Massage parlor — the phrase conjures up images of the seediest days of Times Square in the late 1970s, when dozens of locations offered sexual services. Even today, with that concentration thinned out, the words elicit knowing smirks from brokers, aware that such businesses continue to operate throughout the city in the nooks and crannies of commercial and residential properties.
These massage parlors thrive in part because the law adopted by the city’s Board of Estimate in 1978 banning sexual massage businesses and providing a strict review process for legal ones has become one of the biggest paradoxes in code enforcement. Instead of cracking down on the massage parlors, thought to be hotbeds of prostitution, the statute today is used mainly to regulate gyms and health clubs, which are not.
The Real Deal has identified more than three-dozen massage spas in Midtown and Midtown South (see map below), and only six of those are in compliance with the 35-year-old statute that requires “physical culture establishments,” such as gyms, aerobics studios, martial arts and yoga studios — as well as massage parlors — to undergo a rigorous review process. That process generally includes an application for a change to the building’s certificate of occupancy with the Department of Buildings, a review by the Board of Standards and Appeals and an interview process with the city’s Department of Investigation.
View Midtown and Midtown South massage parlors in a full screen map
While most of the Midtown and Midtown South parlors are in small, Class C buildings owned by little-known landlords, some of the biggest property owners in the city, including the Estate of Sol Goldman, Lloyd Goldman’s BLDG Management, the Feil Organization and Vornado Realty Trust, own buildings with massage services but without the proper certificate of occupancy, the review revealed.
And a sizable number of the spas identified by The Real Deal offer precisely the kinds of illegal erotic services that the law was enacted to curb, according to online reviews, advertisements and conversations this TRD reporter had with parlor workers.
Many spas offered a basic massage for about $40 to $80 for an hour, with sexual services ranging from manual stimulation to sex for an additional $40 to $120. Several of the spa providers —including those at Galaxy Spa at 202 West 40th Street, Spa Valley at 1162 Broadway and Beach Spa at 312 Fifth Avenue — confirmed to this reporter that they would perform sex acts. Providing those services would be illegal, although one of those businesses, Beach Spa, was operating with the required physical culture certificate of occupancy; the other two were not.
Visits to several Midtown and Midtown South massage parlors TRD identified found them generally to be tidy, with low lighting and four or more small rooms with massage tables. While the majority of the massage spots included in this analysis are staffed with Asian workers, the Village Voice’s Backpage.com listings reveal a substantial number of Russian masseuses, but they typically advertise that they operate out of residential apartments.
One attorney who has represented health clubs – but not massage parlors – through the review process, said the city did not focus on illegal sex acts during their review. “The amazing thing is that [officials] are generally not asking you questions about prostitution or massage parlors, but are asking questions about noise and soundproofing,” real estate attorney Joshua Price, a principal with the Price Law Firm, said.
A group of yoga studios, subject to the law but attempting to avoid it due to a lengthy and expensive process because of it, have banded together to fight the law through a group called Yoga for New York. Calls to representative of Yoga for New York were not immediately returned.
As a result of complaints about the statute’s application, the city is reviewing the regulation for possible changes, Rachaele Raynoff, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of City Planning, said. “The city is working with the health club industry to explore ways to make it easier for health clubs to open,” she wrote, in an email to The Real Deal. “There’s no specific proposal [to revise the law] at this time.”
Raynoff declined to comment on the low percentage of massage parlors passing through the review process. The executive director of the Board of Standards and Appeals, Jeffrey Mulligan, also would not comment on the low level of review for massage parlors. He did note that “physical culture” businesses are required to file an application with the board only after the Department of Buildings determines that a special permit is needed. The DOB did not respond to a request for comment.
One landlord-representative broker active in Midtown South, who asked not to be identified in a story about massage parlors, said spa tenants were not taking a substantial amount of space in the area, which is popular with tech tenants. “In my experience, they are not competing with our typical office tenants for space, at all,” he said, noting that he represents mostly Class B buildings, and rarely gets calls from spas.
“If you are operating a facility like that, you would probably want to be in a building as inconspicuous as possible,” he added.
There does not appear to be a concentration in ownership of the buildings in which the parlors are located. The Estate of Sol Goldman owns two buildings with massage parlors, one at 211 East 43rd Street, between Second and Third avenues and another at 23 West 56th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues. But the 56th Street building has a certificate of occupancy that allows for a spa, DOB records show. The other property, like most of the buildings reviewed, does not.
BLDG Management owns 36 West 34th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, which is home to Dokyo Spa, where one provider recently offered sexual services to this reporter. The building does not have the necessary certificate of occupancy for a massage facility.
Meanwhile, the giant real estate investment trust Vornado Realty Trust owns the three-story commercial building 488 Sixth Avenue between 34th and 35th streets, which houses a massage parlor, and lacks a proper certificate of occupancy.
Walter & Samuels owns 30 East 40th Street, where a spa located in room 501 occupies a space that has a plaque identifying the office’s occupant as a dentist. The spa does not have the proper certificate of occupancy.
There’s yet another massage spa on the 11th floor of 200 West 57th Street, the tony stretch between Seventh Avenue and Broadway; that building is owned by the Feil Organization, and does not have the required certificate of occupancy.
The Estate of Sol Goldman did not return calls seeking comment; neither did BLDG, Vornado, Walter & Samuels or Feil.
TRD attempted to contact each owner of a building identified on the map, and was successful in speaking with several of them. A management representative for the owner of 11 West 36th Street, who would not give her name, said the tenant was working with the city to get the proper certificate of occupancy. A representative of the management at 1162 Broadway said the building did not need a physical culture certificate of occupancy. Several other landlords declined to comment.
Long-time zoning attorney Sheldon Lobel, founder of the law firm of the same name, said the physical culture law was overly broad in its reach. He has represented many gyms and health clubs as they navigated the legal process. “[Representing those clients] helped put my kids through college, but it is another [example] of over-regulation. Maybe they have to refine it,” he said.