The new-look Olympic Park is on the podium… but it’s not a gold medallist yet

After a rapid £300m facelift, the London 2012 site reopens. Ashling O’Connor took a tour of the facilities

There is less concrete at the refurbished Olympic Park, which fully re-opens today, but there is still a sense of it under the pockets of greenery designed to soften its functional edge.

The broad tarmac plazas required to channel thousands of spectators between venues during the London 2012 Games have gone, replaced by outdoor water features, sculptures and leisure activities designed to entice visitors from all over the world as well as the local community.

The northern end of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, containing the Copper Box arena and meadow land for picnics and strolls, opened to the public last summer. This weekend sees the unveiling of the new southern plaza, a cultural hub linking the Park to the adjacent Westfield shopping centre and the city.

Until now, the site has been like an island in east London but it is hoped that the re-opening of facilities such as the ArcelorMittal Orbit – the twisted red 114.5-metre-high observation tower – the Velopark and the Aquatics Centre will pull in millions of visitors.

The swimming pool, beneath architect Zaha Hadid’s opulent sweeping roof, has already attracted 65,000 visitors in its first month of operation. Half of those took a dip at a cost of £4.35 a time. The numbers suggest the venue is well on course to hit its target of 750,000 visitors a year.

It is less clear whether people will come from far and wide just to wander along a strip landscaped by James Corner, one of the brains behind the High Line in New York. It is a little underwhelming.

There is an adventure playground – but not one to knock spots off council-run facilities in other parts of London such as Battersea Park – and some quirky art pieces. But it is merely a snack between the main meals.

Just as it was during the Games, the success of the Park will be driven by events – Diamond League athletics, Premier League football, the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and concerts and festivals.

A stadium operator will be selected in September from three shortlisted companies – AEG, Live Nation and Vinci, the Stade de France operator. It will be a key contract to the future commercial success of the Park.

For some, it is too far from central London to be anything other than a destination. They will need a reason to go. The new features do not provide that but they will give them a reason to make a day of it.

For locals, it is a much-needed green lung with 4,000 trees and world-class sports facilities to boot. Given the national craze for cycling, it is likely the mountain bike trails and road track will be oversubscribed.

Despite the £300m facelift, the 560-acre site in Stratford is still a work in progress with cranes set to interrupt the skyline for another two years while the stadium is gradually transformed into the new home of West Ham United.

Dennis Hone, chief executive of the London Legacy Development Corporation, said that, like much of London, the Park will be constantly re-generating itself.

The speed of the turnaround has certainly been impressive; the Paralympics closing ceremony was just 18 months ago. At the equivalent stage, the Beijing authorities had barely got beyond charging people to stand for a souvenir photo on the podium in the Bird’s Nest stadium.

Compared with that, and almost any other former Olympic city save Barcelona, this project is revolutionary. But it will take time to grow into what looks so good on paper.

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