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UW-Madison looks to replace SERF with new, bigger campus gym
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UW-Madison looks to replace SERF with new, bigger campus gym

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When UW-Madison students go to the Southeast Recreational Facility to work out after class, they are often met with long lines for treadmills and weights.

Student organizations and fitness classes must scramble over the building’s single studio room.

And the SERF’s pool, which planners downsized in an attempt to save money, isn’t big enough to host swim meets.

Add to that a leaky roof, problems with accessibility and plumbing and other systems in need of repair, and UW officials and students have concluded that the most popular student gym on campus — built less than 35 years ago — must be replaced.

If all goes according to the plans of the UW-Madison Division of Recreational Sports, the facility at 715 W. Dayton St. will be closed for good late in the summer of 2017 and torn down in the fall. Two years later a new SERF with nearly four times as much fitness space as the current one will open to students, at an estimated cost of $93 million.

“It’s a significant expansion on the current site,” Rec Sports director John Horn said.

UW-Madison students agreed to shoulder most of the new building’s cost, contributing $50 million through a series of fee increases. The rest will come from donations and the UW Athletic Department — no state funding will be spent on the new SERF.

The student body approved the increases in a campus-wide referendum in 2014, voting to replace the SERF and later the Natatorium on the west side of campus over the next decade, and to make more minor improvements to outdoor playing fields.

Starting in the 2018-19 school year, which will end just before officials hope to have the new SERF open, fees will increase by $89 per student.

‘Amenities race’ or

necessary change?

Critics of spending at colleges and universities have raised the concern that institutions are driving up student costs by engaging in an “amenities race,” building swanky dorms, gyms and other facilities, then passing on the costs along with increased tuition and fees.

University officials and others counter that those costs have grown primarily because of state funding cuts, not new amenities.

With 30,000 square feet of fitness space, the proposed new SERF — which Horn said could be renamed for a donor — would be much larger than the current one, which has just under 8,000 square feet devoted to fitness.

It would certainly have more amenities as well, with twice as many basketball courts, expanded studio space and a regulation-size pool with a diving well and spectator seating, which will be used by the UW swimming and diving program and could host state swim meets.

Although the design of the new building hasn’t been finalized, renderings show a modern facility filled with natural light and open space — a far cry from the current SERF’s labyrinth of concrete walls and fluorescent lighting.

But Horn emphasized that it was students who voted overwhelmingly to raise their own fees to build the new SERF, and said recreational facilities help improve students’ physical and mental health.

“They are definitely not satisfied with the current facilities,” Horn said. “The majority of students on the campus saw this as a vital need for them.”

SERF too small

for campus, UW says

Opened in 1983, the current SERF is hardly an elder among UW-Madison’s buildings. But officials say its poor design and serious problems with the building that have plagued it from the start have made a complete tear-down the best option.

The university spent more than a decade, starting in the late-1960s, pushing to build a fitness facility for students on the southeast side of campus, according to a history of UW buildings written by former student Jim Feldman. During that time, state lawmakers reduced funding for the university and its construction projects.

Some of the SERF’s problems, such as its small pool and limited space for faculty, have their roots in a round of cost-cutting measures recommended by the State Building Commission in the late-1970s to reduce the building’s $11.5 million price tag, Feldman wrote. It was ultimately built for $9.5 million.

Horn said UW officials considered renovating the SERF to address maintenance concerns, but soon realized they would have to spend millions of dollars on improvements and would still be left with an outdated, inefficiently designed building that is far too small for the population it serves.

About 3,800 people visit the SERF each day, Horn said, nearly twice as many as when it opened.

“The building was never intended to handle as many participants as it has,” he said.

Project will cause disruption

UW officials still need to get approval from the city of Madison and the State Building Commission before they can move forward with their plans for the SERF. Barring delays from those agencies, Horn said, officials hope to begin demolition during the fall 2017 semester.

Given the SERF’s popularity, and the fact that it serves students in dorms and neighborhoods that are far from other Division of Recreational Sports facilities, Horn acknowledged that taking the gym off-line for two years will be a challenge.

To make sure students in the area can still work out nearby, UW will move some of the SERF’s fitness equipment next door to a lounge in Ogg Hall.

Other equipment will go to the Natatorium, on the west side of campus, and the Camp Randall Sports Center, better known as the Shell, a few blocks up Dayton Street. Both buildings will have extended hours as well.

Still, the demolition will put more pressure on the Shell and Natatorium — which is in line to be replaced in 2019, once the new SERF is open — to host intramural leagues, classes and swimmers that now use the SERF, Horn acknowledged.

“There are definitely going to be some growing pains as we get this done, but at the end it’s definitely going to be worth it for the students on this campus,” he said.

“They (students) are definitely not satisfied with the current facilities. The majority of students on the campus saw this as a vital need for them.” John Horn, UW Rec Sports director
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