In London, an Olympic Park anchors a resurgence

By: | Published: February 15, 2015 12:08 AM

The centrepiece of Stratford’s regeneration is the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the 560-acre tract where the 2012 Games took place...

Before London snagged the 2012 Olympic Games, Stratford was among the poorest areas of the capital, renowned mostly for its industrial pylons and its ‘fridge mountain’, an imposing fortress of discarded appliances, along its waterfront. More than nine years and £9 billion later, the industrial wetlands have been transformed into a gleaming sports and shopping hub.

The centrepiece of Stratford’s regeneration is the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the 560-acre tract where the Games took place. With refashioned venues and family-friendly activities, the park has attracted more than four million visitors since it opened a year-and-a-half ago.

The park is free to enter, with various paid attractions. Day-trippers can take a free guided walking tour, or for £8 per adult, drift along the park’s narrow waterways on a boat tour. They can stroll inside the striking wooden parabola of the Velodrome, now called the Lee Valley VeloPark, an indoor cycling track, where visitors can rent a bike and learn the basics of track cycling. Just behind the Velodrome are the BMX Track’s dirt bumps and mounds, also open to the public.

The Zaha Hadid-designed London Aquatics Center, with its 50 m pool, costs £3.50 to enter, the same fee as at less spectacular public pools throughout London. While swimming like an Olympian is thrilling, navigating the labyrinthine changing rooms can take some know-how, and beware the capricious shower sensors.

The park’s tallest point—and the tallest sculpture in Britain—is the 376-ft-high ArcelorMittal Orbit, an asymmetrical riot of bright-red rollercoaster-like steel tubing designed by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond. Visitors can reach its summit for £12 by taking the elevator or climbing 455 stairs for unmatched views of Canary Wharf.

Yet the real fun of the park isn’t in these marquee attractions, but in the rolling parkland that surrounds them. The walkways, rimmed with wild grasses, encourage hours of idle wandering. British gardeners travelled worldwide to collect native plants for the gardens inspired by different regions.

All over the park, there are expansive lawns and playgrounds, along with a children’s climbing wall repurposed from a bridge used during the Olympics.

“The wide open spaces, which are unusual for London, make it great for kids to run around, scooter or to learn to ride a bike without worrying about cars,” says Minna Harrison, who regularly visits the park. “My kids love rolling down the hills, climbing on the wall, splashing in the fountains and looking at boats passing in the canals.”

Visitors who tire of these spaces can retreat to Westfield Stratford City at the park’s eastern boundary. Said to be the largest shopping mall in Europe, Westfield was packed even at 9 am on a recent Sunday, two hours before most stores opened. The megamall has it all: an Apple store, British clothing chains like Topshop and Miss Selfridge, a Marks & Spencer and the high-end Waitrose supermarket. It has food-court fare like Spud-U-Like and sit-down restaurants like Wahaca.

And the remaking of Stratford extends well beyond the mall. The Victoria and Albert Museum, Sadler’s Wells Theater and University College London are planning outposts there.

Despite all the money pouring into Stratford, its squeaky-clean transformation has not been universally embraced, particularly by long-time residents who worry about soaring housing costs. Sue Woolridge, who has lived for 43 years in a small terraced house in Carpenters Estate, just across a battered footbridge from the splendour of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, said she was as excited as anyone about the Olympics bringing fame to the area. “But they didn’t do anything for us,” Woolridge says.

“They closed off the road and they closed the post office, and we even never got a ticket for the Olympics,” she says. “It costs £15 to go up the Orbit, and they never gave us a ticket. You used to be able to walk in comfort and shop in comfort, but now there are just so many people everywhere.”

NYT

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