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Everything you need to know about NYC's health and fitness text amendment

New York City's zoning resolutions regarding physical fitness facilities have undergone few changes in the last several decades. Initially designed to curtail illicit activity (including the exchange of commercial sex services), special permit requirements and other regulations placed unfair burdens on legitimate businesses and made it difficult for many to recover in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The city recently adopted the health and fitness text amendment to address these challenges by introducing new changes that cut much of the red tape for legitimate physical fitness facilities. Let's take a look at the details of the new changes to better understand how they could impact your facility.

Background: physical culture or health establishment classifications

The original definition of physical culture or health establishments (PCEs) was provided under the 1961 zone resolution of New York City, and it included all gymnasiums, reducing salons, masseurs and steam baths. As members of Use Group 9, these physical fitness facilities required a PCE special permit, which was introduced by city officials to eliminate criminal activity (mostly around commercial sex) taking place under the cover of those businesses.

The 1978 zone resolution separated PCEs into distinct categories: adult PCEs and normal PCEs:

  • Adult PCEs: Facilities under this category were defined as establishments that offered massages, body rubs or similar services from members of the opposite sex (but did not include those offered by licensed physicians, massage therapists or medical institutions). In an effort to curb illegal activity, adult PCEs were not permitted in any zoning district.
  • Normal PCEs: Normal PCEs were defined as any establishment that did not fall under the adult PCE umbrella, including gymnasiums, steam baths, martial arts studios and other membership organizations. Normal PCEs were still required to obtain a special permit to operate legally, and they were allowed to operate in C2, C4, C5, C6, C8, M1, M2 and M3 districts (later included C1-8X and C1-9).

Main health and fitness text amendment updates

City officials passed the health and fitness text amendment on Dec. 9, 2021 to update regulations surrounding physical fitness facilities to better match current needs and realities. Major changes associated with the passage of this amendment include:

  • PCEs no longer need to obtain special permits to operate.
  • The BSA (Board of Standards and Appeals) approval (which was required to ensure the character and future use of the surrounding area was no impaired) has been dropped.
  • Health and fitness establishments are now permitted to operate as-of-right in the appropriate use groups.
  • A new definition for "health and fitness establishment" replaced the initial PCE term: "Any establishment equipped and arranged to provide instruction, services or activities which improve or affect a person's physical condition by physical exercise or provide relaxation services."

Additionally, the new health and fitness text amendment also adds a series of new regulations for physical fitness establishments. Facilities that are less than 10,000 square feet (Use Group 6 and 14) are permitted in all commercial and manufacturing districts. Those without floor plan specifications (Use Group 9) are limited to C1, C2, C3, C5, C6, C8, M1, M2 and M3 districts.

Eliminating the special permit requirement

Many of the changes introduced by the health and fitness text amendment addressed some of the problems associated with the PCE special permit process and criteria. Some of the requirements to obtain special permits were needlessly strict and placed unnecessary burdens on legitimate gyms, spas and massage studios. The time it took to obtain a special permit sometimes exceeded six months, and the process could cost up to $50,000, creating additional pressures on legitimate facilities.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has put pressure on other businesses to provide opportunities for physical fitness to employees. The special permit process was not designed for those businesses and created serious obstacles as a result.

Finally, the initial purpose of the special permit was to ensure trainers and massage therapists did not engage in criminal activities while using their seemingly legitimate businesses as cover. New regulations that require licenses and significant hours of training for trainers and therapists have done much to prevent illegal activities from taking place, making special permits mostly redundant. For those reasons, the new text amendment completely drops the requirement to obtain special permits.

New high-intensity and low-intensity use distinctions

As part of these updates, city officials also sought to address noise and vibrations arising out of certain physical fitness facilities by introducing new classifications (and some additional requirements) for high- and low-intensity noise facilities.

Low-intensity uses

This category of PCEs includes physical fitness facilities that are unlikely to create disruptive noise and vibrations, either due to the type of physical activity that takes place or the volume of customers. This includes therapeutic facilities (which tend not to create significant noise) and other similar services.

High-intensity uses

This category of PCEs includes physical fitness facilities that demonstrate a higher capacity for noise and vibration generation. This typically includes larger gyms and other physical fitness studios containing free weights, indoor cycling, high impact martial arts and other physical activities that are likely both to create noise and attract a large customer base. Facilities under this classification must:

Be subject to additional noise attenuation requirements and enclosure criteria to limit noise as much as possible.
Be completely enclosed and designed to meet all NYC noise code regulations prior to issuance of a certificate of occupancy.

Navigate the new health and fitness updates with Milrose

The health and fitness text amendment is designed to eliminate many of the administrative barriers currently blocking the establishment and operations of many legitimate physical fitness facilities. However, some building owners might struggle to understand how these changes impact their business and what, if any, advantages they can obtain under the new regulations.

Our code and zoning analysts at Milrose Consultants are here to help you navigate the upcoming changes to best ensure you're able to obtain the approvals you need and take full advantage. Reach out to our team today to start a conversation.