists — these groups reveal the gentrification scheme behind the games while demonstrating the need for an alternative to neoliberal urbanism. As Strathmann said: “If we’re always serving an imaginary constituency, we’re not going to serve the constituency that we actually have.”