How the Past Helped Chelsea Piers Shape Its Future Success
March 7, 2019
This article appeared in the print edition of Club Business International in February 2019.
Chelsea Piers’ newest health club relies on Brooklyn’s vibrant history for a welcoming and unique look.
For the past 14 years, Chelsea Piers L.P. has been defining and redefining, innovating and inventing, conceiving and creating the modern health club experience. And with each day, each year, each step taken, it’s capitalized on and made excellent use of all that’s been learned.
Last May, the sum total of its industry expertise, intelligence, skills, and wisdom was brought to bear, to impressive effect, on Chelsea Piers Brooklyn (CPBK), the company’s newest facility.
CPBK may follow in the footsteps of its two predecessors—the Chelsea Piers Sports & Entertainment Complex, an iconic, 28-acre waterfront sports village on the Hudson River in Manhattan, which opened in 1995; and Chelsea Piers Fitness, a 40,000-square-foot facility in neighboring Stamford, CT, which opened in 2012—but it’s a club with its own identity and making a mark that’s unique.
The largest club in Brooklyn the day that it opened, CPBK is a $15-million, 52,000-square-foot property that occupies the street and basement levels of a new high-end, residential building at 33 Bond Street in Downtown Brooklyn. Providing a host of amenities and experiences, it boasts among its many features a 75-foot pool, in addition to plunge pools and saunas; a functional-training turf area; a fresh&co café; shared spaces for working and socializing; state-of-the-art training; boutique-style classes; and a year- round calendar of social and cultural events.
CPBK is the result of both serendipity and calculation: the company’s ability to recognize an opportunity and, then, explore it efficiently.
David Tewksbury, the president and CEO of Chelsea Piers Fitness, recalls that, “The developer of 33 Bond was introduced to us by a member of my partner’s family who inquired if we’d be interested in doing a fitness club in their new building.
“The decision to do so was more opportunity-based than anything else.”
Today, less than a year after it made its debut, CPBK already has a roster of 2,500 members, a number that should hit 3,000 momentarily. Memberships start at $350 for the first and last month, with monthly fees running $175 in between.
As its sister facilities in Manhattan and Stamford both did, CPBK also points the way to Chelsea Piers’ future.
Striking a Balance Between Past and Present
The company’s vision for CPBK was that of a flagship facility in the heart of what, with 2.5 million residents, is New York City’s most populous and, arguably, most colorful borough. The community has a rich heritage and a very strong sense of self, one that the architects and designers wanted to acknowledge and honor. They also had to deal with the constraints imposed by an existing structure.
When crafting the blueprint, Dan Fink, the principal of the Dan Fink Studio, who helmed the interior design, looked to Brooklyn’s industrial past for some design cues. As the home of such famous manufacturing companies as Brillo Soaps, Cracker Jack, Domino Sugar, and Eberhard Faber Pencil, the borough offered a rich palette from which to choose.
“We had to strike a balance,” Fink says. “We live in a sort of largely plasticized world, and gyms are often a primary expression of that. There’s something warm and inviting about a space that feels connected to the past—to a time before—while still being totally relevant and useful today.”
Dan Allen, AIA LEED AP, the principal of Allen + Killcoyne Architects, notes that the success of the approach is evident from the moment you stand in front of the club at 265 Schermerhorn St.
“In most city gyms, when you look in the front window, what you see is all the exercise equipment and sweating people,” he says. “Here, you’re looking in and seeing people working on their laptops in the community spaces, the art gallery, and that sort of thing. There was a very conscious decision to pull these items to the forefront as a way to further activate that street feel.”
In considering the design, construction, ambience, and function of the facility, Chelsea Piers focused most intently on three areas.
“The first was athletics—big cardio areas, great equipment, functional training, and so forth,” Tewksbury says. “The second was providing a boutique studio feel and experience in our five separate studios, which offer aerobics, cycling, yoga, hot yoga, and Pilates.”
The third was the creation of a community.
CPBK has addressed this objective in every aspect of the building, from the function of specific areas to signature design touches and even to the materials and finishes utilized. Several thousand square feet are devoted to a community space that includes work tables, soft seating, and the café area. Five large oil paintings by renowned New York artist John Zinsser are displayed in the club’s entry area. And there’s l created by New York photographer Clifford Ross.
