By John Greenfield
[A version of this piece also runs in New City magazine, www.newcity.com.]
Imagine yourself watching, or better yet competing in, a breakneck “Madison” team bicycle race on a gleaming indoor track at the Chicago Velo Campus sports district. It’s a freezing winter night outside but sweat pours off the chiseled, Lycra-clad riders as they whiz by on sleek fixed-gear bikes and the crowd goes wild.
Emanuele Bianchi, businessman, racer and president of the low-profit limited liability corporation Chicago Velo Campus L3C, is working hard to make this vision a reality. The sports district would include a stadium nearly as large as the United Center housing the velodrome (bike racing arena) and many other sports facilities, plus outdoor BMX, mountain bike and cyclocross tracks, at an estimated total cost of $40 - 45 million.
Bianchi, no relation to the Bianchi bicycle company, and his partners want to build the velo campus on the former site of U. S. Steel’s South Works mill, a hump of land on the lakefront between 79th and 92nd. They hope it will be the centerpiece of Lakeside, an ambitious new 500-acre community proposed for the site by real estate developer McCaffrey Interests in partnership with the steel company, which still owns the land.
Our goal isn`t just to build the best velodrome in the Midwest or in the country but in the world,” says Bianchi an energetic, bright-eyed man, over cappuccino at a Michigan Avenue café. In addition to the 250-meter velodrome, the stadium would boast a dazzling array of amenities including an Olympic-sized swimming pool, 400-meter running track, fitness center, restaurants, a cycling museum, and even a wind tunnel. The L3C has announced that the campus will be completed in 2013, and this Daniel Burnham-esque plan seems to have the magic to stir cyclists’ blood: the Chicago Velo Campus has over 1,800 followers on Facebook.
Before you get too excited about the velodrome, visualize another circular structure. The 76-foot-deep hole in Streeterville where the 2,000-foot-tall Chicago Spire skyscraper was supposed to stand is a sobering reminder of the challenges facing bold development schemes in this dismal real estate market.
Bianchi and his colleagues haven’t secured the location yet and they’ve only lined up a fraction of the money. And, since they plan on funding ongoing operation of the sports district through user fees, they’re betting on an influx of some 20,000 affluent new residents to the low-income Southeast Side via Lakeside, which became much less likely after the real estate crash. These X factors mean that a 2013 opening for the Chicago Velo Campus is about as certain as the Cubs winning the World Series.
But can Bianchi beat the odds and emerge victorious? While local cyclists are stoked about the possibility of a top-notch, year-round velodrome complex, some key figures in the racing community have expressed serious doubts, although most wouldn’t go on record saying so. “This would be the cherry on the top of an already vibrant racing scene here in Chicago,” says Stacy Appelwick, a national-level competitor who trains outdoors at Northbrook’s Ed Rudolph Velodrome, the region’s only track. "But I'd be extremely surprised to see this actually built.”
"Frankly, many of the world experts in track racing say, ‘Man, that thing sounds to good to be true,’” admits Bianchi, “They say, ‘Is anybody there really doing anything to make this happen?’ But our architect, RTKL Associates, has six people working on this.”
Chicago has a rich bike racing heritage - at the turn of the 20th Century events at eight velodromes from Humboldt Park to Pullman drew thousands of spectators - and Bianchi is keen to accelerate the current track revival. He emigrated here from Italy in 2006 to run his company PetEgo LLC, which produces “luxury, stylish Italian goods” for cats and dogs. A Category 4 (advanced beginner) track racer, in 2010 he directed the junior development program at the large local team XXX Racing.
Bianchi got the idea for the velo campus after reading books about coaching young racers. “They all said your juniors need to train for a number of hours on a fixed-gear bike on a track,” he says. “They can’t coast, so this forces them to develop a good cadence.” He says he loves the Northbrook velodrome but it’s no good for serious training and competition because it’s longer than the regulation 250 meters and its banking is too relaxed. “It was originally designed for roller skating because one of Ed Rudolph’s kids was a speed skater,” he says. “It has 14-degree banking. You need 42-degree banking on the turns – otherwise your bike would come out from under you at 50 miles-per-hour.”
