Written by Andy Newman Wednesday, 25 September 2013 00:00
The Planet Fitness chain’s plan to take over and renovate the health club site in the shopping mall on Great Neck Road ran into several large stumbling blocks last Wednesday night at a public hearing at Great Neck Plaza’s Village Hall.
A standing room only crowd of over 100, most of them members of the soon to close New York Health & Racquet Club, were already unhappy over the loss of their exercise facility. The knowledge that Planet Fitness had no plans to continue swimming, child care, personal training, organized classes and other amenities did not soothe their anger as several corporate representatives presented details of Planet’s intentions.
The company’s proposal was not approved nor was it rejected. Instead, Planet was asked to provide more information and come back again to continue its application for a conditional use permit at another public meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 2 at 8 p.m.
Planet officials revealed that they only recently learned that one of their important premium services, the installation of four tanning beds, was prohibited by Plaza law. When Planet’s Brian Kunkel, in addressing the mayor and the board of trustees, mentioned that the company planned to stay open 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, Mayor Jean Celender informed him that granting these hours would be unprecedented in the village.
Deputy Mayor Ted Rosen wanted the audience to understand that the mayor and trustees could not keep New York Health from closing. “Whether we approve or disapprove, it doesn’t mean that anyone else will come in,” he added.
There has been some speculation that another fitness chain had already contacted the landlord in anticipation of Planet’s proposal being rejected but that could not be confirmed. Landlord Neal Kaplan was in attendance but did not choose to comment.
“You should understand that we’re hearing Planet Fitness’s plan for the first time tonight,” Mayor Celender said, as she opened the meeting. “A lot of people have called us with their concerns. We need to understand what it is they’re proposing. We need to understand what it is they’re asking us to approve.”
“We feel that fitness and wellness should be available to anyone at any time,” Kunkel said of the planned long hours. But many of the speakers and several trustees voiced serious concerns about the safety of patrons and staff and the increased potential for crime if an around the clock schedule was in effect. Celender pointed out that New York Health’s permit allowed for an 11 p.m. closing. “I don’t think any of the gyms in this area are open later,” she added.
Kunkel indicated that a key to Planet’s profitability was its membership pricing structure and the fact that the facility would offer those extended hours. Basic membership would be $10 a month but a $19.99 monthly fee would grant customers access to tanning and massage equipment. Kunkel did state later to the Great Neck Record that corporate might have to re-think its strategy if tanning and extended hours, both important in building a customer base, were not allowed. “It may not be economically feasible,” he speculated.
Trustee Gerald Schneiderman asked Kunkel, at one point, “How many members do you need to make it profitable?” reflecting the concerns of many in attendance that Planet’s low price marketing strategy would dramatically increase the number of people using the gym and place burdens on parking and traffic, especially during the daytime hours. “I’m not at liberty to say,” Kunkel responded.
Dan Mullin, the architect who drew up plans for what would be a $2 million renovation of the 26,000 square foot facility, told the audience: “There’ll be more equipment available than there is now. We’ll have at least 175 to 180 pieces of equipment. We plan on having less weights and more cardio vascular equipment.”
Answering those who are questioning the loss of the swimming program, Kunkel said, “The fitness industry is getting away from it. Overhead is very large and prohibitive. We could not offer $10 memberships if we had a pool.” Planet’s plan does not include a steam room or sauna either.
Prior to asking for comments from the audience, Celender read a petition, signed by over 400 people, into the record. No one who spoke from the podium supported Planet’s application. The petition voiced strong opposition to Planet’s occupancy due to its lack of services (compared to the present tenant) and anticipated parking and traffic problems.
After the final speaker, Celender asked village counsel Richard Gabriele for his thoughts on the presentation. “I think that, based on the law, the board will not be able to approve the facility as long as it includes tanning,” he began. “Based on prior history it is not very likely that it will be a 24-hour operation. I think that the first step for the representatives of Planet Fitness is to sit with the corporate office and decide whether to make changes or change your corporate model.
I think that that’s all that can happen in the next few weeks. And depending on what happens as a result of that, you might want to look at issues raised about parking.”
Gabriele requested that Planet come back to the village at the Oct. 2 meeting with more information about the chain’s other Long Island branches in regard to traffic, usage and crime.