When the Southtowns Family YMCA was built five years ago in the family-oriented Buffalo suburb of West Seneca, NY, organizers anticipated a huge influx of family memberships. With that in mind, plans for the Southtowns Y included not just two locker rooms but five of them — one each for men, women, boys, girls, and another for families and people with special needs.

The Southtowns Y is just one example of a fitness facility with multiple options for its locker rooms. A growing number of for-profit facilities, community recreation centers, universities, Ys and Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) are offering a variety of locker room options, depending on their members' needs.

As a whole, locker room usage declined in the 1980s and 1990s, according to Bruce Carter, president of Optimal Fitness Design Systems International, Weston, FL. Busy lifestyles and the fear of contracting AIDS in saunas and locker rooms contributed to the decline, he says.

However, as the senior population continues to be the fastest growing new member population and as more Baby Boomers hit senior citizen age, locker room usage should increase again, says Craig Bouck, the president and CEO of Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture, Denver. Seniors enjoy socializing, and locker rooms can be a social area for them, he says.

“The demographics are different than they were five years ago, and in 10 years, they're going to be wholly different,” Bouck says. “All the Baby Boomers are going to have more time on their hands. When we get to the point where we have all these 60 to 70 million folks who are easing into retirement, you're just going to have a lot more people using these facilities.”

Tiered System

For some seniors, the need for more privacy might become greater, however, as they deal with medical and personal issues. People in other demographics, such as business people not wanting to deal with children in the locker room or schoolteachers not wanting to change next to their students, might mean that tiered locker rooms could become more popular, too.

Some Ys and JCCs have had tiered locker rooms where people pay $15 to $30 more for access to an upscale locker room, says Carter, who adds that one of the features of these locker rooms is the use of a permanent locker.

“[Tiered locker room systems are] found more in the Ys and the JCCs because they cater to a broad spectrum of people,” Carter says.

However, a tiered locker room system, which includes special amenities such as towel service, plasma TVs and Wi-Fi Internet access, may not be the most appropriate model for a Y, says Jeff Townsend, executive director of the Southtowns Y.

“We don't believe in the tiered system at all,” Townsend says. “We feel strongly that everybody deserves the same amenities and deserves the same spaces. We just happen to give the option of a private space.”

A tiered system may not be the best option for public recreation centers and university facilities, either. Bouck says his firm designed plans for a tiered locker room system at an Ohio recreation center. That experiment soon evolved into dry and wet locker rooms, with the dry locker room accessible for dry activities, such as cardio, strength, racquetball and basketball, and the wet locker room accessible for use in the aquatics area.

The University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) planned to renovate Swinney Recreation Center with a tiered locker room system in which students, faculty and patrons could pay extra to be able to use a more secure locker room area. However, some students and faculty expressed concerns about the two groups sharing the same locker room. Administrators at UMKC eventually changed their plans and instead remodeled the locker rooms to include sectioned-off areas for each group. (See sidebar on page 64.)

“Most public facilities focus on providing equal access to all they have to offer — especially basic services such as locker rooms,” Bouck says. “With this goal in mind, tiered locker rooms are typically not a high priority for community services. On the other hand, private fitness providers have more options and can develop specialized levels of service for every aspect of their business — even locker rooms. With this in mind, tiered locker rooms may be an important element of service options, offerings and branding for private companies.”

Family Time

Bouck's firm has designed recreation center locker rooms with cabanas that couples or families can use. The cabanas allow them to have social interaction in the locker room, rather than go their separate ways to change or shower, Bouck says. He adds that the cabana idea could work in a for-profit club, too.

“It's a phenomenon that we didn't expect in the public sector, and it's just gone crazy,” Bouck says. “In some facilities now, we're not even doing men's and women's lockers. We're only doing the cabanas. We could do a dozen or 15 cabanas.”

The cabana is especially convenient for the elderly, Bouck says.

“In the large facility where the locker rooms might be pretty large, you'll have the shower on one end of the room and the toilets on the other end of the room,” Bouck says. “[A cabana] allows them to go into one place and very efficiently do everything they need to do rather than traversing back and forth with their walker or their cane.”

