The long lines for Dodge Fitness Center’s 70 pieces of cardio equipment, two bench presses, and worn-down stretching mats are simply facts of life for those who choose to use the facility.
Acute overcrowding is inevitable when the largest population of students in the Ivy League has its smallest campus gym. And while several multi-million dollar projects have improved varsity Athletics facilities dramatically in recent years, Dodge has remained effectively unchanged since 1995.
But in October 2015, Athletics Director Peter Pilling announced that the department would have a plan in place to renovate the decaying facility in four to six months. Now, more than a year and a half after Pilling’s notice, the department claims to have that plan.
The project is currently going through a vetting process, according to Pilling. It must win broad administrative approval before a submission can be sent to the University Board of Trustees for review.
In the last 50 years, the University has made several attempts to provide campus fitness spaces––including the infamous Morningside Park Gym proposal in the late 1960s. These efforts have netted mixed results, at best. In the last published University Senate Quality of Life survey, Columbia students ranked Columbia’s “Fitness Services” lower than oft-maligned campus targets like “Mental Health,” “Social Life,” and “Administration.”
Space on the Morningside campus is extremely limited and must be prudently apportioned, so to craft the renovation, the athletics department commissioned the program management firm of Brailsford & Dunlavey––which worked with the University previously during the construction of Lerner Hall in the late 1990s—“to conduct a market analysis for the project’s revenue generating components and provide an independent, third-party evaluation of the facility.”
The firm conducted a series of evaluations which produced a wealth of data––data which purports to show the deficiencies of Dodge and predict future student and faculty needs. This data should help demonstrate the gravity of Dodge’s defects to University decision-makers.
“If you look at the cardio space and the weight training space, based on the data that we’ve collected, we’re approximately at 16 percent of our needed capacity. … We can serve the community, the campus community, better,” Pilling said.
Between 4,000 and 6,000 people a day use Dodge during peak winter months, according to Erich Ely, associate athletics director for facilities operations and capital projects.
“We did an evaluation of swipes at the front desk [in Dodge], and the last couple of years it’s been right at about a million––a million swipes a year, and trending upwards every year,” Ely said.
According to Ely, these high numbers cause extreme wear, most evident on the cardio equipment, which the department leases from outside vendors.
“Every two or three years, we have a vendor tell us that they’ve never taken equipment out of a facility that’s been used as much as this is. There are 70 pieces of cardio equipment for the university population, and they’re pretty much all in constant use from 6 a.m. ’til midnight.”
In the 25-meter long Uris Pool, students must often swim five to a lane during peak hours. Because a host of groups, classes, and teams compete for time, Uris Pool is only available for open recreational swimming 35 hours a week.
Dodge Fitness Center houses just two bench presses to service the entire student body.
“In general, it has an ethos of just being the bare minimum,” Siena Ward, CC ’18, said. “The University can say they have a gym, but it really is just the bare minimum.”
In recent years, Dodge’s inadequacies have contrasted all the more sharply with the University’s Athletics facilities, which have grown enormously in size and quality. The six-year, $100 million Columbia Campaign for Athletics, completed in 2013, allowed the historically cash-strapped department to build on a previously unimaginable scale. Just since 2012, the University has opened the $30 million, 48,000-square-foot Campbell Sports Center, a $10 million athletics bubble, and an archery facility on 132nd Street, and renovated the Chrystie Field House, the Gould-Remmer Boat House, and a number of smaller varsity facilities, both at Baker Field and in Dodge.
But, despite the overall improvement of Athletics facilities, very little has been done to modify Dodge since its last renovation.
“The Campbell [Sports Center] up at Baker Field hasn’t really changed anything here,” said Roger Lehecka CC ’67, who served as Dean of Students for 19 years and is now a seminar instructor in the Center for American Studies. “And from Columbia’s perspective, with all the publicity that’s generated from competitive sports, they’re always going to be more concerned with that success. How well the recreational program works is not going to be in the New York Times every weekend.”
But now the department has committed to turn its resources and attention toward developing its largely overlooked recreational spaces.
“We’ve made no secret of the fact that campus recreation is the driver of this project, and has been since the beginning,” Ely said.
Pilling envisions not only a more expansive gym but also a more social one––noting, as many others have, the dearth of such spaces on campus.
“We’ve identified a lounge area that people can come and just spend time. That seems like one of the challenges that we have on this campus: Where’s the space where people can just come and spend time?” he said. “The more space that we create in one large area, the better we can obtain those goals not only from a wellness standpoint, but also from a social standpoint.”
He also brought up the possibility of a juice bar in Dodge—another proposal that could make Dodge not only a fitness destination but also a social hub.
Many students and administrators agree that the conditions of the gym contribute to a lack of community, noting not only a dearth of equipment and space but also a dispiriting environment.
“It feels like it was built for a purpose, but now it’s completely inadequate to serve that purpose,” Irina Teveleva, CC ’17, said. “It feels like a really unwelcoming place to me.”
