The Velodrome Experiment: Can specialty parks make your city stronger?

Velodrome biking in the old days

Velodrome biking in the old days

Many citizens of St. Louis, MO may not realize that their neighboord is home to a free, public velodrome — if they even know what a velodrome is. It’s located in Penrose Park, which is buried deep in the city’s beleaguered north side, wedged into an odd pocket of space between a highway, a railroad track, and a mega-stroad that most commuter cyclists try to avoid. It’s not a park you can really stumble across on foot, and even if you did, you might have missed the velodrome; until a little over a decade ago, the track was overgrown with honeysuckle, so it was easy to look past the slope of the asphalt, the sheer potential waiting under the brush.

Today, the honeysuckle’s been cleared, and on many weekends, you can find cyclists from around Missouri zipping gathered there, cheered on by a rowdy mix of fellow riders, spectators, and beer drinkers on picnic blankets enjoying a summer afternoon. Even for non-athletes like me, it’s an incredible thing to watch. It’s not just the thrill of holding your breath as single-speed bikes lean into sharp curves at impossible speeds, or even the sheer uniqueness of the experience; the Penrose Park velodrome is the only one in the entire state of Missouri, and one of only about 30 in the entire US. It’s the incredible pleasure of seeing a corner of the city that most residents rarely visit suddenly activated and alive, loud with cheers and cowbells and real people enjoying public space.

But how much is the velodrome really worth to the city of St. Louis — in real dollars and cents?

Finding a Number

For the last twelve years, Scott Ogilvie has been trying to answer that question. When he learned about the then-49-year-old velodrome in 2005, he was a bike mechanic who couldn’t understand why the city had allowed such a unique public asset to fall into disrepair, and wanted to figure out how much it would take to make it rideable again. He and a friend raised $35,000 and wrangled a corps of volunteers to start pruning back the honeysuckle and pulling up the thorny plants that ringed the track (“probably the last thing you want growing at a bike racing facility,” Ogilvie says.)

Over the course of the next twelve years, he and a community of passionate cyclists and supporters have devoted themselves to making Penrose usable, DIYing repairs where they could and organizing a track bike rental program and riding lessons to get more people out on the pavement. It wasn’t a permanent fix — the track, they knew, was starting to slide downhill, and the cracks and bumps in the asphalt were deep and made racing less than ideal. But it was good enough to keep the track going, and keep people invested in the sport.

The Penrose Park Velodrome (bottom left corner of the image) is located on the north side of St. Louis, MO (Source: Google Maps)

The Penrose Park Velodrome (bottom left corner of the image) is located on the north side of St. Louis, MO (Source: Google Maps)

By 2011, Ogilvie had been elected alderman of a nearby ward, and he started what he jokingly calls an “inside game at city hall” to find the permanent funding to get the velodrome back in proper working order. “We weren’t kidding ourselves that we were building the nicest track in the country,” Ogilvie says. “But as a city, I think we have an obligation to maintain the parks we have. In some cases, we do an excellent job of that — I’m thinking of Forest Park here, which is one of the best parks in the country. And in some cases we do a sub par job of that. It’s Penrose Park’s turn to get some attention.”

Ogilvie’s passion for resurrecting Penrose certainly stems from his personal passion for cycling — head out to the velodrome on a July afternoon, and he’s one of the riders you’re likely to see zipping around at 30+ miles an hours. But it also has a lot to do with his passion for good government and creating a financially strong St. Louis. “We always knew that it wasn’t realistic to say, we’re going to build a brand new, state of the art velodrome for $5 million’,” Ogilive says. “But it also wasn’t realistic to say that we were just going to shut this one down, we’re just going to let it go and not have a plan B for this space in this particular park... For one, it would be a difficult site to reuse, simply because of its topography and the weird location of the park itself. And it would cost just as much, or likely even more, to convert [the land under the velodrome] to some other use than it would to rehabilitate it.”

