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Changing Skyline: Is proposed velodrome just another public-land grab?

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

Updated: Friday, December 12, 2014, 3:01 AM

Rendering of the velodrome project. (The Sheward Partnership image)

A century ago, when bicycle races were all the rage, velodromes were as common as baseball diamonds. Racers demonstrated their endurance by pedaling through grueling, six-day marathons - while fans demonstrated theirs by bellying up to the velodrome's bar.

Proposed indoor-cycling arena, in a rendering. The design looks good, but arenas are a highly specialized form of building, and the architects have never designed one. Sheward Partnership
Rendering of the proposed velodrome, on a sliver of FDR Park that developers hope the city will give them. Parks and Rec will meet next week to weigh the project. Sheward Partnership
Gazebo at FDR Park, designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead's sons, now a neglected mess. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Rendering, velodrome project.View from Park. PHOTO: The Sheward Partnership
Rendering of the velodrome project. (The Sheward Partnership image)
Photo Gallery: Changing Skyline: Is proposed velodrome just another public-land grab?

Say the word velodrome today, and many people draw a blank. Even as other forms of bicycling gain in popularity, track racing remains a niche sport. Just 26 velodromes exist in the United States. Two recent attempts to build indoor arenas in Coatesville and Brooklyn both had the air let out of their tires, while a Boulder, Colo., effort has been reduced to selling T-shirts to pay for a rudimentary, open-air track.

So what makes a group of Philadelphia racing buffs called Project 250 think they can raise $100 million to build an Olympic-caliber facility here?

That's sure to be a big question, if not the first question, that the Parks and Recreation Commission will be asking when it meets Wednesday (6 p.m. at the American Swedish Historical Museum) to consider the project.

Undaunted by previous failures, Project 250's backers have come up with an ambitious plan and a seductive set of renderings, showing a sleek, 21st-century velodrome that looks like a cross between a spaceship and a tidal wave. Not only do they maintain they can build this high-tech, enclosed arena with zero public dollars, but they also insist they can operate it as a for-profit venture.

All they ask is that the city gift them a four-acre sliver of South Philadelphia's FDR Park, located, conveniently enough, across Broad Street from the sports complex.

Uh-oh. Sounds like another public-land-grab controversy - think Burholme Park to Fox Chase Cancer Center, the Schuylkill Park to Ride the Ducks, and a Kelly Drive site to Temple University.

What, you might ask, makes a velodrome any different from the Wells Fargo Center? Not much. The proposal has the look of a backdoor attempt to extend the barren sports complex into the 348-acre oasis that South Philadelphians call "the Lakes," designed by the sons of the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

But you still have to give the developer props. Unlike those other groups that attempted to acquire park land, Project 250 is offering a package of public benefits that is tantalizing enough to make the intrusion worthy of consideration - from dredging FDR's stagnant lakes to financing a replacement park in the Packer Park neighborhood. The challenge for the commission, and other city agencies, will be to determine whether Project 250 can actually deliver.

In typical Philadelphia style, the project comes to the parks commission practically preapproved. Mayor Nutter and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson have already sent in enthusiastic letters of support. So have civic groups from Packer Park and Girard Estate. Even the Friends of FDR Park like the plan. Only the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, the city's influential champion of public space, remains undecided.

And yet you don't have to be a full-time tree hugger to question the sustainability of putting a bigfoot of a building on park land when there is a sea of asphalt across the street. For that matter, there is also the immense lot on Pattison Avenue, where a high-rise hospital was imploded for overflow parking.

Project 250 has a ready answer: money. Unlike other locations around the city, and even within the sports complex, the park site ensures that the velodrome would be easily visible from I-95 and Broad Street. Naming rights and sponsorship deals have become a large source of revenue for sporting arenas. Project 250 would use the money from its sponsor as equity to lure investors and obtain financing. So, in their minds, no park land, no velodrome.

A big ask like that demands a big return to the public.

In conversation, Project 250's developers - financial executive Philip J. Senechal, bike store owner Joe Wentzel, and architects David Scheuermann and Michael Sheward - insist on referring to their project not as a velodrome, but as a "rec center." They say their real mission is to provide space for Philadelphia's youth to learn the sport of track racing, and pledge to offer free time, equipment, and a classroom to make that happen. The group also promises to invest $5 million to $15 million to fix up FDR Park.

Normally, I would argue that park land is inviolable, like a university endowment. After all, once Philadelphia starts treating its vast (and grossly underfunded) inventory of parks as a fungible commodity, what's to stop it from selling off chunks any time it needs money?

But this edge of busy Broad Street isn't exactly Rittenhouse Square. The sprawling park was designed by the Olmsteds to evoke a rolling, natural meadow. Yet because its lakes and paths are a mess, it's uninviting and doesn't get the crowds it should. The velodrome could be the catalyst to reviving the tired green space.

That's only possible if Project 250 fulfills every promise to the letter. There's still a great deal of vagueness to their plan; it's a pretty big spread between $5 million in park improvements and $15 million.

Because racing events will never be a weekly or monthly thing, Project 250 wants to supplement its revenue by filling the 6,000-seat arena with other events, like concerts. What's to stop them from turning the velodrome into just another concert arena if the racing business tanks? And what happens if the sports complex doesn't let velodrome customers use their parking lots?

Can they really raise $100 million, twice the cost of the failed Brooklyn velodrome? The only velodrome in eastern Pennsylvania, Valley Preferred Cycling Center near Allentown, is a nonprofit arena that was a gift of Bob Rodale, president of Rodale Press.

Then there's the Project 250 design. It looks pretty on paper, but the architects from the Sheward Partnership have never designed an arena, or much of anything that doesn't have straight lines. Arenas are a highly specialized form of architecture, which is why a few firms dominate the field.

Before giving away a piece of its patrimony, the city needs to get a few answers.

ingasaffron@gmail.com

@ingasaffron

NOTE: This column has been updated to reflect the correct number of velodromes in the U.S.

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Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

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