City at odds over zoning variance for 24-Hour Fitness

A hearing examiner will soon decide whether to grant a zoning variance to allow a well-known fitness club to occupy a now vacant Federal Way building.

In December 2008, 24-Hour Fitness requested the city permit it to move into the old Albertsons building at 33620 21st Ave. S.W. The area is zoned as neighborhood business (BN) and has a varied history as it applies to fitness facilities. City staff reviewed the application and, though it wishes to see empty buildings filled, will recommend the hearing examiner deny the variance for several reasons.

"This is one we really struggled with; we really wanted to help them out...," City of Federal Way associate planner David Lee said. "We studied this pretty long and hard and we just couldn't give it to them."

Albertsons' business license expired in December 2006. The former grocery store property has stood empty, with the exception of a seasonal Christmas tree vendor, since that time, Lee said. On Oct. 21, a hearing examiner will consider city staff's recommendation, then decide whether to give the go-ahead to applicant Michael Chen of Group Mackenzie in Portland, Ore., to further apply to occupy the space.

A granted variance will not change the zoning of the area. Instead, it will free up the city to make an exception to its codes. Those are generally made in special circumstances, Lee said. For example, if a project is a square foot or so over what is permitted in a zone or the property contains wetlands or a steep slope that makes building more difficult, it may be a good candidate for a variance.

The city's neighborhood business zones allow for fitness facilities up to 25,000 square feet. The old Albertsons building is 43,061 square feet. When deciding whether to recommend the approval or denial of a variance, staff considers revised code 19.45: Variances.

Staff feels the gym's request does not fit some of the criteria in revised code 19.45.030. If the city authorizes 24-Hour Fitness to occupy the space, it will present an unfair advantage to the company over new fitness facilities locating to the area, Lee said. 24-Hour Fitness would have a building nearly double the size of its competitors. Furthermore, the physical characteristics, location and surroundings of the land do not provide special circumstances that hamper the building's occupants from equally competing for business.

Staff also feels the variance would not be aligned with Federal Way's comprehensive plan, Lee said. Neighborhood business zones are intended for smaller businesses, such as mom and pop shops, rather than large-scale projects, Lee said. The idea is for businesses and residential space to compliment one another, he said.

"We felt that a 40,000-square-foot health facility wouldn't quite fit into that plan for the BN zone," Lee said.

Prior to 2001, fitness facilities were completely restricted in BN zones. That year, Curves, the women's-only fitness club, then applied to locate in a Federal Way BN zone.

"It kind of got us thinking well, maybe, we should allow health clubs in this zoning," Lee said.

The city approved the change, welcoming fitness clubs up to 7,500 square feet. Later in 2001, city codes were altered once again to give consent to fitness facilities up to 25,000 square feet, Lee said. To Lee's knowledge, Curves is the only fitness center in the BN zone along 21st Avenue Southwest.

As part of the hearing examiner's decision, a pubic hearing will be held at 2 p.m. in the city council chambers, 33325 8th Ave. S. Public testimony and written comments from the public will be taken. Only persons who submit written or oral comments to the hearing examiner may appeal his or her decision. For more information, contact David Lee at (253) 835-2622.

Check it out

To view a map of the city's zoning, visit

To read more about the city's code, as it applies to variances, visit

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