Problems Prompt Progress in Dynamic Borough
“At the inception of the project, we had discussions about trying to reflect Brooklyn in the design of the club,” recalls Allen, “but Brooklyn is an ever-changing borough, architecturally. There are old buildings to go with the new. It’s a dynamic place.
“We didn’t want the design to be just one thing—something that, in a few years, would look staid. So, the interiors reflect the dynamic of the location; while parts of them are fixed, others, such as art and furnishings, are meant to change.”
Vintage aspects are key to the design, but they don’t dictate its entirety.
As it had when it developed its two other properties, Chelsea Piers found itself on a path of discovery as CPBK took shape.
Among the benefits of developing the new location, says Tewksbury, were the lessons learned.
“We discovered, for instance, that we really liked working with big-volume spaces,” he says. “In implementing the industrial look, we realized we could work with these spaces in a natural way, as opposed to cladding them in sheetrock and simply covering them up.”
A quick look at the club’s ceilings conveys what he’s talking about.
“We have 15-to-20-foot ceiling heights,” he points out. “Between the two levels, we removed a good chunk of the flooring to create a grand staircase and light well, which shifts ceiling heights in that area to 35 feet. The combination of open large-volume spaces with the industrial materials and finishes chosen by the design team makes the space both visually pleasing and aesthetically interesting.”
Allen picks up where Tewksbury leaves off. “Having two unconnected floors created a puzzle: How could a staircase be centrally located to maximize circulation in the facility? The solution was to cut a 20-foot-by-20-foot hole in the middle of it. Here, in a nod to form and function, exposed steel was used, contributing to the desired look.”
Another conundrum was posed by the fact that the first level of the gym is actually four feet lower than the entryway area, while the pool is two feet higher—a situation dictated by the enormous steel beams that support the pool and house its mechanicals.
“The structure gave us an opportunity to solve the problem and, at the same time, pay some homage to the club’s setting,” Allen says. “The bottom six feet of the pool looks a bit like a floating glass room clad in steel and steel plate, so it resembles an old loading dock—a nod to the city’s industrial past.
“We went through multiple layouts to get to a multi-level design we could work with, but we finally got there,” he adds.
The “balance” that Fink aspired to—between the past and future; between engaging and utilitarian; between personal and industrial—has clearly been achieved.
The community area, in particular, reflects the effort.
While the base of the wall is clad in what looks like riveted steel, the area also incorporates warmer materials. “The walnut paneling not only adds to the inviting feel, but takes some vintage inspiration from clubs of the past,” Fink describes. “With its sofas, lounge chairs, and desks, it’s designed to be a work and creative hangout and a social space, so it needs to include aspects of both utility and warmth.
“This area has to do a lot.”
The vintage feel also is reflected in CPBK’s graphics.
“The ‘balance’ that Fink aspired to—between the past and future; between engaging and utilitarian; between personal and industrial—has clearly been achieved.”
The wall of the pool, which makes use of a black-and-white tile motif, is just one example. “We wanted to create an expansive graphic mural impression,” Fink says. “The graphic elements and simple colors of that wall hark back to pool facilities from the 1920s and ’30s.”
For larger wall areas, Allen and Fink both lobbied for art that was “grafitti-esque.”
“It was sort of our way of bringing more of Brooklyn into the club, of creating more interaction with the street,” says Allen. “We got our way, a little bit, in that the wall art looks like it’s grafitti painting. And the curated art in the front of the club will shift periodically, which will enliven and change the experience of people looking in from outside.”
The Path to Growth with Lessons Learned
The “lessons learned” during the construction and launch of CPBK have already been heeded and deployed by Chelsea Piers. The company has embarked on a $2-million upgrade of its flagship facility in New York City. Work has been completed on its four studios and member lounge, and over the next few months the complex’s locker rooms, functional-training area, and two sundecks overlooking the Hudson will be totally renovated.
“We’ve redone the studios, and are going to do completely new wet areas within the next six months,” Tewksbury says. “The project will feature a lot of the same custom millwork, metal, and other design cues that we used in Brooklyn.”
While embracing the past, CPBK has, in the process, yielded a plan for Chelsea Piers’ future.
“Now that we have our flagship in Brooklyn,” Tewksbury says, “we envision CPBK leading to four or five smaller satellite clubs in the area—that’s our current path to growth.”