On the Playing Fields of Dwight: School Scores New Athletic Complex

A rendering of the Olympic size swimming pool.

A rendering of the Olympic size swimming pool.

Manhattan’s private schools offer advantages that the bucolic boarding schools of Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire cannot hope to rival: proximity to cultural institutions, the ability to buttonhole a vast assortment of dignitaries and artists for lectures at a moment’s notice, the comforts of living in one’s own well-appointed home rather than in a shared dorm room.

But operating an elite educational institution in the midst a metropolis presents a nettlesome problem: where to build the lacrosse fields, squash courts and swimming pools so central to the prep-school experience?

Tennis courts will be built on the roof.

Tennis courts will be built on the roof.

It’s a problem that has long troubled Dwight School chancellor Stephen Spahn. As Mr. Spahn put it to The Observer, the school is focused on finding the “spark of genius” in every child. But what if that genius should take the form of preternatural grace on the basketball court or an uncommonly good backhand? Every school wants to nurture the global leaders of tomorrow, of course, but what about the stars of track and field? (Indeed, one Dwight alum, a fencer, competed in the London Olympics.)

As a result, more than 20 private schools, including Dalton, Nightingale-Bamford, St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s, Brearley, Trevor Day and Buckley, regularly battle each other and a handful of public schools not only for athletic dominance, but for the right to play on the fields of Randall’s Island. Back in 2006, the private school consortium tried to secure guaranteed use of two-thirds of the athletic fields between 3 and 6 p.m. on weekdays in exchange for $52.6 million, but the deal was shot down in court.

Both Sacred Heart and the Spence School, preferring to keep their students cloistered in Carnegie Hill, have opted to build new athletic facilities at great expense. The Spence School spent a dizzying $26.1 million just for the land to build a new athletic center close to its East 91st Street mansion.

And so, it was with great relief that Mr. Spahn recently inked an unusual deal that will give Dwight access to a world-class athletic facility for a fraction of the $50 to $80 million that it would cost to build a new one.

The East River Landing housing cooperative, a Mitchell-Lama apartment complex in East Harlem at 108th Street and First Avenue, did a full renovation of its 40,000-square-foot athletic center less than a decade ago, removing asbestos and renovating the swimming pool, gym, exercise rooms, saunas and locker rooms. (The center, like the cooperative, dates to 1974.) But after the work was finished, the 1,595-unit low- and middle-income housing complex concluded that it didn’t have money to run the facility.

“We wanted to use it, but we realized we couldn’t. It would have cost an arm and a leg,” said co-op board president William Dames. “Going for a maintenance increase is tough enough.”

Eventually, the complex recruited commercial brokerage Cushman & Wakefield to find an operator. And while national fitness chains were deterred by the out-of-the-way location, Dwight was ecstatic to sign a 20-year lease in exchange for running the center and making a few cosmetic fixes (the school expects to spend about $2 million on the renovations, which will include things like Dwight signage, scoreboards, equipment padding and new touchpads for the pool). Rooftop space will be converted to tennis courts, and the school is in discussions to build eight squash courts.

In exchange, residents of the complex will be able to use the facility during off-hours. That the athletic facility belongs to a housing cooperative whose residents skew to the opposite end of the economic spectrum from Dwight students is, for Mr. Spahn, a wonderful opportunity rather than a potential source of tension.

“We wanted a partnership that would create shared value,” said Mr. Spahn, who describes Dwight’s deal as an opportunity to serve the East Harlem community. “They literally spent millions upgrading the place and systems were never turned on. To me, it’s an example of how New York will reinvigorate itself. Multiple uses for multiple communities.”

Mr. Spahn said that some Dwight students have already asked about tutoring opportunities in the complex, and the school plans to offer some scholarships for neighborhood children. The space will also be used for a summer camp that is open to children citywide.

“Kids in the community can go there. Sports help break all borders down,” he said. “This is what makes America different from other countries. There are no rigid class structures; anyone can rise to the top. President Obama is proof of that.”

The reaction of residents to the deal has been largely positive, according to Mr. Dames. Most are glad to have an athletic center for some hours as opposed to none, although a few naysayers have argued that they should get full access to their facility.

“But then you have the proposition of, ‘Do you want to pay for it?’—that discussion goes right out the window,” he said.

The facility may fall short of Exeter and Deerfield’s enviable athletics complexes, but as Mr. Spahn noted, “In Manhattan, there certainly aren’t going to be many schools that have better facilities. Only five others have swimming pools; just two have tennis courts.” And come late spring, the satisfying thwack of tennis balls and the thudding of cleats on turf will blend with the din of the FDR.

kvelsey@observer.com