Zoning for Your Health

January 3, 2011

Every NYC health club or any business or establishment offering physical exercise, massage or use of steam/saunas (the Zoning Resolution calls them Physical Culture Establishments – or PCEs) is required to obtain a Special Permit from the Board of Standards and Appeals – before opening. Even when they fall within a commercial zoning district. An onerous rule, perhaps, but at least it seems relatively simple.

Except for a minor matter: what falls within this broad category of uses? Must every yoga studio, judo establishment and salon that offers foot massages file with the BSA? Must each and every gym in the City be subject to the Department of Investigation (DOI) review that’s part of the BSA process?

But, before we even get to these issues, there’s a threshold question: Why aren’t these uses “as-of-right”? After all, a plethora of business uses – like nightclubs, restaurants and bars (and stores and offices of all types) are allowed – without a Special Permit and BSA hearings. Why must Gold’s Gym and Equinox go through the motions of a BSA process while a bar – in the same commercial zoning district – merely opens up? Is there something in those showers?

The origins of the PCE permit lie with the concern that some establishments had a shady past and questionable operations. During the Giuliani Administration, many massage parlors were shuttered. These were operating in commercial areas in close proximity to (and sometimes in the same building as) residential uses. ZONE is unaware of which establishments may have been closed down due to unhealthful conditions or because illegal activity occurred there. But, the Special Permit is designed to prevent organizations of ill-repute and ill-intent from opening dens of bad behavior.

The Zoning Resolution places PCEs in a separate, non-as-of-right, category because the City has determined that a special review is needed for these types of establishments – establishments that (according to the City) might be seedy or ill-run or cater to a certain element.

The handling of PCE’s is another wrinkle in the Zoning Resolution; but one that must not be overlooked. The history and current application of the PCE rules need to be understood in order to fully comply with all requirements.

Readers, we turn to you. Is this a rule that makes sense? Is it still necessary? Was it ever?