I.K. Bruto called again. He’s my longtime imaginary friend who pokes and prods me.
“They wanna build a velodrome in your ’hood,” he snarled over the phone. “Yes, I know,” I told him. A cycling enthusiast-turned developer wants to build a commercial velodrome, an oval-shaped embankment, and a BMX bicycle track, made of jumps, obstacles and dirt berms, on the old landfill at the foot of Sentinel Peak, known as “A” Mountain to everyone. The bulk of the land is controlled by Rio Nuevo, which supports the concept.
Damion Alexander, a real estate agent, recently presented the project idea to the Menlo Park Neighborhood Association. From the tone of the questions, the residents were not pleased.
“So are you going to go along to get along?” Bruto asked in his usual sarcastic tone. “Where do you stand, Mr. Westside Resident?” For transparency, I should note that my wife and I live in Menlo Park and own property next to the project site.
The site is south of Mercado San Agustín on West Congress Street and the future Caterpillar regional corporate office, and adjacent to Barrio Sin Nombre. The 22-acre site is bounded by Mission Lane on the north, South Grande Avenue on the west, the Santa Cruz River on the east and West 22nd Street on the south.
In addition to the cycling tracks, the project includes a horse trail, bike path that would connect to the Loop along the Santa Cruz River, pedestrian path, landscaping, facilities with restrooms and a clubhouse, parking for 250 vehicles and a plaza for events.
The project also incorporates historical markers and space to recognize the site as Tucson’s birthplace. The latter is a critical factor for historical preservationists, including myself.
Alexander said he is sensitive to the site’s historical importance. He said the plan has been altered a number of times to address the concerns and questions since he began earlier this year pitching the plan to Rio Nuevo, to City Councilwoman Regina Romero who represents the area, to neighborhood and preservation activists, and to cycling groups. He told the Menlo Park group the plan is not final.
“I understand and care about the significance of this land,” said Alexander in a phone interview. He made the same emphasis to the neighborhood association. He said the velodrome project would honor the land and its antecedents with interpretive signs explaining the history. Visitors, he said at the association meeting, “would learn the culture and history they’re standing on.”
A 20-foot-tall earth berm on the bike park’s north side will separate it from Mission Garden and Tucson Origins Heritage Park, home to the re-created convento and the Carrillo house, early colonial structures long gone, and Rancho Chuk-son, recognizing the indigenous people who lived on the site for thousands of years before Eusebio Francisco Kino, Jesuit priest and explorer, established in 1692 the short-lived Mission San Cosme y Damián de Tucsón.
Rio Nuevo has committed $2 million to the Carrillo house and Mission Lane restoration, Fletcher McCusker, chairman of the Rio Nuevo Multipurpose Facilities District, wrote me in an email. He also wrote that Rio Nuevo supports the velodrome and BMX tracks because they would produce sales tax and justify the district’s investment. Moreover, he wrote, the property has little potential for development because it sits on a landfill that requires extensive mitigation.
However, he added the proposal “only works if all the stakeholders agree.”
Alexander said in the interview that the historical components and cycling park are compatible. He emphasized that Tucson has become a strong cycling community and the velodrome would be an economic generator.
Bruto sneered. “This is going to be a bike park that will attract lots of people who don’t care about Tucson history and culture. And they won’t all be coming on bikes,” he said. “Wait till you see all that traffic that rolls in the neighborhood along with the cyclists.”
Traffic, noise and light pollution could be bigger hurdles than the wishes of history proponents. South Grande, which already is heavily traveled north and south, is two lanes, and there doesn’t appear to be any plan to widen it. Environmental impact studies have not been made.
At the neighborhood meeting, residents peppered Alexander with questions and doubts. Several said the residential site is inappropriate for a high-use commercial cycling venue. The project would affect not only Menlo Park and Barrio Sin Nombre but Barrio Kroger Lane on the east bank of the river, the “A” Mountain Neighborhood south of the project, Panorama Estates Neighborhood next to Sentinel Peak, and even Barrio Hollywood north of St. Mary’s Road.
It’s a nice plan but not here, they said. The land should be converted into a Sonoran Desert park, said one longtime resident. The land should be devoted to Tucson’s history and culture, said others.
Romero, who was not at the meeting, said by phone that she supports the process of presenting and reviewing the plan but will not support or oppose the proposal until the residents have their say. The developer, residents and others involved need to discuss and debate the proposed velodrome. “I believe in having conversations,” she said.
Romero added she supports a project that would put the land “to good use for the community.”
Bruto said he heard enough for now. “We’ll talk about this again,” he promised. “But I’ll tell you one thing,” he said. “We buried Tucson’s history once before. We’re not gonna make the same mistake again.”
Ernesto Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at 573-4187 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @netopjr