While there are dozens of regulation-size indoor bike arenas in Europe and eight in Australia alone, there’s only one in the United States, the Home Depot Center Velodrome in Los Angeles. Built for the 1984 Olympics at a cost of $15 million, it has few amenities and no indoor bathrooms. Bianchi was inspired fill this void with a world-class facility that would allow racers to keep training through the long Chicago winter.
He registered Chicago Velo Campus as an L3C in early 2010, assembling an impressive team of business, planning and racing experts like Christos Komissopoulous, principal of Aspire Capital; Michael Quintos, president of DigitalAdAgency.com; Nik Rokop, Managing Director of the Jules F. Knapp Entrepreneurship Center at IIT; and John Vande Velde, an Olympic racer and creator of the Vandedrome, a portable cycling track.
Bianchi and his colleagues spent twelve months researching existing velodromes on four continents and began fundraising. As for the location, the LLC considered centrally-located Northerly Island, but decided that building on public parkland near the Loop would be too costly and complicated. “Obviously, having a central, downtown location would be ideal but it triples the price,” says Quintos, who’s handling PR for the effort. “And organizing public meetings for community input is suicidal. Everyone has an opinion. Once you obtain the rights to private land it’s yours – you build.”
Although most Chicagoland racers live on the North Side or in the northern suburbs, Bianchi doesn’t think the South Works location would be a problem. “When we ask out biker friends if they’d come down they say, ‘Are you kidding? The best Velodrome in the world? I’d bike down from Wrigleyville [about 18 miles] to get there.’”
The L3C is currently in talks with U.S. Steel, and Bianchi says it’s very likely within a few weeks the steel company will commit to donating land for the sports district, as well as leasing land for interim facilities that would open this year, although there’s nothing in writing yet.
Asked why U.S. Steel would give away this potentially valuable real estate, Bianchi points to Lakeside. The current proposal calls for extending Lake Shore Drive to the site and zoning for 13,575 housing units, 17,500,000 square feet of retail, 125 acres of green space, a new high school and a 1,500 boat marina. The developers project that construction on the first phase of the development, a 76-acre parcel at the northwest corner of the South Works site called Market Common, will start in 2012.
"If you create an exceptional sports district that generates international attention, your site becomes an attractive location for Walmart or Target or any retailer, “ Bianchi says. “Without the velo campus it would be a lot harder to convince people to buy houses in what would otherwise be just another development.”
The interim facilities would include the Lakeside Veloworks, a community bicycle shop offering repair, maintenance and bike safety classes for at-risk youth. A preliminary map on the velo campus’ Facebook page locates the shop near 87th and Burley, one block from a Metra station. There would also be a temporary, outdoor velodrome, and a dirt track built around a ½-mile-long, four-story-high wall formerly used for storing iron ore at the steel mill. “The interim facilities will help get the community involved and get people interested in the sport of track racing,” says Quintos.
Bianchi says Southeast Siders are already jazzed about the possibility of the sports district. “[10th Ward alderman] John Pope brought together all the community leaders for our presentation and the best question was, ‘Where do we sign up? Let’s get this done as fast as possible.’” Pope and 7th Ward alderman Sandi Jackson, who share jurisdiction over the South Works site, have both written letters of support for the project. “I am immensely excited about the engagement of area children at a nominal cost and the job creation component for the community,” Jackson writes.
Not surprisingly, various wings of local bike advocacy have also endorsed the velo campus. "A facility like this would be a nice complement to the bicycling infrastructure and programs the City has put in place over the last 20 years, and another example of Chicago's status as a bike-friendly city," says Brian Steele, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation.
"The Chicago Velo Campus will be a wonderful boost for bicycling,” Ron Burke, director of Active Transportation Alliance, a nonprofit which advocates for walking, biking and transit. “It raises the profile not only of the racing community, but the entire local biking community. We’re excited their approach includes opportunities for youth with a bicycle education center similar to West Town Bikes, the Recyclery and Blackstone Bicycle Works.”
Tyjuan Edwards, who teaches at Blackstone, located a few miles up the lakefront from the South Works site in Woodlawn, says the velo campus would make an excellent fieldtrip destination for his students. “It would be a great place to go with the kids on Saturdays, especially during the winter,” he says. “Maybe we could form a racing team. We really need to give kids something to do because we don’t have a lot of that on the South Side.”
