De Blasio planning to take weight off shoulders of new gyms

Opening a gym in New York City may not be such a heavy lift in the future.

The de Blasio administration is moving forward with a measure to make zoning rules more flexible so that new gyms and other fitness facilities can set up shop more swiftly, without obtaining permission via costly processes that requires prospective operators to twist themselves into knots and strong-arm local community boards.

“I think it’s obviously a very good idea. It’s a cumbersome burden on fitness studios that didn’t need to be there,” said Amanda Freeman, president of Boutique Fitness Alliance, who owns seven workout facilities in New York City.

Freeman estimated she has been forced to shell out between $30,000 and $50,000 in legal fees and other expenses when requesting a hamstringing special permit to start a fitness studio in areas zoned for retail.

“Unfortunately, it’s a little bit too late, but I think righting a wrong at any time is better than not righting a wrong.”

Currently, the gyms, spas, and licensed massage therapy businesses are subject to the hurdle. The special permit for a “physical culture establishment,” obtained from the Board of Standards and Appeals, takes about four to six months to be processed, according to the city’s small business website. Permits last for ten years, after which they need to be renewed.

But the new health and fitness text amendment — which entered public review on May 19 and will need City Council approval in the coming months — would do away with that hurdle for neighborhood amenities like gyms and martial arts studios. The special permit needed dates back to the 1970s, when the city was concerned about illegal sex in health clubs and massage parlors.

Jeff Mulligan, a planning and development specialist at Kramer Levin, said the local community boards sometimes don’t conduct reviews of the applications, which are “very rarely” denied by the Board of Standards and Appeals.

Boutique Fitness Alliance president Amanda Freeman has paid thousands in legal fees while establishing fitness studios.
Boutique Fitness Alliance President Amanda Freeman has paid thousands in legal fees to establish fitness studios.
Brian Zak

“The proposal to remove the special permit is sound land-use policy,” he said. “Eliminating the special permit has been discussed for a number of years, and I think it’s great that it’s now happening.”

Mulligan said the zoning regulation predates the proliferation of commercial health gyms and health clubs.

“It was a different time, in the 1970s,” he noted.

In 1976, Mayor Abe Beame framed the gym-restricting zoning amendment, which would be approved by the Board of Estimate and City Planning Commission, as an effort to curtail “adult entertainment” businesses from setting up shop in residential neighborhoods.

“This proposal, if enacted, will be a potent weapon to regulate so-called ‘adult entertainment’ while insuring that these establishments do not interfere with other businesses or offend our citizens,” Beame said, The Post reported at the time.

A City Hall rep said the zoning code change “is aimed at breaking up large concentration of massage parlors and other adult entertainment facilities within a district,” according to a contemporaneous Post story.

If the proposed zoning code update is enacted, gyms and spas would be allowed in parts of the five boroughs that are zoned for commercial and manufacturing uses. New massage therapy establishments would be allowed in residential, commercial and manufacturing lots. In some commercial neighborhoods, gyms and spas would be capped at 10,000 square feet.

The head of the Department of City Planning said health and wellness businesses are desirable amenities, so their creations should be encouraged, not hindered by “outdated zoning restrictions.”

“We New Yorkers love our neighborhood health and fitness facilities! But starting these types of businesses can be a multi-thousand-dollar headache because of seriously outdated zoning restrictions,” said City Planning Commission Chair Marisa Lago in a recent statement. “Health and fitness facilities, many of which are small businesses, are desirable amenities that improve the well-being of New Yorkers.”

Former Mayor Abe Beame initially regulated zoning rules for gyms to deter "adult entertainment" businesses around neighborhoods.
Former Mayor Abe Beame initially regulated zoning rules for gyms to deter “adult entertainment” businesses around neighborhoods.
AP Photo/Harvey Georges

“By removing the antiquated requirement for a discretionary special permit and cutting red tape, we’re supporting small businesses, improving equity and making health and fitness facilities easier to open in neighborhoods across the city.”

Jeff Perkins, a vice president at International Health and Racket Sports Association, said the regulation relaxation is a “common-sense change” to an “outdated” rule. He said it would facilitate the proliferation of health and fitness facilities in a wider array of neighborhoods, rather than just well-to-do Manhattan ones, where there are more health and fitness options for local residents.

“I think this helps lower the barrier to entry for people who want to open businesses, particularly when you’re talking about smaller studios,” said Perkins. “I think this change helps streamline some of the planning and getting your doors open, so I think it will absolutely bring additional options to all different parts of the city.

“This is a positive step to bring more choices to more parts of the city.”