Phil Senechal seems to be going about this in the best way possible. Or at least as thoroughly as possible. He’s the CEO of Project 250 LLC, a development company that’s been formed to push for a world-class velodrome on the easternmost boundary of FDR Park along the edge of South Broad Street. Senechal’s an executive at a private equity firm, the former-owner of the New Haven Beast hockey team, a Rittenhouse resident with a born-and-raised Philly spouse and an ardent supporter of a bucolic vision for a velodrome in FDR Park that includes revamping green spaces and revitalizing the century-old park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead’s firm.
A velodrome is a banked-track cycling race facility that would accommodate track racing year-round and, most importantly, foster cycling as an important way to imbue South Philadelphia youth with a taste for fitness, sustainability and health. What’s unique about this project is that it will be an unprecedented agreement between a private entity and the City – Project 250 will get absolutely no money from City Hall and will be one of the very first developments on a public park parcel. The City won’t exactly sell the land to Project 250 but enter into a lease-and-management agreement, and according to a 2011 City Council-passed law, the development team will create a four-acre park across the street from the velodrome. Every acre that the velodrome will displace will essentially reappear as a park on Pattison Avenue on the former Naval Hospital site that remains undeveloped. The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. has agreed to reserve the land until June 30, ’15, an agreement that essentially endorses the park space reconfiguration and their overall project goals.
Senechal’s team has released a massive document with a breakdown of every issue imaginable: an overview and vision, the proposed site plan and facility logistics, financial viability, community outreach intentions, an analysis of argued alternatives, and perhaps most importantly, a slew of letters of support.
“The Plan will provide a much needed venue and schedule of activities that will provide character building programs for our City’s children, adult programming will provide new activities and better utilization of the FDR Park, all in the best interests of the neighborhood, South Philadelphia, and the City in general,” Mayor Michael A. Nutter’s statement declares.
That’s one of the most innovative aspects of this project — this is a private for-profit arena that will seat up to 6,000 spectators, but it will also be a pseudo-recreation center available to the public at almost every hour of operation. It’s worth noting that there is an open-air velodrome in Lehigh Valley nearly 50 miles from Philadelphia, and it’s an open-air seasonal-dependent space.
“The idea is to have this thing open for any kid to come in and maybe learn a skill and simply some life skills and set up a range of activities for the kids,” Senechal said. “We want to focus on the physical fitness and encourage them to ride or run or stay healthy.”
As for funding, Senechal said “we knew all along — there was no way that this could ever get paid for. The City’s not going to do it.”
So they’re poised to raise $150 million for the construction of the velodrome, the revitalization of current FDR Park trails and wetlands and the building of a replacement four-acre park. He said the Mayor told him “if you’re going to build something there, it [had] better be world-class. It has to be iconic, and it has to be a symbol of something good about Philadelphia. It’s got to serve the community, and it’s got to serve the environment. So good luck, fellas!” Senechal laughs. “We’re not giving you any money, but I like it.”
World-class is what they’re going for. The Sheward Partnership, a partner in Project 250’s development team, has designed a parabolic roof that will rise 55 feet above ground. “A community center, a bike shop, fitness center, coffee shop, nature center and restaurant are all placed in this area to help energize and anchor this iconic form,” reads the report. From the report’s project overview: “The mission for Project 250 is to develop a new state-of-the-art, energy and water neutral, LEED Platinum, multi-sport, entertainment and youth development center.”
The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia (BCGP) is on board and will have a presence in the facility, both in terms of office and education space, and as a home for their Cadence Youth Cycling. On CYC, BCGP executive director Alex Doty said, “we’re basically teaching life skills through the sport of cycling. What we want to teach is perseverance, determination and goal-setting.”
He used a great analogy to bolster his point.
“It’s as if the Phillies were planning the building of Citizens Bank Park and encouraging the Little League to come in. This would be as world-class as the Wells Fargo Center or Lincoln Financial, and we would say ‘Hey, come try this out,’” Doty said. “You’ve been there, you’ve watched it, you sit there with your nachos and beer and the next afternoon you’re out there riding on the same track.”
Doty added BCGP is working on improving ways to bike to the stadiums and The Philadelphia Navy Yard and that this is a great project to move that along.
“We’re working on improvements between City Hall and the stadiums for bikes and the velodrome is a great stimulation and impetus. And South Philadelphia has some of the highest bicycling rates in the country,” he said.
Senechal assures that bikes and equipment will live in the space and it will function almost like a bowling alley, where one rents a bike and helmet (as opposed to shoes).
Barbara Capozzi, the president of the Packer Park Civic Association who also sits on the Friends of FDR Park board, is convinced of the Project’s great potential assuming Project 250 leadership continues to work with the civics and listens as issues arise, something she’s already seen from Senechal and his team.
“One of our conditions is that they go through the sports complex,” the resident of the 1900 block of Hartranft Street said, noting that the volume of traffic is already heavily regulated based on a sports complex master schedule. “They’re already heavily restricted about how many events they can have at the same time — we have all those protections in place.”
She’s seen FDR Park poorly used and is excited about all that they plan to do in the park aside from the velodrome.
“They’re going to bring users to the park, and that’s the number one thing that FDR Park needs. I’m thrilled to work with them going forward, but it’s a long way off and a work in progress,” Capozzi said.
“City Council could say ‘no.’ We hope not. I can’t think of any reason why they would,” Senechal said.
City Council and Parks & Recreation, at this point, seem to be the only things standing in the way of a greenlit fundraising process. And Senechal pledges that if the funding for park improvements can’t be met, the project’s a bust.
“If we just get enough money to build the building, then we’re not doing it — they’re essentially joined.”
The Project 250 team will present its case for the velodrome to Parks & Recreation at a public meeting at the American Swedish Historical Museum, 1900 Pattison Ave., 6 p.m. Dec. 17.
Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at firstname.lastname@example.org or ext. 117.