Val Brostrom, a Category 1 (advanced) track racer who co-directs Northbrook’s Thursday night summer race series, says she’s thrilled about the possibility of being able to train year-round. “A world-class facility such as the Chicago Velo Campus could bring international racing to our backyard,” she says. “The prospect of having the U.S. national team train here as well as having World Cups or even the World Championships would do wonders for the sport as a whole.”
One feature that could draw interest from around the world is the wind tunnel, used for developing aerodynamic bike components and helping competitors find the perfect riding posture for slicing through the air. “Professional racers go to a wind tunnel and get fitted to their bikes and then they have to fly somewhere else to test the fit on the track, which is more like reality,” Bianchi says. “We would be the first to build a wind tunnel inside a velodrome complex.” He expects the facility would get frequent use by SRAM, a Chicago-based component company, and Trek, located three hours away in Waterloo, WI.
Bianchi says another key audience for the velo campus would be the multisport crowd. "If you talk to other racers about triathletes they say, ‘They don’t have handling skills,’” he says. “But they’re cyclists and they swim and run, and I want them involved.” He says this growing, well-heeled demographic would be an important revenue stream for the sports district. “What if they had a velodrome where they could train, plus a swimming pool, a running track and a fitness center? It`s a dream for a triathlete.”
The Chicago Velo Campus project may have competition. In January Mayor Martin Moylan of Des Plaines announced a private developer wants to build a 250-meter indoor velodrome in his city at an estimated cost of $15 - $20 million.
But while Des Plaines proposal seems to be a recent development, the Chicago Velo Campus already has legs. On February 7 the L3C presented their plan at City Hall to representatives from a dozen departments, asking for a zoning change to the land where the interim facilities would be built, and the City has agreed to move forward with the request. Assuming U.S. Steele allows them to build on the land, Bianchi is confident Lakeside Veloworks, the outdoor velodrome and dirt track will be open in May.
But the question remains, where will the L3C get $45 million to build the sports district? That’s roughly 15 times the cost of the Millennium Park bike station, the city’s most expensive piece of cycling infrastructure. The Chicago Department of Transportation built the commuter hub, with parking for 300 bikes, showers and lockers, using federal and state money in 2004, before the economy tanked.
Since the city, state and federal governments are now deep in debt, the L3C realizes they will need to rely on grants from corporations and private donations. Bianchi says they’ve lined up pledges for about 30 percent of the construction costs. “None of the donors are talking yet,” he says. “The fact that the whole political world in Chicago is changing is a big deal, so we are holding back on fundraising until after the election.”
So will the velo campus be the next jewel in the city’s sports crown, or will it be the Chicago Spire of bicycling? Some of its supporters are cautiously optimistic.“Active Trans has a high level of confidence that Chicago Velo Campus will be built,” says Burke. “Their commitment, research and energy produced a great plan that can be flexible in some aspects by swapping elements in and out if their dream financial support doesn’t come through.”
"I was skeptical because there are probably a dozen proposed tracks in the U.S. and nothing seems to be happening on many of those projects,” says racer Val Brostrom. "Some have been in the works for years. But I think the Chicago Velo Campus has a good chance of being built. Emanuele Bianchi has assembled a great team of people who are working very hard to make everyone's dream a reality.”
"I don’t think the idea is bullshit, but it boils down to whether they’re going to be able to come up with the money,” says Lee Diamond, co-owner of Big Shoulders Realty and owner of Chicago Velo, a bike tour company. Bianchi approached him unsuccessfully to buy the chicagovelo.com web address. “There couldn’t be a worse time for development,” Diamond adds. “But it takes the guys with vision and the guts to fail, to succeed.”
Mayor Daley says as much in McCaffree Interests’ promotional video for Lakeside, the development that could make or break the Chicago Velo Campus. “You have to be able to dream,” says the mayor. “You don’t stop because of the economy. If you stop you fail.”
Just like in track racing.
Bianchi will give a presentation to cyclists about the Chicago Velo Campus at 11:45 am at the Chicago Cycle Swap organized by Active Transportation Alliance and Chicago Bike Winter, Saturday, February 26, 10 am to 6 pm at Pulaski Park Fieldhouse, 1419 W. Blackhawk. On June 2-3 Russian trumpet virtuoso Evgeniy Guryev will play benefit concerts in Chicago for the velodrome at the Shedd Aquarium.