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Sydney builds for life after the Olympics

The Games begin a year from today, yet Australia also plans to turn the Olympic village into a livable suburb

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Take away the construction workers laboring nearby and the occasional tourist wandering in for a peek, and Newington, Australia looks like any other middle-class suburb.

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There's a maintenance crew trying to get a deeper shade of green out of a lawn, a mother bringing her toddler to the playground for a late-morning romp, and luxury sedans parked in driveways here and there.

"A doctor and his family have just moved into that house," Newington's marketing manager, Simon Norris, says proudly as he points to a recently finished four-bedroom home on a corner that overlooks a park.

But there's one big difference with this suburb still under construction. A year from now, more than 15,000 of the world's best athletes, coaches, and referees will be in town, and Newington will be known by a different name: the Olympic village.

What's more, this new community is now a major part of the transformation brought on in Sydney by the Olympics. When the Games are over, they will leave behind a new middle-class suburb that has risen from what was once a dumping ground.

Only two-thirds of Newington's development will be completed before the summer Olympics, which begin next Sept. 15, and construction is slated to continue into 2006. But when it is finished, Newington will house some 5,000 people in 1,100 three- and four-bedroom homes and 1,000 apartments.

In Sydney's heart

"This is not just an Olympic facility, but the creation of a new suburb in the demographic heart of Sydney," said Hugh Martin, chief executive officer of the consortium developing Newington, when construction began in July 1997.

Sydney's political heart, and the one it likes to show the world, lies around the city's magnificent harbor. But its true geographic center has long been farther west, up the industrial banks of the Parramatta River toward where Newington and the Homebush Olympic complex are now.

Those organizing the Olympics seem well aware of the significance of geography. "Newington - The natural heart of Sydney," goes one marketing slogan. "Homebush Bay - the new heart of Sydney," reads a sign in the Olympic complex's train station.

Homebush Bay was once better known for the toxic sludge that oozed from the soil and a government-run slaughterhouse. Newington, meanwhile, was the site of an armaments depot and an informal dump used by suburbanites to surreptitiously dispose of their garbage.

According to Michael Bounds, director of the Urban Studies Research Center at the University of Western Sydney, state governments had been trying to revamp the area since the 1970s.

"The revitalization process was under way long before we won the Olympics [in 1993]," Mr. Bounds says. "But it could well be 10 years ahead of where it would have been if we hadn't won the Olympics."

Part of the draw for the International Olympic Committee was the promise that Sydney would stage the most environmentally friendly Olympics ever. When the Olympics open, "Newington will be the largest solar-powered suburb in the world," says Mr. Martin.

That environmental mission may stand Newington apart from previous Olympic villages. But this is not the first time that real estate used to house athletes will go on the market when the Games are over. Barcelona, Spain, which hosted the 1992 Games, and Seoul, South Korea, site of the 1988 Olympics, are among the host cities that have done the same thing.

And Australia has its own example: The homes built for athletes at the 1956 Games in Melbourne were the first purpose-built Olympic village and became the suburb of West Heidelberg afterward.

The Olympic rings can still be seen here and there, but West Heidelberg has become a place better known for crime and poverty than the athletes it once hosted. The suburb is the target of a four-year, multimillion-dollar government revitalization effort that has seen most of the old Olympic homes demolished.

The Newington developers have taken a lesson from West Heidelberg. Whereas the Olympic homes there became low-income government housing after the 1956 Games, Newington is targeting more affluent, middle-class professionals.

Newington has also heeded the fact that when homes from other Olympic villages flooded markets after the Games, the cities' real estate market slumped.

"That is not going to happen here," says Mr. Norris, Newington's marketing manager. The development has a sales target of just 250 houses or apartments a year, according to Norris. The third stage will begin after the Games on a site where athletes are to be housed in modular homes. (These facilities will go to trailer parks across Australia when the Olympics and the Paralympics, which will follow almost immediately, are done.)

What makes a place attractive

Sales of homes in Newington have been brisk, with some 300 people now living in the development, Norris says.

But some experts hold concerns for Newington's future after the Olympics. In the end, they say, the very thing that makes it an attractive place to live for some now may make it an unpleasant place to live in the long run. Who really wants to live next to a stadium, after all?

"The jury is still out on whether the developers will be able to sell it off," says Bounds of the University of Western Sydney. If the Olympic stadium complex is successful as an entertainment center after the Games, "one would hope there's going to be a racket going on next to Newington every night of the week."

But there is one certainty in Newington: With the Games just a year away the construction deadlines are firm.

"We've got certain dates we've got to meet with the Olympic authorities," says Norris. "And there are no extensions."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society