After a comprehensive city-sponsored analysis, Ogilvie came up with a number for exactly how much that rehabilitation would cost, and winnowed it down to the bare essentials: about $660,000. It would pay to shore up the foundation of the track, repave it, and add some much-needed drainage. It wasn’t an ambitious makeover, but it was the right scale for the project — and one that twelve years of community investment had demonstrated that St. Louis cyclists wanted to see done. When Ogilvie’s years-long hunt for city funding came up just $25,000 short of the goal, he turned to that community fill the gap, plus an additional $10,000 for overages. So far, the cyclists have showed up: $15,000 has been raised on GoFundMe so far by around 200 people, with an additional $5,000 matched by a local outdoors fund and about $2,000 raised offline at other events. (Ogilive would want me to say, of course, that if you’d like to contribute, he’d be very grateful.)

What is a Speciality Park Worth?

The question of whether cities are investing well by supporting public parks — much less specialty parks with niche features like velodromes, half pipes and racquetball courts — is one of the most challenging questions in the Strong Towns conversation. After all, one of our core principles states it plainly: “Land is the base resource from which community prosperity is built and sustained. It must not be squandered.” If public parks don’t generate real, measurable tax revenues to support our city government, what good do they do us? If the central features of those parks are aimed at tiny subsets of our populations — track cyclists, community gardeners, tennis players who could just pay their own money to join a private club — are these specialty amenities really worth our public dollar?

Volunteers work to restore velodrome paving (Source: Penrose Park GoFundMe page)

Volunteers work to restore velodrome paving (Source: Penrose Park GoFundMe page)

But even if you set aside the vital, beyond-money questions of public health and the general public good, the financial verdict is still a resounding yes. Study after study has shown that robust city parks can improve adjacent property values, attract residents, increase tourism, and much more. To build and develop a quality park doesn’t squander your city’s valuable land; often, a good park will super-charge your neighborhood’s earning potential, especially if it’s developed incrementally using a Strong Towns approach. And creative, community-specific facilities — like a velodrome — can be an excellent foundation on which to focus your energies to build a thriving public space.

The Penrose Park velodrome project wasn’t executed by Strong Towns advocates, but a lack of easily available resources lead to a development process that any incremental builder should take note of. They took a derelict space and isolated a first, easy increment — trimming back that errant honeysuckle — and ran a few simple, low-cost events to gauge public response. The success of their DIY gardening efforts lead to what Ogilvie calls “some pretty serious yearly amateur repairs” to the track itself; a few one-off events were built into a sustainable, small-scale bike rental program, and a more regular series of programming to expand riders’ access to and comfort on the track.

Years and years and many small bets later, the Penrose Park velodrome had created a community of people who had bought into the project through both money and volunteer hours, not to mention a whole lot of heckling and cow-bell ringing at races. I can’t think of a better way they could have made their case to the city that a more serious, next-increment investment to the permanent durability of the track was warranted.

And in a few years, maybe a larger increment will be possible. After all, other cities such as Asheville, NC have seen public investment in velodromes result in property values immediately adjacent to the track rise to as much as $100k above what nearby homes fetch on the open market, despite all properties utilizing the exact same layout and builder, according to our friends at Urban Three.

For Scott Ogilvie, though, restoring the Penrose Park velodrome is more personal. “This has been that dream of mine, percolating in the background for almost twelve years now. If it doesn’t happen at this point, I think I might literally die, because it’s so close,” he laughs. But even setting his impending demise aside, there are hundreds of other reasons why Ogilvie knows the track needs to survive. “There are hundreds and hundreds of people who have been devoting their weekends to fixing Penrose, to hosting events, teaching someone to ride there — all to make sure we actually had something to invest in. I don’t want all that energy to just vanish because we had to close the park because it was in too bad a shape to ride anymore. That’s the biggest thing for me.”

(Top photo source: 5chw4r7z)