The Board of Representatives voted unanimously yesterday to approve the homeowners' petition, which now allows the full Board to consider reversing the Zoning Board's decision to allow stand-alone gyms (i.e., Life Time Fitness) in a half dozen office parks citywide.
Good for the BoR. The homeowners spent significant time and money to produce the petition, and it should not be thrown out on a legal technicality. However, this does not mean the Zoning Board's decision should be reversed.
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In economics, there is a well-known collective action problem called "concentrated benefits and dispersed costs." A classic illustration of this problem is food subsidies. Take sugar subsidies, for example. The sugar industry receives nearly $2 billion a year from U.S. taxpayers. The sugar "lobby" spends tens of millions of dollars each year lobbying Congress to make sure these subsidies continue. But because the cost for these subsidies on any individual citizen is so low (about $6/person), there is no lobby spending tens of millions of dollars to oppose sugar subsidies. So the subsidies continue.
In other words, when benefits of a particular policy are concentrated on a organized minority of people, even if those benefits are small when compared to the cost imposed on society as a whole, the policy can sometimes be implemented because the costs are so small and diffuse, those harmed by the policy were unable to organize to oppose it.
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Here, we have the reverse problem: one of concentrated costs and dispersed benefits. The costs of a new Life Time Fitness are borne almost exclusively by the minority of homeowners who live nearby, and will be burdened by the extra traffic and eyesore of having the gym in their neighborhood.
The benefits, however, are spread across the entire community, and include residents who will become members of the new gym, future employees of Life Time Fitness who will have new jobs, and Stamford taxpayers, who should see their tax burden marginally reduced, as adding Life Time Fitness to the Grand List will help spread the property tax burden.
These diffuse benefits explains why we haven't seen a "gym-goers coalition" bond together to support this project, even though the benefits (collectively) are significant.
I think the BoR should uphold the Zoning Board's decision, and allow the Life Time Fitness to be built for a number of reasons, including the ones listed just above.
First, the High Ridge Office Park is not in a residential area. Here, take a look: it's right off of Exit 35 of the Merritt Parkway, which is already noisy and not attractive to look at. While there may be some increased neighborhood traffic, and it might be an eyesore, I don't think it will be much worse than it was when Frontier was still there.
Second, I fear if Life Time isn't allowed to build their gym, the Frontier building will remain unoccupied for years to come. It's not a nice building, to put it simply (I actually have been inside after Frontier moved their headquarters to Norwalk). It is already falling into disrepair. For any corporate tenant to want to occupy it, they would likely have to knock it down and build an entirely new building. But why would anyone spend that money, when office vacancies in Stamford are already north of 25%? In other words, if not Life Time Fitness, what are we going to put there?
Third, Chelsea Piers is really the only player in town of providing an upscale health club facility. But if you live in North Stamford, during rush hour, it can take over 30 minutes to get there (or back). This new facility by Exit 35 will be much more accessible to many of our city's residents, and can also draw in members from nearby communities which have easy access to the Merritt.
This is not an easy decision, however. I do agree that the nearby residents should not exclusively bear the cost of the new building. It's not fair for the broader Stamford community to receive a windfall at their expense. I'll reiterate my previous suggestion that Lift Time pays each of them a sum ($1,000? $5,000?) to make it easier for them agree to go along with the project. But with or without some money to make the medicine go down easier, the Zoning Board's decision should be reaffirmed.