Commissioners raised concerns about the removal of special permits as a way to vet out illegitimate massage parlors. On October 20, 2021, the City Planning Commission voted to approve two applications proposed by the City to support small businesses and promote healthy food options and fitness. The two applications, the FRESH Program Expansion and the Health and Fitness Text Amendment, were part of a series of zoning proposals proposed earlier this year.
The Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program offers zoning and tax incentives to encourage the development of accessible stores for fresh meats and produce, perishable goods and other grocery products. FRESH zoning incentives include an additional square foot of residential floor area for a mixed building for every square foot provided for a FRESH food store and a possible increase in maximum building height by 15 feet authorized by the City Planning Commission to accommodate the extra floor area. FRESH food stores can be built as-of-right in FRESH eligible districts instead of seeking out a special permit.
Currently, the FRESH program operates in specific districts, including portions of Manhattan Community Districts 9 through 12, portions of Bronx Community Districts 1 through 7, portions of Brooklyn Community Districts 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 16 and 17, portions of Queens Community districts 1 and 12 and the Special Downtown Jamaica District. The proposed zoning change expands the FRESH program in Bronx Community Districts 8 and 9; Brooklyn Community Districts 1, 2, 12 and 13; Queens Community Districts 1, 3, 4 and 14 and Staten Island Community District 1.
The commissioners unanimously voted in favor of the amendment, and did not issue any comment on it.
Health and Fitness Text Amendment
The Health and Fitness text amendment would allow gyms, martial arts studios, spas, massage therapy businesses and other health related businesses to open as-of-right where zoning permits. Currently, these health related businesses must first seek special permission from the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA), which can add months in the timeline and thousands of dollars of upfront costs to open these kinds of businesses. During this time of economic recovery, the City wanted to remove the significant barriers that prevent these small businesses that provide health benefits from opening.
Commissioner David J. Burney raised concerns that this would enable massage parlors that allow for illegal sex work to operate or open when they would have otherwise been avoided through the previous approval process, but believed that the benefit to small businesses outweighed the small risk that could be offset with increased enforcement and voted yes.
Commissioner Alfred C. Cerullo III was the sole no vote, stating that “it’s clear that the health and fitness industry is an important one in the lives of all New Yorkers. The testimony provided at the public hearing also affirmed the fact that so many of those who make up the industry are talented, hard-working and dedicated businesspeople who help create neighborhoods and support a healthy lifestyle for those who interact with them. But for me, this issue is never about that category of professional. . . The permit exists for many reasons, not the least of which is to enable communities to participate in the process of siting and enabling them to contribute to the planning process of what they need most and what they don’t.” He continued on to say the permits haven’t been a hindrance to legitimate businesses on Staten Island, and taking away the special permit takes away the opportunity for elected officials and community members to help vet out the illegitimate businesses.
The applications will now be heard by the City Council at a later date.
By: Veronica Rose (Veronica is the CityLaw fellow and a New York Law School graduate, Class of 2018.)