The youth locker rooms at the Southtowns Y are for boys and girls up to the age of 19. Having separate options for men, women and children lessens the awkwardness of strangers changing in front of children and vice versa. Townsend adds that several teachers have joined the Southtowns Y and appreciate that they don't have to change and shower in front of their students.

The family/special needs locker room eases concerns for parents, too.

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“It's appropriate to have separate spaces, especially in this day and age, for the safety of children and protecting them from predators and making sure that we're providing safe spaces for them as well as their families,” Townsend says. “There's not that awkward, uncomfortable situation of having small children in a place where they don't belong.”

Although the Southtowns Y has five locker rooms, the Almaden Valley Athletic Club (AVAC) in San Jose, CA, has six. The AVAC has one each for men and women, one for boys and girls up to 16 years of age, and boys and girls locker rooms in the AVAC's indoor swim school.

Prior to the opening of the swim school in 2000, the AVAC planned to build a family locker room for the swim school, but the San Jose planning department denied their request, says Sue Davis, AVAC's general manager of operations. Davis says the city cited its ethnic diversity as a reason that its citizens would not approve of a family locker room. Some cultures would be uncomfortable with opposite genders changing in the same room, the city said.

“That kind of took us by surprise because we owned a facility across the street that was an educational entertainment center that the city allowed us to put family restrooms in,” Davis says.

The AVAC altered its initial plans and installed boys and girls locker rooms, in which mothers and fathers of children 6 years old and younger could be in the locker rooms to help them change. Davis says parents are also allowed in the 16-and-under locker rooms to help children 6 years old and younger.

The family/special needs locker room at the Southtowns Y has lockers and benches in an open area with private changing stalls, showers and bathroom facilities along the sides of the room. In this type of locker room, the elderly, people rehabilitating from an injury or people with prosthetic arms and legs can be assisted by someone of the opposite sex. The locker room gets enough use that two years into its operation, the Southtowns Y expanded it to include more changing stalls and showers.

The family locker room had set the Southtowns Y apart from the rest of the Ys in the YMCA Buffalo Niagara group, but a new Y in the group also will have five locker rooms, including a family/special needs room. Other Ys in the group are looking to install family locker rooms, too, making them the signature locker rooms in their facilities.

“This is the wave of the future, at least for us here in Buffalo,” Townsend says, “because we've seen it become a very successful model.”

Tiered Locker Room Plan Creates Stir at UMKC

The Swinney Recreation Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, and part of that celebration involved a $1.9 million renovation. The renovation included an upgrade to the rec center's locker rooms, but the upgrade ended up being different than originally planned.

UMKC planned to implement a tiered locker room system, something the University of Missouri-Columbia, its sibling school, had implemented. Members would pay extra for private lockers with built-in combination locks, a lounge area with Wi-Fi Internet access, flat-panel TVs and towel service. The monthly cost for lockers at UMKC is $10 per month, but the higher-tiered locker room was projected to cost $14 per month. Access to the locker room would be controlled by a biometric reader.

The purpose of the tiered locker room system was to allow members to upgrade their membership while supporting the university's student scholarship program, says Paris Saunders, UMKC's assistant vice chancellor of auxiliary services.

UMKC researched industry trends and studied other facilities that offer similar types of membership upgrades. Saunders adds that UMKC also collected feedback using member surveys.

However, many students, faculty and patrons who use the Swinney Recreation Center said they were not informed of the proposed changes to the locker rooms. Some people expressed their disenchantment in articles and letters to the editor in the school's newspaper, The University News. One of the complaints was that students and faculty could have equal access to the same higher-tiered locker room, creating a conflict of interest and privacy issues.

“What if you have a student from a rich family and he can afford a private locker, and you have another guy from a poor family who's working 20 hours a week and trying to take 12 hours…that makes a person feel bad,” Henry Lyons, a UMKC alumnus and a member of the rec center, told the newspaper.

About a month after plans were made public, administrators at UMKC changed their plans, instead deciding to simply remodel the locker rooms for both men and women. Each of the remodeled locker rooms has a section designated for faculty/staff lockers and showers.

“After discussing these issues with the chancellor and his direct reports, the decision was made to maintain our current level of membership services while we increase the opportunities for additional feedback into a more comprehensive campus recreation and wellness plan,” Saunders wrote in an e-mail to Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro. “The total costs have not been finalized. However, we are within our original budget for the project.”