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LA 2024 officials propose housing Olympic athletes on UCLA campus

In a move that could save a billion dollars or more in construction costs, LA 2024 officials have modified their bid for the Summer Olympics by proposing to house athletes on the UCLA campus.

The private bid committee had previously considered partnering with a developer to build an Olympic village from scratch at one of several locations around the city, including an Eastside rail yard where estimated costs ran between $1 billion and $2 billion.

UCLA represents a more affordable — and politically savvy — choice because the 16,500 or so athletes, coaches and team officials expected for the Games could stay in student housing.

"This is the right answer for the city," LA 2024 Chairman Casey Wasserman said. "It's the right answer for the bid."

Cost isn't the only issue. During a Monday news conference in Westwood, bid officials and Mayor Eric Garcetti repeatedly praised the quality of UCLA's accommodations.

They were setting the stage for the next challenge: Convincing International Olympic Committee voters that keeping athletes in dorms and student suites is a good idea.

The task begins next week when IOC President Thomas Bach visits Southern California.

"Everything looks great," Gene Sykes, the LA 2024 chief executive, said of UCLA's facilities. "If you took a tour now, even though you might find some messy rooms where the kids may not have put away their laundry, what you would find is this place looks really fresh."

There were other developments Monday as LA 2024 announced that media members and some Olympic officials would be housed in a 15-acre residential complex USC intends to build.

Wasserman also said that, while a proposed NFL stadium would not be part of documents submitted to the IOC next month, "there is no question that Inglewood and that development will be a big part of our plans going forward."

The UCLA decision represented the biggest news of the day, if only because the athletes village qualifies as one of the most expensive and problematic elements of any Olympics.

For the 2010 Vancouver Games, organizers partnered with a developer that ultimately failed to complete the project. The city had to step in, borrowing hundreds of millions, later selling the village piecemeal as condos to settle its debt.

The British government took similar action when a developer could not finish the village for the 2012 London Games.

In Los Angeles, there have been scattered but persistent concerns about a proposed Olympic budget that could exceed $6 billion.

LA 2024 thinks it can pay for the Games and generate a $161-million surplus through broadcast rights, sponsorships, ticket sales and other revenue sources.

Still, there is risk involved because the IOC typically requires that host cities promise to cover the difference if expenses outweigh revenues.

Los Angeles City Council members have demanded financial oversight of the bid, expressing some doubts about initial plans to build a village on the Eastside's Piggyback Yard site.

Garcetti said he sought advice from Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor in Massachusetts who has written extensively about the Olympic movement. The mayor said they agreed a less-expensive village was key to keeping the Games fiscally responsible.

Wasserman said the Piggyback Yard, which would have required an extensive environmental cleanup, was inserted as "a placeholder" while other options were explored.

"It was never meant to be the definitive site," he added.

The switch to UCLA means that Los Angeles would not build a residential complex for conversion to affordable housing after the Games. But it would "go a long way" toward heading off future political friction regarding costs, Council President Herb Wesson said.

There is also Olympic precedent at work. During the 1984 Summer Games, which turned a profit, the athletes village was split between UCLA and USC.

The Westwood campus has increased its residential population since then, with 14,000 existing beds and plans to add as many as 2,500 more. When administrators pitched the idea of hosting the entire village in 2024, the bid committee was intrigued.

UCLA offered more than housing and dining facilities; its array of gyms, pools and playing fields could be used as warmup sites.

"All of these facilities already exist and are all tried and tested by thousands of students who use them every day," Wasserman said.

If Los Angeles were to win the bid — the IOC will vote in September 2017 — some of the village construction savings would be spent on rent to the university and temporary upgrades to student housing.

Still, when Bach takes a scheduled tour of UCLA next week, Los Angeles officials are likely to echo a dominant theme from Monday's announcement.

Their bid has focused on saving money through use of existing venues such as Staples Center and a revamped Coliseum. They see the proposed village as another response to the IOC's Agenda 2020, reforms that, among other things, seek to make the Games more affordable.

"We heard you loud and clear," Garcetti said. "We want to be the embodiment of that new Olympism."

Staff writer Peter Jamison contributed to this report.

david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesWharton

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