Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Philly may take a chance on building a type of cycling arena that was immensely popular at the turn of the century, then all but abandoned.
A "self-propelled roller coaster": That's how medalist racer Linsey Hamilton describes the velodrome in Blaine, Minnesota, a place that is important to her. Hamilton is an avid track racer: She won two bronze medals at the World Masters Track Cycling Championships earlier this year. Hamilton is one of several competitive cyclists produced by the Blaine velodrome.
Unfortunately, her primer on the velodrome comes at the end of a Minneapolis Star-Tribune story about how the Blaine velodrome—the only track-racing facility in the entire state—may be coming down.
A renovation of the wooden track would cost its operators, National Sports Center, about $850,000. Replacing the track entirely could cost $1.2 million, close to what it cost to build the track back in 1990. Needless to say, the famously devoted cyclist community in Minneapolis is fighting to save the velodrome—even as another group, Minnesota Cycling Center, is looking to build another velodrome as a part of a larger campus devoted to cycling elsewhere in Minneapolis.
The board of National Sports Center meets Thursday to discuss the facility's future. It sounds like fans have raised enough money to keep the Blaine velodrome open another few years. That's only delaying the inevitable, though. What Minneapolis needs is Philly muscle.
In Philadelphia, a development called Project 250 intends to build a world-class velodrome at FDR Park in South Philadelphia. This track-cycling arena, an Olympic-caliber project, would boast some 6,000 seats for fans. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the project already has the support of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, at least one City Council member, and other stakeholders.
The looming failure of the velodrome in Minneapolis raises a question: Is Philadelphia being taken for a ride? According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, track racing simply doesn't draw the crowds in the Twin Cities:
The velodrome's total attendance during its short season is about 4,500, [National Sports Center spokesperson Barclay] Kruse said, compared to the sports center's Victory Links golf course, which draws about 48,000 people annually. Soccer programs attract about 1.6 million players and spectators to the campus throughout the year; the Schwan Super Rink, which is open year-round, brings in about $2 million total visitors.
When compared to a sport more in its development stages at the sports center, track racing still falls behind, Kruse said. Ultimate Frisbee programs, for example, brought in about 18,000 people last year.
Neither is Minneapolis the only city where the future of track cycling looks shaky. A plan to build a velodrome in Washington, D.C., crashed last year, despite the relatively reasonable $300,000 price tag and the city's enthusiasm for building stadiums of dubious value to taxpayers. And as the Inky's Inga Saffron explains, recent velodrome proposals for Boulder, Colorado, and Brooklyn failed to build any velocity. Only 26 velodromes exist nationwide.
So what has so many Philadelphia officials convinced that the $100 million velodrome at the heart of Project 250—named for the same 250-meter track that isn't working out for Minneapolis—is such a good idea?
For starters, developers are promising to give back to the city. In exchange for the prime four-acre site where the velodrome would be built, the development corporation, led by private-equity executive Phil Senechal, will invest between $5 million and $15 million to clean up and renovate FDR Park. Further, Project 250 will re-create the four acres of park that it's taking up, in the form of a new park of the same size (on Pattison Avenue, on the former Naval Hospital site, to be specific).
But perhaps more importantly, this development project isn't slated to cost the city a dime. Saffron writes that the location alone could make the project. The site in question, as part of FDR Park, which was designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, would give the velodrome major visibility, perhaps enough to land a named sponsorship for an arena—even for a sport that has yet to capture the spotlight. (South Philly Review published a long feature with more details from the developer's perspective.)
Saffron, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, raises all the right questions about the project: whether the park should be considered inviolable; whether the developers can actually raise the money; whether the architects on the team have the experience to build the velodrome they've drawn up. While she's skeptical—"the project comes to the parks commission practically preapproved," she acidly notes—Saffron admits the possibility that the velodrome could be a bargain for Philadelphia, provided that the city can shore up firmer terms for the deal.
I would add a cultural question to the list: Has the time for the velodrome arrived? Can an arena typology that was immensely popular at the turn of the century and then all but abandoned be revived?
For Philadelphia, it's worth looking seriously at how the velodrome fares in Minneapolis, a city with a serious biking culture that sustained a track-cycling venue for more than 20 years, but never fully grew into it. Could a Philly velodrome thrive in another site in the city? If the answer is no, then the city should think carefully about the value of even a portion of FDR Park. If this park area is the kind of subsidy that can make a once-old timey, now-futurist sport take off where no other location can, then officials might consider asking for more than what they're being offered.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Linsey Hamilton as a professional track racer. She is an amateur cyclist.