Whether white brick or old brick, your building can stay competitive by installing a gym.
All the new buildings have them, and many older cooperatives and condominiums, anxious to stay up-to-date in a competitive market, are weighing the option so as not to look like dumbbells.
We’re talking about gyms. And experts agree: “If you don’t have one, you’re at a competitive disadvantage,” says Deanna Kory, a senior vice president and associate broker at Corcoran Group Real Estate. “There are people who look at two similarly sized apartments who will be swayed to the building with the gym – often.”
And that can have an effect on all apartments’ overall resale value, she notes, “because everybody who owns in a building thinks there may come a time when they’ll need to sell, and any sale in the building impacts on their apartment’s value. Gyms started going into buildings because people really did want that.”
Indeed, says E. Cooke Rand, an attorney who is a board member of a co-op on East 84th Street near Lexington Avenue. His 48-year-old white-brick building retrofitted a gym “probably 10 years ago, and we redid the gym last year, completely modernizing it with 10 or 15 pieces of state-of-the-art equipment, each one with its own television screen. It’s been a very popular benefit.”
His building is rare because it doesn’t charge shareholders to use the gym, considering it an amenity.
But for other buildings, a gymnasium can be a continuing source of great revenue for the corporation. At the historic London Terrace, the 1930s complex of more than 1,600 cooperative units and rental apartments filling the block between West 23rd and 24th Streets and Ninth and Tenth Avenues, shareholders pay $400 and renters $675 annually to use a fitness center with men’s and women’s locker rooms, sauna and steam baths, and a lifeguard-equipped, half-Olympic-sized pool. Doing it a different way, the 100-unit, 1924-vintage Rosario Candela co-op at 875 West End Avenue at West 103rd Street, charges a $300 signup fee and an annual membership of $250 for one person and $150 for each additional person in that apartment.
As with anything, a gym isn’t a good fit with every building. Observes Jeffrey Weber, a principal of Weber-Farhat Realty Management: “For the larger buildings, it might work. For smaller buildings without 24-hour staff, I don’t think it’s good.” The added insurance costs might not be cost-efficient with a small number of apartments, and security is an issue. “You’re having a room normally down in the basement that’s now non-secure, and people going down there, maintenance people and other things – it’s a problem for me.”
Security, insurance, equipment and maintenance costs, and needing to devise rules – all these things are important considerations. And for most medium and large co-ops and condos, they are totally surmountable, according to attorneys, project managers, board members, and fitness-center consultants. So, how do you begin to “work out” the issue?
For Rand, his board’s initial decision to install a gym “was made conditionally, to explore the idea – what would be entailed, what all the equipment would be. We had a subcommittee of the board, three people, who did the bulk of the work and kept reporting to us – doing all this exploration to see what it could cost and whether the space was suitable. The process wasn’t getting together one night, making a decision, and turning it over. We consulted through the managing agent and directly with knowledgeable architects.”
After this period of information-gathering, “We hired an architect, and there was designing and consulting on what kind of equipment was suitable and other things – we dealt with Gym Source during this time,” he says, referring to what is perhaps the country’s largest fitness-equipment retailer, after Sears. Finally they “hired a contractor, who had it built.”
Should you survey your residents to learn their feelings about a gym? “That’s a double-edged sword,” says Thomas Jackowski, a fitness consultant affiliated with Gym Source. “The minute you do a survey, you’ve alerted all the residents that a gym may or may not be coming. To some it’s exciting news, to others it’s financially detrimental news. And surveys being surveys, people are going to be highly opinionated about what Frank or Susie or Jim personally wants. If you do a survey, it has to be written so that you’re not opening Pandora’s box and asking them for design input or equipment input.”
Choosing the equipment, of course, sounds like the kid-at-Christmastime fun part of the process. But before getting there, you have to know what kind of space you have.
“I think that most prewar and early postwar buildings have adequate space in a basement or first-floor area,” says Mikel Travisano, the Douglas Elliman project manager who oversaw the refurbishment of the London Terrace gym. “Those spaces are designed as utilitarian or commercial spaces, so they would be easier to convert to a gym as opposed to, say, the conversion of a residential unit.”
The latter does happen, though. “We’ve actually taken apartments and put in a gym,” says Mickey Napolitano, vice president and director of residential real estate at BLDG Management.
What are the two biggest issues facing any space you choose? Noise and vibration. “It’s different for every building,” says Travisano. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Basically you have to put down a lot of protective padding throughout the gym and try to locate and organize the equipment to minimize the transfer of noise and vibrations, so the spacing and layout are important considerations” best left to professionals. Unless someone on your board designs health clubs for a living, you probably shouldn’t even think about where to place heavy, hard-to-move gym equipment. It must be installed in the right places from the start.
In general, just what should that equipment be? “The number-one usage” of a fitness center “is for cardio – meaning things like treadmills, elliptical trainers, and steppers,” says Jackowski. “Then the second most popular, believe it or not, is open floor space for stretching and ab work,” such as with a medicine ball, stretch bands, and other tools for abdominal muscles. Then comes the strength equipment – either free weights or machines such as those made by companies like Nautilus, which also owns the Bowflex, Schwinn, and Universal brands. You can either purchase or lease equipment.
