All gyms, spas, martial-arts schools, massage studios and health clubs looking to set up shop in New York City must get something called a physical culture establishment permit, which was created in the late 1970s to stem the rise of seedy massage parlors in Times Square.
Today, however, that means companies hoping to expand quickly find themselves mired in red tape and lawyers' fees as they navigate the city's byzantine bureaucracy. The permits require companies to prove they will not have a negative effect on a neighborhood by divulging their business plans, filing applications with a host of agencies and answering questions at a series of public hearings, starting with the local community board.
On Nov. 8, 1978, Carl Weisbrod, then director of the Midtown Enforcement Project, testified before the City Planning Commission and urged it to adopt the permit, which would bring to an end a moratorium on new health establishments that had been in place for years. By excluding less-desirable businesses from the definition of a physical culture establishment—and then requiring the ones that did meet the requirements to be vetted by the Board of Standards and Appeals—he felt it would make it harder for illicit businesses to operate within the city's borders.
"Zoning has proved to be the most effective tool in closing down houses of prostitution masquerading as massage parlors," he was noted as saying in a commission report.
Now Mr. Weisbrod is head of the City Planning Commission and is taking another look at the law he helped create, spurred in part by a report from the Department of Small Business Services earlier this year that said the permits were needlessly burdensome and a hindrance to opening more health facilities (which the city could arguably use more of: More than half of adult New Yorkers are overweight or obese).
"Physical culture establishment permitting was very effective in addressing a problem that existed at the time," a City Planning spokeswoman said. "And consequently, we are working with our sister agencies to determine whether it should be eliminated or modified."