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The Daily News of Los Angeles
VAN NUYS >> For years, the old FamsaFurniture store on Van Nuys Boulevard sat vacant, frequented not by customers but by the homeless.
"That building, a ginormousbuilding, was empty for a very long time, so it kind of became a homeless attraction," noted Dora Bercea, who operates a thrift store next door. "They were setting up camps in front and in back of the building."
But on Monday, the 21,000-square-foot retail space officially opens its doors as a new Crunch Fitness facility, a welcome sign of urban renewal in a part of Van Nuys in need of it.
"It's nice and clean," said Bercea, 35, of Reseda. "I think it's great. I'm excited."
Longtime Van Nuys community activist Don Schultz agreed.
"It's a good addition to a neighborhood that needs new businesses to kind of spark up the activity on Van Nuys Boulevard. It's been a retail area that's suffered over the years," Schultz said.
David Harman, president and co-founder of a Chatsworth-based company that owns dozens of health clubs, including the new Crunch at 6723 Van Nuys Blvd., said other big fitness companies have traditionally avoided the area.
"The community is densely populated. It needs fitness, but the large chains have never gone into that market," Harman maintained. "Some people see Van Nuys as kind of a rough neighborhood and so on. I look at it as a community that is underserviced and needs something that is, I would say, a low-cost model but providing a middle-cost to high-cost-value type of gym."
There is a large LA Fitness a few minutes away on Sepulveda Boulevard near the Orange Line.
But in this particular part of Van Nuys, Harman stated that many fitness centers "didn't want to come there because they thought they couldn't make the money they were requiring."
The new Crunch will be open 24 hours and offers a base membership of $9.95 a month with no contract.
Harman said to keep membership prices down, the Van Nuys gym doesn't have a swimming pool, basketball or racquetball courts, which he said would otherwise drive up operating and insurance costs.
The Crunch in Chatsworth offers a similar pricing structure to Van Nuys.
But the base rate at the West Hollywood location is $62.99.
Today,, the Van Nuys Crunch will hold a "sneak peek party" to show off the club. Just days before the event, painters applied a fresh coat of bright blue color to the exterior, while club personnel busily installed fitness equipment. Harman put the cost of weights and workout machines for the new location at $700,000.
A few doors down, there's a thrift shop, a 99 Cents Only store and a Jon's supermarket. The parking lot for the businesses frequently crawls with homeless people, street vendors and pigeons.
Still, Harman said, Crunch is already doing big business.
"This has been one of our most profitable and successful pre-sales that we've done in our organization," he declared. "Projections are great. It's very, very healthy."
Erica Espinoza, 33, of Van Nuys, who works at a bakery only steps away, was the first person to sign up for a membership.
"The tanning beds. That's why I want to do it. Get some color in my pale skin," she joked, adding, "I'm glad that they're finally going to open. Now, hopefully, I'll get skinny."
Juan Chacon, 30, of Van Nuys, who works at a nearby gift shop, also signed up.
"The price is affordable," he stated. "To know that you're going to be one of the first people to use those machines, it's nice. Everybody likes brand-new stuff."
"I have a membership with 24 Hour Fitness, but this is going to be even easier for me," added Jose Rodriguez, 39, of North Hollywood, who works at a hairstyling salon across from Crunch.
Harman said the gym has tailored its marketing toward the neighborhood's predominantly Latino population.
"All of that marketing content will reflect from what that demographic is," he explained.
Bercea, owner of the MTA Thrift Store, said she liked the idea of the gym being open 24/7.
"At night lots, of shady stuff happens in this neighborhood," she said. "Since there's going to be movement and somebody's going to be here, maybe police are going to patrol more, hopefully."
Even with the opening of Crunch, the retail prospects for the area remain mixed.
Dearden's - a furniture store that's been in business for over 100 years - recently announced it would close all eight of its Southern California locations. One of those stores is just a few doors south of Crunch.
"In that area ... there are a bunch of storefronts with a lot of vacancies," noted Schultz, former president of the Van Nuys Homeowners Association.
He said some retailers neglected upkeep by failing to quickly deal with graffiti on their walls - a persistent problem - and by placing clothing racks on sidewalks, which he said is a code violation.
Crunch at least represents a step in the right direction for that section of Van Nuys, Schultz maintained.
"It might actually start sprucing up that area," he said.
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