The Good Life

Weightrooms. Exercise bikes. Basketball hoops. A jogging track. Racquetball courts. That's what you'd expect to see at a recreation center on a college campus.

But wait a minute — what's this? Jumbo flat-screen TVs lining the walls? Sushi bars? Coffee bistros? Whirlpools? Massages? Climbing walls? Multiple swimming pools? Water slides? Tanning parlors?

Is this a college campus or a vacation resort?

Colleges and universities hope the answer is some of both. Many schools have spent millions of dollars to create recreation spaces with lavish touches that are appealing enough to satisfy existing students and lure potential ones.

After checking out the amenities at some of these new campus recreation centers, one could be forgiven for wondering if Robin Leach had forsaken his role as chronicler of the rich and famous for a career in university administration.

They may not be serving champagne and caviar, but the recreation centers that colleges and universities are erecting offer students a slice of luxury not seen on campuses just a few years earlier.

“What we have now is incomparable to before,” says Kim Schmidt, director of the University of Cincinnati's year-old recreation center.

Shaping up campus

As they always have, colleges and universities try to win prospective students over by offering the most appealing opportunities for academic achievement and social development. But today's generation of students have more demanding expectations than those of their predecessors, and if one campus doesn't have a package of features they find desirable, students will seek out institutions that do.

Another strong motive that higher-education institutions have for offering better facilities and more services is the desire to keep students on campus and develop a more cohesive learning and living community.

To achieve these objectives, many universities feel compelled to offer more than spartan cinder-block student housing, institutional-style dining and austere gathering spots.

The demand for more elaborate amenities applies to fitness and recreation facilities as well. Here are some examples of campuses that have invested millions of dollars into upgrades of their recreation and fitness facilities:

  • Southern Methodist University

    A $25 million expansion of SMU's Dedman Center for Lifetime Sports opened in 2005 and has tripled the size of the facility. Among the amenities available to students: aerobic and dance rooms; a 14-foot-high bouldering wall; a 40-foot-high climbing wall; a “Cardio Overlook” space with elliptical machines and treadmills overlooking the Dallas skyline; a coffee shop; a lounge with computer terminals and big-screen TV; a multipurpose court for indoor soccer or floor hockey; an open-air rotunda; an outdoor adventure area with canoes and tents available to rent; and an outdoor water recreation area with pools, waterfalls and fountains. That's in addition to the expected offerings of basketball courts, weight-rooms, indoor swimming pools and locker rooms.

  • Boston University

    In the fiercely competitive Boston higher-education market, the city's namesake university's effort to keep up with its neighbors debuted in 2005 — the $90 million, 270,000-square-foot Fitness and Recreation Center. It has an 18,000-square-foot weight-training and cardiovascular-conditioning area; two pools, one for recreation and one for competition; a 35-foot-high climbing wall; a dance studio and theater; a jogging track; voluminous gymnasium space for basketball, volleyball and other sports; racquetball and squash courts; multipurpose fitness spaces for exercise classes and other activities; a snack bar; and a pro shop.

  • Ohio State University

    With 50,000 students enrolled at its campus in Columbus, the school has a lot of fitness and recreation needs to meet. The university allocated $140 million to address those needs with 605,000 square feet of space that opened in 2005 as the Recreational and Physical Activity Center (RPAC). The Rec Main building has 25,000 square feet of fitness space, eight basketball courts, 10 racquetball courts, four multipurpose rooms, an indoor jogging track, meeting rooms, a cafe, Student Wellness Center offices and other amenities. The aquatic center has five swimming pools. The Adventure Recreation Center includes 5,000 square feet of fitness space; a climbing center with more than 4,000 square feet of climbing surface and a bouldering cave; two indoor turf fields with netting for soccer, lacrosse, rugby, cricket, baseball or field hockey; hardwood courts for basketball and volleyball; equipment rental; and a trip-planning resource center.

At the bottom

Before the University of Cincinnati decided on a major upgrade of campus facilities that included a new recreation center, most of the school's recreation and fitness facilities ranked at the bottom compared with other campuses. So it was appropriate that the main venue for student recreation was a dark space in the basement of the university's basketball arena.

“Our recreation space was antiquated,” says Schmidt. “We had no free weights. We had no group-fitness classes.”

Consultants told university officials that their recreation offerings were deficient, compared with other campuses. Surveys of students showed that they had the same opinion and that the lack of amenities was making it hard to recruit and retain students.

“Students knew that what we had was inadequate,” says Schmidt. “They'd seen what other campuses had.”

The university responded with plans for a modern recreation center that was one element of the $233 million MainStreet corridor project — the largest capital improvement effort in the school's history.

The $112.9 million Campus Recreation Center, designed by Morphosis and KZF Design, opened in 2006.

The 350,000-square-foot building includes 202,000 square feet of recreational and fitness space, including eight racquetball courts, a six-court arena for basketball, volleyball or badminton; a 50-meter, Olympic-sized lap pool with eight lanes; a leisure pool for water aerobics along with a lazy river, water wall, whirlpool and bubble couch; multipurpose rooms; a climbing wall; and fitness and weight-lifting areas.

In addition, the center has classrooms and offices, a food court, student housing for 224 students and a convenience store.

“It's a wonderful complement to the academic offerings on campus,” says Schmidt. “Most students see it and say, ‘Wow! What an amazing building!’”

Comments? E-mail Kennedy, staff writer, at [email protected].

Missouri tropics

Many higher-education institutions have enhanced their recreational offering with well-appointed facilities to appeal to students, but one stands out, according to Sports Illustrated magazine.

In 2005, the publication, taking note of the “South Beach vibe” at the Mizzou Student Recreation Complex, chose the University of Missouri — Columbia facility as the nation's top university recreation center.

The $50 million, 293,000-square-foot facility opened in 2005 with not only a familiar array of exercise opportunities — cardio machines, free weights, swimming pools, climbing walls and aerobic studios — but also entertainment touches such as DVD players and large flat-screen monitors to provide students with a multimedia experience as they work out.

Students also can take a break from their studies and escape from the harsh Midwest winters with a visit to the tropical-themed aquatic area called the Tiger Grotto.

“Amidst palm trees and other tropical flora, the sound of waterfalls and fountains give Tiger Grotto an atmosphere of complete serenity,” the university boasts.

The grotto has a lazy river, sauna and steam shacks, a heated spa that can hold more than 20 people, and beach-style rocking chairs on an overlooking balcony.

$140

Amount, in millions, spent on Ohio State University's new Recreation and Physical Activity Center.

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