Athletics Department personnel are the first to admit the deficiencies. “I don’t want to work out here either,” said Abbey Lade, director of physical education. “It’s dark, it’s underground, it’s not necessarily inspiring. We understand that.”
The two cardio floors on the top and bottom of Dodge's tri-level fitness center hold 70 cardio machines.
In addition to overseeing the PE department, which serves 1,500 students a semester, Lade has tried to push for new programs and initiatives in Dodge which might make the space more fun, but has been acutely limited by the lack of space.
“When I was interviewing for this job, [the interviewer’s] metaphor for Dodge was that it was like putting a 10-pound weight in a five-pound bag. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”
But improving recreational resources can prove a difficult sell to the administration, as Columbia does not rely on recreational facilities to draw in potential students as much as other institutions do, according to Lade.
“Schools that are vying for applicants need to have the bells and whistles to attract students. Columbia does not need that,” Lade said. “Students aren’t coming here because of the recreational activities, and if you’re upset that we don’t offer recreational opportunities there’s someone else that’s going to take your place and we’re not going to be hurting.”
But Lade argues that if student recreation is to see any serious improvement, more students and administrators must begin to view the lack of fitness spaces as a mental health concern––especially on a campus with a pervasive culture of stress.
“It’s going to have to come from a wellness perspective,” she added.
Selected to participate on the JED Foundation’s Steering Committee for Mental Health, Pilling himself is now directly poised to help the University to engage with these issues. The task force is led by Dean of Columbia College James Valentini, who said in his update on the JED Campus Assessment that it hopes to enhance efforts in supporting mental health and overall wellness—efforts, students have noted, that are in particular demand. Pilling adds a voice for both student-athletes and student body fitness.
But the problem of improving overall student wellness as it relates to recreation has been noted from the beginning of Pilling’s tenure, as University President Lee Bollinger, in his letter introducing Pilling as Athletics Director to the University in 2015, wrote: “[the university] appreciates the importance in a long-term investment in the health and wellness of our entire campus community.”
The Brailsford & Dunlavey plan, while still unclear, seeks to embody that “long-term investment.” However, it does not appear to include provisions for physically expanding Dodge or for the construction of any new buildings––either at the new Manhattanville campus or elsewhere—according to Brailsford & Dunlavey’s website. Instead, the company was tasked by Athletics with “provid[ing] recommendations regarding how best to optimize the Department’s existing facilities and resources.”
This marks a departure from Columbia’s largely insufficient attempts over the last several decades to overhaul or significantly add to campus recreation. Those past proposals generally packaged new facilities for students alongside new varsity facilities.
A troubled history
After the proposal of the Morningside Park gym in the late ’60s—which was tabled because of its role in sparking the infamous ’68 riots—Columbia opened Dodge in 1974 as a dual varsity and recreational space. But the facility had already become antiquated by 1991. At that time, then-Athletics Director John Reeves decided to commission the renowned architectural firm of Davis Brody & Associates to develop a comprehensive “Master Plan for Recreation and Athletics.”
These plans, obtained by Spectator, not only called for a top-to-bottom renovation of Dodge but also proposed the construction of a six-story athletics complex on what was then Morningside’s last undeveloped space––the parcel of land on the northwest corner of campus. The complex would have included several floors of Athletics offices, a swimming pool, and a rooftop tennis courts. But Athletics was unable to raise the necessary $25 million for construction, and that, combined with University infighting, doomed the project. The result was a partial renovation of Dodge, corresponding roughly to Concept B1 of the proposal––an intermediary measure meant to “indicate opportunities rather than solutions.” A proposed aquatics center at 121st Street and Amsterdam, which would have freed up Dodge’s vastly overcrowded Uris Pool, suffered a similar fate.
This facility was proposed to be built where the Northwest Corner Building currently stands.
And in 2004, an incident ensued when Reeves, learning from a Spectator article that the Northwest Corner Building would be exclusively devoted to science, publicly alleged that the University’s administration had reneged on a promise that two floors of the building would be made available to Athletics. Reeves was unavailable for comment on the matter.
Until now, no new proposals for student recreational facilities have been tendered––with the exception of a lightly considered 2007 plan to convert the sixth floor of Lerner (which remained unused for the first eight years of the building’s existence) into a second gym. That never materialized. Most recently, former Athletics Director M. Dianne Murphy said in a 2012 interview with Spectator that the Manhattanville expansion would include a space dedicated to recreation, intramurals, and club sports. Those plans have not materialized, either––though the new campus will include a 7,000-square-foot retail climbing gym, where Columbia students will be able to purchase memberships at a $10-a-month discount. M. Dianne Murphy declined to comment for this story.
But while the University has pledged to upgrade Dodge, Lade believes that in order for the facility to undergo the full renovation it needs––and not just another in a series of partial fixes––students cannot passively hope for administrative support, but need to demand change.
“I really think it’s important that it comes from the students—that they say ‘We need more space!’” she said. “To get some buy-in from the President, we can tell him ’til we’re blue in the face, but if the kids aren’t asking for it, they’re going to spend their resources elsewhere.”