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A $40 Million Gift, a Proposed Bike Arena, and Now Skepticism in Brooklyn

In April, Joshua P. Rechnitz pledged that amount — the largest single gift in the history of New York City’s parks system — to build a field house in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The gift was heralded as a much-needed boost for the 85-acre waterfront park, which is still under development. But attention quickly turned to the centerpiece of the plan: a velodrome with a 200-meter inclined indoor cycling track and stadium seating for almost 2,500 spectators. At the track’s center would be limited space for more traditional sports like basketball, gymnastics or tennis.

Now, some parkgoers, neighborhood activists and community leaders are looking that donation in the mouth and saying, Thanks, but no thanks.

Leaders of the major community groups in the neighborhoods abutting the park, including Brooklyn Heights and Dumbo, have questions about the track. They say they worry about the building’s size (with a footprint of up to 70,000 square feet, it is larger than a football field) and the traffic it might draw to the cobbled streets of Brooklyn Heights, while pointing out the relatively obscure nature of track cycling, in which riders on fixed-gear bicycles without brakes travel at terrific speeds around curves banked at 45-degree angles.

The proposed site of Brooklyn Bridge Park’s velodrome.

Some also doubt Mr. Rechnitz’s motives: a 47-year-old resident of the Upper West Side, he is an avid amateur track cyclist who has tried — and failed — to bring a velodrome to the city. Now, they say, he is buying the track he wants, on public land.

“You can paint stripes on a horse, but that doesn’t make it a zebra,” said Peter Flemming, co-chairman of the independent Brooklyn Bridge Park Community Council and a resident of Brooklyn Heights. “Nor can calling this a ‘field house’ make it anything other than an Olympic-class track-cyling velodrome.”

Joan Zimmerman, president of the Fulton Ferry Landing Association, another community group, said she worried that the park was already being nibbled away by structures. “Putting this large of a building at one of the narrower necks of the park raises the question of what’s more important: green space or buildings?” she said.

Not everyone is against the proposed track. Joan L. Millman, a state assemblywoman who represents the area containing the park, said she supported it, in part because it would replace a rundown storage building near Pier 5 that she called an “eyesore.” But she confessed that, at first, she was not even sure what a velodrome was. “I had to go look it up,” she said.

Regina Myer, president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, which governs land use in the park, emphasized that “it’s not taking away any green space; the plan always called for that location to be a maintenance building.”

Mr. Rechnitz is the son and the grandson of philanthropists. His grandparents were Robert H. and Harriet Heilbrunn, who supported, among other institutions, Rockefeller University, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the Central Park Conservancy; and his parents, Joan and Robert Rechnitz, have donated millions of dollars in recent years to a theater, a hospital and a university in Monmouth County, N.J. But he has never before made a large gift.

He did not appear publicly when the donation was announced, nor did he take part in community input sessions held in Brooklyn in recent months.

“He’s no Donald Trump,” his spokeswoman, Maureen R. Connelly, said. “He’s a very low-key individual.”

A few years ago, Mr. Rechnitz formed a corporation, Velodrome of New York City Inc., to bring a track to the metropolitan area. In April, he changed its name to New York City Fieldhouse Inc. In addition to Ms. Connelly, he has hired a team that includes Greg J. Brooks, a former deputy comptroller for the city who was a top administrator at the 92nd Street Y, to help get the center built.

A century ago, New York City was a world capital of track cycling, which is now pursued mainly in Europe. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, throngs of fans gathered at Madison Square Garden to watch cyclists pedal for days in competitions punctuated by spectacular crashes. City lawmakers stepped in to limit the time a racer could ride in one stretch. A giant velodrome that opened in 1922 near the Harlem River on 225th Street could seat 16,000 fans.

This fall, architects for Mr. Rechnitz are to unveil a conceptual design for the building, which will also include a boathouse, bathrooms and storage space; in addition, they must submit a supplemental environmental impact statement for the project, which will look at traffic, among other issues.

The Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation must still approve the plan, which would also require state approval.

Candace Lombardi, a Brooklyn Heights resident of 17 years, said she worried that the cars that would most likely descend on the velodrome could overwhelm the neighborhood. (There is no parking in the plan.) “This is a little 19th-century street with cobblestones,” she said, pointing to the foot of Joralemon Street, which is near the proposed site. “I’m just thinking about all the spectators and the traffic this will bring.”

Mr. Brooks, who also served as chief of staff for the former Brooklyn borough president Howard Golden, said the building would be designed to offer an array of other sports in the infield, which would measure between 22,000 and 26,000 square feet.

“We can have various setups going on in the same day,” he said. “You could go from basketball in the morning to Pilates or gymnastics or tennis. Flexibility is critical in a facility like this in order to maximize uses.”

There is now only one velodrome left in New York City, at Kissena Park in Queens, but the 400-meter city-owned track there is not enclosed. For the small community of track cyclists in New York City, who compete at Kissena and bemoan the nasty bump in Turn No. 4, the opening of the year-round velodrome would offer huge benefits.

“It would open up opportunities for teaching kids about racing in a safe, controlled environment,” said Dan Reiners, a board member of the Kissena Cycling Club, which was founded in 1963. (Mr. Reichnitz is not a member.) “Adding this facility is going to increase the profile of track cycling in the city.”

As for critics who have dismissed track cycling as elitist, obscure or simply weird, Mr. Reiners countered that Brooklyn Bridge Park recently opened three regulation-size sand volleyball courts on Pier 6. “If that’s the criteria for building facilities in this park, that it has to be very well known and popular, then that seems like a facetious argument,” he said. “Beach volleyball is fairly obscure itself.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Flemming has another idea. Why not regift the velodrome and build it on the site of the existing track in Queens, just off the Van Wyck and Long Island Expressways? “Bet there’s space for parking there,” he said.

Source: NY Times

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Posted by on July 31, 2012. Filed under NY News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.