“Then if space is still available,” Jackowski says, “consider a separate flex[ible-use] room where classes can be offered.”
What are some of the less-obvious considerations? “Ventilation,” advises Napolitano. “The room gets hot in the summer,” and heat exhaustion is something you want to avoid. “You have to put in an air conditioner,” she says. “And a water fountain. In some gyms we put in bathrooms.” As for flooring, “We used to go with black, rubberized floors, and now the trend is toward much lighter flooring with speckles. It gives a cleaner, brighter look.”
Gyms also need mirrors. “One reason is to help you perform exercise activity better,” says Jackowski. “And it helps someone who’s using the room see what’s going on. That gives an extra sense of security and if it’s done properly will make the space seem bigger. Then I always use it to help the lighting, in terms of [mirrors’] reflective properties.”
“Shockingly,” says Napolitano, “you should put in televisions, because people want to look at TV when they’re running on a treadmill. You might have to put in some soundproofing. You also have to put in the proper electrical receptacles for each piece of equipment.”
How much does all this cost? “We’ve spent, depending on the size, from $55,000 to the sky’s-the-limit,” says Napolitano. And if you’re going completely cut-rate “and just painting a room and putting in three treadmills, it’s not expensive at all.”
“Most pieces of equipment run anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000, and the total could be from $80,000 to $150,000 typically,” says Travisano. “There are different lines of equipment, from basic to high-end lines with leather seating.”
You might also have to consider the cost of a staff. “Most gyms in residential buildings are unattended,” says fitness consultant Garner Abrahams of Douglas Elliman Property Management, who helps run the London Terrace health club. That large complex, he says, “has a staff of about 17 people, including lifeguards.”
“If it’s a large space and you have group-programming classes and maybe a pool and an indoor basketball court and a children’s area, it’s better to hire an outside management firm” to run your fitness center, says Jackowski. And while he agrees with Abrahams that “the predominant style is an unmanaged facility,” he suggests an option partway between unattended and staffed full-time. “The building can always hire a [freelance] trainer or a part-time staff person for the space just during peak operating hours. The gym may be open 5 A.M. to 10 P.M. but only attended from 6 to 9 A.M. and 6 to 9 P.M.,” for example.
The presence or absence of staff affects the issue of security, but probably not as much as you’d think. Napolitano advocates using a hand-scanner for entry, and Jackowski agrees. “Cards and keypad combinations don’t work because people let friends use them, so you get people in there who shouldn’t be in there,” he says, “whereas with a palm or a thumb reader, the actual homeowner or shareholder would have to physically be there to let somebody in.”
Naturally, most experts suggest having a security camera in the gym and at the entrance. Adds Jackowski: “Some buildings will have panic buttons inside the fitness center.”
But both those things raise concerns for him. “You have to make sure they’re operating properly and who would be responding. If a panic button goes off at 6 A.M. and the super isn’t in, does the doorman abandon his post to rush to the gym?” He continues: “We find people crying wolf, and the staff becomes numb to the idea there’s really an emergency situation. There have to be protocols in place: who’s responding and when and how.”
All this makes having a gym sound risky. But it’s not. You have the same concerns with a laundry room, and no one thinks twice about having a laundry room.
You should have the proper insurance, a stack of waivers, and a consultation with the board’s attorney, who will probably tell you to post a sign saying that the camera is not monitored 24/7, and that you should have gym-users sign a waiver saying the building isn’t responsible for injuries – which often result from people misusing equipment and not the equipment itself. A waiver doesn’t prevent someone from filing a lawsuit, but it provides an additional hurdle for them.
As for insurance coverage, Elizabeth Heck, president and CEO of Greater New York Insurance, says insurance carriers “don’t view it as a huge exposure if it’s a gym within a building for residents’ use and the building is already secure. A lot of buildings have them now.” Do you need to buy separate insurance? “If it’s open to the public or if it’s large enough that you have it managed by someone other than the building, then the company managing it would carry its own insurance. Otherwise it’s no different than other rooms within the building, which are covered by the building’s insurance.”
She adds: “If it’s a small unattended gym, the type of thing that we would look for is a sign saying, ‘Use at your own risk.’” As well, “I think it’s a good thing to do a liability waiver, just as buildings do with swimming pools.”
The final step on your way to gym-building is devising the applicable rules. “We don’t allow children under the age of 16,” says Napolitano, giving what appears to be a standard age limit. Adds Jackowski, “There have to be rules on how to use the room, how do you clean up, who’s allowed, what are the hours, how do you conduct yourself. It’s a public space in a private building.”
“If you want to do it right,” says board member Rand, “you have to think it through, go around to look at other gyms, talk to other boards to see what their experiences have been in terms of potential problems and potential shortfalls.” And then? “With us, it was unanimous among the board members that this was something that could be an enhancement. It’s turned out to be an excellent decision.”