Santa Monica’s new law regulating group exercise classes in city parks got its first full workout this week. From the looks of things Tuesday morning in Palisades Park, what some city officials hoped would be a fair method to manage fitness classes in city parks might be choking them off altogether.
The clusters of kickboxers, weight-trainers, and other fitness-minded groups that once cluttered the park were missing. Instead, the park slowly filled with solitary joggers, power striders and dog-walkers. They were treated to striking ocean views, open expanses of green, and something new: several sandwich-board signs placed throughout the park. The signs were reminding everyone that group fitness classes in all city parks, especially Palisades Park, were now strictly regulated.
Trainers must purchase permits from the city that could potentially cost them $8,100 a year to use Palisades Park for classes. And trainers must also follow strict rules on where, when and how they whip their clients into shape. The new rules range from the practical (no group classes between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.), to the ear-pleasing (no boom boxes, whistles or bull horns) to the obvious (no exercise classes in Chess Park) to the absurd (barbecue grills cannot be used as exercise equipment). The rules were intended to reclaim outdoor public spaces for general recreational purposes and make them look less like the outdoor gyms that many residents claimed they had become.
“It was private enterprise co-opting public land for profit,” declares Phil Brock, chair of the city’s Recreation and Parks Commission.
Hordes of people getting off their couches and into the great outdoors to exercise might seem like a good thing for a community. But this fitness craze was a little too crazy, especially the way it impacted Palisades Park. Suspension training straps were being tossed over tree branches, yanking some down. Less exercise-inclined visitors had to step around scores of massage tables, yoga mats, and exercise balls just to enjoy a casual stroll along the park’s grassy terrain. Some trainers were marking off their territory with orange cones.
Palisades Park was, after all, public space, a beloved institution that Brock says locals refer to as “Santa Monica’s front yard.” So something had to be done. It was, predictably, a contentious year-long process with as many twists and turns as a master yoga class. Some people wanted a complete ban on all fitness classes in city parks. Fitness trainers agreed that some regulation was needed, but they hoped permit costs would not be too high.
In the end a compromise agreement barely squeaked by the council in late October. The most contentious issue, no surprise, was money, with many trainers saying that the high permit costs don’t make economic sense. Permit applications so far bear this out. Karen Ginsberg , Director of Community and Cultural Services, said that only 6 permits had been issued for medium and large groups for Palisades Park, well below the maximum of 20 that the city had allotted in the regulation. Only 12 permits have been issued in total.
One trainer buying a permit was Raisa Lilling, who forked over the annual fee of $5,400 needed to teach group classes of up to 10 people in Palisades Park for her Fit4Mom Santa Monica franchise. “Even though it’s only been one week, it’s already started to hurt me. It’s pretty much going to make me non-profitable,” Lilling said. But Lilling feels as if she doesn’t have a choice. She wants to keep her class fees affordable, and she also needs to have the permit. “If I’m going to be in Santa Monica, I have to have a presence in Palisades Park.”
This Tuesday morning one of Lilling’s trainers, Lynn Case, showed up to lead a group of about 10 moms with babies and strollers in tow. They convened for a class known as Stroller Strides, alternating between stressing their quads and cardio work, all while singing nursery tunes such as “The Wheels on the Bus.”
While Case works for Lilling, she also purchased a separate permit to train her own clients in one-on-one sessions, at an annual cost of $2,700. “I’m willing to give is a shot,” Case said. “Hopefully it doesn’t push all of the trainers out because it is too expensive. That’s my only fear.”
City officials say they are taking a flexible approach to the new rules and are open to changes depending on how things shape up over the coming year. For now, those who long craved a more serene Palisades Park experience can quietly exhale as the new year has brought just that.