The old landfill along the Santa Cruz River immediately south of Mission Garden is the site of a proposed velodrome. It could be developed into a public Sonoran desert park.

If a commercial velodrome is not the best use of an empty historical site at the foot of Sentinel Peak, is there a better alternative?

Glad you asked, as someone did after I wrote in November about a proposal to build an oval track for cyclists at the site of Tucson’s birthplace.

How about a natural Sonoran riparian desert on the west bank of the Santa Cruz River, filled with native plants and critters. It would be a place where Tucsonans and tourists alike could enjoy beauty and tranquility and learn about our rich local history. It would be a place where cyclists on The Loop could stop and cheer on the kids on their bikes at a BMX track while families could picnic or frolic in the splash-pad. It would be a place connected to nearby “A” Mountain and Tumamoc Hill, within minutes of Tucson’s burgeoning downtown which lacks, at this point, a large public park.

The idea is not new. The Sonoran desert park for the Rio Nuevo downtown redevelopment and revitalization district was proposed in 2013. The city’s Parks and Recreation Department commissioned the study which was completed by Philip Rosen, a University of Arizona research scientist in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment.

While the plan has been presented to the Rio Nuevo administration and to city officials, Rosen said, it hasn’t gained any traction in public discussion over the future use of the site where human habitation can be traced several thousands of years.

“The Santa Cruz River historically has been the reason Tucson exists,” said Rosen.

The site is bounded by West Mission Lane and Barrio Sin Nombre on the north, South Grande Avenue on the west, the Santa Cruz River and Barrio Kroger Lane on the east, and West 22nd Street on the south. It is a rich historical site but a large, old city dump on site poses costly cleanup and challenges to any kind of development.

But mitigation for a park is doable and in Rosen’s study there are various degrees of park development, from a spartan landscape that would require little water and few changes to the existing soil up to a large diverse mesquite bosque similar to the forest that once existed on the site.

He said the three variations are outlines of possible parkland. The final plan could incorporate aspects of all three.

In the study, Rosen wrote: “Park development options include natural areas, hiking/biking/equestrian/bird-watching trails, and youth recreational facilities. The natural open space would provide biodiversity connectivity with the river corridor and county and federal reserves in Tucson Mountains.”

Park development at this site would significantly enhance quality of life in the urban core of the city as well as tourism and revitalization of downtown Tucson, Rosen said.

The desert park would include interpretive history of the site and connect to Tucson Origins Heritage Park, which includes existing Mission Garden and the promised reconstructed Carrillo House and convento, and Rancho Chuk-son. Rosen also envisions incorporating two small neighborhood parks in the larger footprint and emphasizes the park would serve as a connecting wildlife corridor to “A” Mountain and Tumamoc.

The velodrome proposal contains similar concepts — open space, wildlife corridor, recreational uses, historical interpretive signs, all with an eye of adding to Tucson’s quality of life. But the proposal’s centerpiece is a velodrome track which would be costly and used by a limited number of people. It would exclude the vast majority of people who are not cyclists and do not have money to use it.

The Rio Nuevo administration would argue that any development for Tucson’s birthplace would have to pay its way. If it doesn’t generate money, then fuhgeddaboudit. Rio Nuevo exists to commercialize the property it controls.

It’s true. Admission can’t be charged to enter and enjoy a public park. But there are some aspects of extolling Tucson’s virtues and attractions that are more than about making money off a Rio Nuevo project. The Sonoran desert park would be a wide-open, free public space that would be a proud and visible representation of our history, our ecology, our urban environment and our values.

That’s worth something.

Ernesto Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at 573-4187 or netopjr@tucson.com. On Twitter: @netopjr