A group of Philadelphia bicycle-racing enthusiasts is speeding ahead with plans for an ambitious, Olympic-class arena that is intended to position the city as the leader of the nation's growing track-cycling culture, while also providing space for the public to learn and practice the sport.
But to realize the $100 million velodrome, whose swooping form would echo the banked curves of a bicycle track, the city would have to give the organizers a four-acre parcel in South Philadelphia's historic FDR Park, the city's only green space designed by the famous firm founded by Frederick Law Olmsted.
Named Project 250, the privately planned arena has excited the imaginations of cyclists, who believe a state-of-the-art, 250-meter bike track would become a top U.S. venue for international races. The arena, which would occupy a Broad Street site across from the Sports Complex, has already won strong backing from Mayor Nutter and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, as well as from the Friends of FDR Park and neighborhood groups.
Part of Project 250's appeal is that organizers have pledged to spend between $5 million and $15 million to repair the park's once-elegant stone-lined paths, dredge its algae-covered lakes, and create a new four-acre replacement park. Those improvements are being offered as compensation for occupying the site in FDR Park, a rolling 348-acre landscape that includes ball fields, tennis courts, and a golf course.
"We're not only creating a velodrome, we're revitalizing all of FDR Park," said David N. Scheuermann, an architect at the Sheward Partnership and a member of Project 250's development team. Sheward produced the eye-catching design. Smaller in area than the former Spectrum, it would feature a parabolic roof rising to 55 feet.
While four acres in such a large park may not sound like a lot, giving away public parkland to a private, for-profit venture would set a major precedent in Philadelphia, said Lauren Bornfriend, who heads the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, a public space advocacy group. The transfer is sure to be a charged issue.
Project 250 will have to clear a series of procedural hurdles, starting with a presentation to the Parks and Recreation Commission on Dec. 17 in the American Swedish Historical Museum, located in the park. It also needs the blessing of the Historical and Art Commission, as well as City Council.
The outcome will almost certainly hinge on how accessible the velodrome will be to the public. Because bike racing alone will not be enough to cover operating costs, Project 250's organizers are designing the 6,000-seat arena to accommodate other moneymaking events, including rock concerts and tennis and volleyball matches.
In a statement, Bornfriend wrote that there is "a lot of work to do to determine if the community and environmental investment proposed by the developers . . . will actually serve the people of Philadelphia."
Philip J. Senechal, an executive at a private equity firm who is on the Project 250 team, insisted that the frequency of events would be limited to ensure that the public could use velodrome facilities 80 percent of the time, at little or no cost.
Project 250 already has cut a deal with the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia to provide a dedicated classroom for Cadence Youth Cycling, which offers free racing instruction to low-income teens.
Amateur cyclists would also be able to buy memberships allowing them to ride laps on an hourly basis. Along with the sharply banked bike course, the organizers want to include a running track, fitness center, and bike shop.
"This is really like a big rec center," Scheuermann declared.
Beyond the public programming, Senechal said the group plans to turn the building over to the city after its completion, in exchange for a long-term management contract. "We will maintain it in perpetuity," he said.
Deputy Mayor Michael DiBerardinis, who oversees the park system, said that Project 250 will have to prove that the velodrome serves the public interest before his department makes a decision to cede the four acres.
The pressure on American cities to treat parkland as a salable commodity has been growing in recent years, especially as governments struggle to fund the maintenance of public space. Despite making $6 million in improvements at FDR Park since 2006, the city needs millions more to restore it to top condition.
Philadelphia has spun off a variety of parks to private, nonprofit managers, like the Center City District. They can more effectively raise money through sponsorship deals and philanthropy.
Since taking office, Nutter has tried at least three times to broker deals transferring sites directly to private users: Burholme Park to Fox Chase Cancer Center; the Schuylkill Park to Ride the Ducks; and a site on Kelly Drive to the Temple University rowing team. All of the efforts failed.
Project 250 organizers said they scoured the city looking for privately owned sites but concluded the only viable location was near the sports complex. The FDR Park location guarantees that the name of the velodrome's sponsor will be visible from I-95 and Broad Street, said Senechal, who once owned the New Haven Beast, a hockey team. The business model for operating sports arenas today relies heavily on lucrative naming-rights deals and corporate sponsors.
In an attempt to protect city parkland, Council passed a law in 2011 requiring that buyers provide comparable parcels as replacement parks.
In this case, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. offered to give Project 250 a four-acre site from a parking lot on Pattison Avenue across from FDR Park. Project 250 would foot the bill to turn the land into a green space for the Packer Park neighborhood.