En Garde! Chelsea Piers Heads to Brooklyn
January 10, 2018
Three days after winning the silver medal in fencing at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Keeth Smart started business school.
“My teammates wanted to keep training, but I wanted to go a different route,” said Mr. Smart, a Brooklyn native who graduated from Columbia Business School in 2010. “I felt like I had accomplished more than enough in fencing.”
Not only has Mr. Smart deftly pivoted in his career, but he’ll soon be doing so for Chelsea Piers, overseeing its newly branded fitness center in his home borough.
Chelsea Piers — the behemoth sports center that helped revitalize the Far West Side of Manhattan, and which changed the way many New York families spend their free time — is stepping its big foot over the East River. The new gym will be the largest fitness facility in Brooklyn, occupying 52,000 square feet at the corner of Schermerhorn and Bond Streets. Unlike the original complex on the Hudson River, this will be open to adults only.
But it may be just the opening lunge in Brooklyn for Chelsea Piers.
Mr. Smart, 39, grew up in Flatbush, the son of a schoolteacher from Jamaica and an economist who once worked for Sports Illustrated. When a news release for a new fencing academy for children came across his father’s desk at the magazine, he saw an opportunity for his children.
Keeth, then 11, and his younger sister, Erinn, 10, were the first students to enroll in the Peter Westbrook Foundation on the Upper West Side. “At the time, my world was all within a two-mile radius in Brooklyn,” said Mr. Smart, speaking from his temporary Chelsea Piers office on Atlantic Avenue near the construction site. “Fencing opened up that world into Manhattan.”
He and his sister attended a junior high school in Park Slope and eventually Brooklyn Tech, and after school they would take the subway to the fencing club, do their homework from 4 to 6 and then train from 6 to 10 p.m. They also worked with a personal trainer some days at Chelsea Piers, which opened in 1995.
“After that, everything else was very easy,” Mr. Smart said. He went to St. John’s University on a fencing scholarship, while working toward the Olympics. “My parents always wanted us to balance education and fencing,” he said. When he and Erinn were invited to move to Colorado Springs to the Olympic training center, the Smarts declined.
In the summer of 2008, his sister won the silver medal in Beijing, and a day later Mr. Smart won his. “The pressure was on,” he said, laughing.
After getting his M.B.A. at Columbia, he was recruited by Bank of America, where he worked in wealth management for five years. “But it was pretty dry,” he said. “I didn’t like it.”
He worked with a fitness technology start-up for a couple of years, but then saw the listing for the Chelsea Piers general manager position on LinkedIn.
Sam Bernstein, chief operating officer of Chelsea Piers Fitness, and whose father, Tom, is one of the founders of the original Chelsea Piers, was just getting the Brooklyn project off the ground this past autumn when he saw Mr. Smart’s resume, which stood out from the others — being an Olympic medalist will do that. Mr. Bernstein, 26, was an athlete himself (he had been captain of the Yale golf team and had played on the pro tour), and he set up an interview with Mr. Smart.
Mr. Smart clicked with both Bernsteins and with the Chelsea Piers co-founder and principal investor David Tewksbury, 56, who once played hockey for Yale and regularly plays at the Chelsea Piers Sky Rink.
“I still am an athlete,” said Mr. Tewksbury. “Just a heavier, slower one.”
The golf-playing Mr. Bernstein, along with Mr. Tewksbury and Mr. Smart, are now a three-man team trying to expand the Chelsea Piers name. “You have three elite athletes from three different generations, from three different sports, coming together on this to drive it,” said Tom Bernstein, 65.
In much the way Chelsea Piers has become a social as well as an athletic destination for people over the past 22 years, Tom Bernstein hopes the new gym will be more than just a place to work out.
“We’ll hopefully take that culture to Brooklyn,” he said.
The gym will occupy the ground and basement levels of a new residential building at 33 Bond Street in Downtown Brooklyn. Gym construction began two months ago and should be completed by May. The facilities include a 25-yard, three-lane pool, yoga studios, Pilates, weights, cycling, cardio and large spaces for functional training. Work tables, lounges and a cafe will provide social and creative spaces as well, which will include readings, live music, a gallery, member socials and other cultural events. Babysitting will also be offered. Alas, there will be no ice rink, no driving range and no fencing studio.
Founding memberships for the Downtown Brooklyn club will cost $150 per month, but access to both the Brooklyn and Manhattan facilities is available for $225. (Chelsea Piers also has an enormous complex in Stamford, CT.)
Chelsea Piers in Manhattan — including the health club, the field house and Sky Rink — employs around 1,000 people. Mr. Bernstein, along with Mr. Smart, is now hiring between 50 and 75 new employees for the Brooklyn venture.
“This might be our first foray into Brooklyn, which will open some doors and lead to some other things,” said Tom Bernstein. “Consider this the beachhead for Brooklyn.”
Mr. Tewksbury agreed. “If we could find a larger space in Brooklyn that could take the field house, that would be the logical next unit to bring to Brooklyn. And we’re open to that.”
Mr. Smart says it’s sometimes astounding how much Brooklyn has changed since his days as a public school student here. “I really witnessed this area of Brooklyn transform over the years,” he said. “I love it.”
In addition to his new work duties, Mr. Smart finds time to volunteer at his old fencing school to help with fund-raising. He also fences occasionally at the clubs his teammates have opened since their Olympic glory days. He is currently working with fencers hoping to qualify for the 2020 team, acting not only as a trainer but also as a guide for what to expect when the Olympic Games end. “I come to the club and show them other paths available,” he said.
After a couple of days of fencing, though, his body doesn’t bounce back the way it once did. His wrist — fractured three times in his career — often hurts, and he suffers from tendinitis in his ankles and knees.
“Waking up sore every day is not fun,” he said. “But I do miss traveling and competing. I don’t miss the training, though, six days a week.”
For Mr. Smart, the new gym will provide not just a new office closer to home, but a new workout space for him and his friends in his neighborhood, who don’t have many options to choose from. From his home in Ditmas Park, his commute is only a few stops on the train, but once the weather warms a bit, he’ll be riding his bike.
“It’s an easy coast downhill,” he said, smiling. “Though getting back home is a little tougher.”
Project Chelsea Piers Fitness in Brooklyn
Site 265 Schermerhorn Street
Cost $15 million
In the works Since late 2016
Driving forces Keeth Smart, Tom and Sam Bernstein and David Tewksbury
Biggest challenge Doing construction in an already-finished occupied building