Feature Article - September 2004
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Safe and Secure

Health clubs and recreation facilities are excellent hunting grounds for thieves

By Kyle Ryan

Parking lots

Two main issues arise when it comes to parking lots: lighting and landscaping. Too little light, and the parking lot is dangerous. Too much light, and it becomes a light polluter that annoys neighbors. Too little landscaping (that is, trees, shrubs, bushes), and you have an asphalt eyesore. Too much landscaping, and no one can see the lot from the outside world. Today's saplings will be quite larger in 10 years, and what was once an easy view to the street can become blocked by a tree.

According to Barton, the problem can be alleviated by regular maintenance and using foot lighting near bushes. Most landscaping problems can be solved pretty easily.

"Landscaping you can remove," Bouck says. "You can trim trees. You can remove some pieces of landscaping."

The lighting issue is a little trickier. Cars have changed over the years, which makes lighting the area around them more difficult—thanks to everyone's favorite scapegoat, SUVs.

"I call it the 'SUV phenomenon,'" Bouck says. "What happens is these huge cars get parked in these lots, and because there seems to be more than ever, what they do is create canyons between them with smaller cars. Light poles tend to be spaced just far enough apart to create these shadows."

Those shadows cover the doors into adjacent cars, obscuring them from view. Although adding more light might solve the problem, it can create another, especially if the surrounding area is residential.

"Neighbors don't want too much light so they're living next to a baseball field," Bouck says.

He suggests using more light poles at a lower height, which will help reduce the shadows. Doing so, of course, comes at a price, one that may exceed the planned budget.

Another option to consider is changing the parking lot's location. Whenever possible, Bouck's company tries to put parking lots in front of health clubs, so people can get out of their cars within sight of the front door. That design tends to clash, though, with pedestrian-friendly city plans, which don't want a parking lot between the sidewalk and the facility.


Here's a handy recap of places in a facility that need special attention.

  1. Parking lot. Keep it lighted but don't be a light polluter. Be mindful that big SUVs and trucks create shadows over smaller cars that can potentially be dangerous. Make sure any landscaping isn't obstructing sightlines to the street or elsewhere. Consider video surveillance or hiring security.
  2. Front desk. Your first line of defense. Your screening procedure depends on your facility's attitude toward customer service, but make sure the desk can see who comes in (and out) and can see different areas of the club.
  3. Locker rooms. Have your staff make frequent trips to them but use different people at unpredictable intervals. Make sure you have durable lockers and that people actually lock them.
  4. Child care. Keep the area highly visible with at least two staff members present at all times. Have the children play in an area separated from the door into the room and devise a system to make sure the person picking up a child is the same one who dropped him off.
  5. Gymnasiums. Keep them visible, and consider having a staff member present during basketball games. Less aggressive design schemes and ample space around the court can also help reduce altercations.

Regardless of where the lot is located, traffic patterns need to be considered. Pedestrians should not walk on the lot's major thoroughfare. If children use the facility, consider having a drop-off area for parents. Of course, as times change, designs will have to be adjusted.

"We added a street and another entrance, and we found that people were kind of using the parking lot as a way to bypass the street if there were traffic problems," Barton says, adding that speed bumps and stop signs can help curtail aggressive driving and make the area safer for pedestrians.

To monitor what goes on in the parking lots, some facilities have installed video cameras, much like supermarkets and malls. Although some want to use dummy cameras (that is, ones that record nothing) in the hopes they will deter potential thieves, Bouck advises against them because of potential liability concerns.

Relying on cameras for deterrence purposes only won't work anyway, according to Barton.

"People have no problem doing things right in front of the camera," she says.

Her facility recently added 20 surveillance cameras at different areas, all of which are taped. While Barton says they've been helpful when something happens, they can instill a sense of complacency in guests.

"You put in cameras," she says, "and people get a false sense of 'Oh, it's being videotaped. I'm safe. Nothing's going to happen.'"

That same sense of complacency occurs when police officers or security guards monitor parking lots.

"Some of the problems we've had are either people see the police officer and instantly think, 'Oh my god, they have to have a police officer; this place must be unsafe,'" Barton says. "Or they see the police officer and think, 'It's really safe; I should have no problem if I leave the car unlocked.'"

Security guards might not be much of a deterrent, either. Barton pays $40 per hour for hers—and once had someone successfully break into a car parked next to the police officer.