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Competing Long Island City Climbing Gyms Try to Claim the Title of New York’s Largest

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When Brooklyn Boulders co-founder Lance Pinn began scouting locations in 2012 for a massive indoor climbing gym in Long Island City, it was unrelated, he says, to plans his biggest competitor, the Cliffs, had to do the same.

On Thursday, Pinn announced that his facility, which he says is New York’s largest, will open by the end of the summer. It sits at the ground level of the Q41 building, a once-stalled residential tower that in 2011 was revived as a mixed-use affordable-housing complex after being bailed out with millions in subsidies as part of the city’s Housing Asset Renewal Program.

The development comes more than a year after the Cliffs opened its neighboring mega-gym, which has an estimated 30,000 square feet of terrain on its walls. Depending on how one measures, the Cliffs could also be considered the largest in the city.

But the new Brooklyn Boulders Queensbridge location will effectively increase the surface area of climbable plastic rock in the city by nearly 40 percent — and will mean that the majority of New York’s indoor climbing will be concentrated within an area of just a few blocks in the booming Queens neighborhood.

The two gyms, which are not even a mile apart, are vying for business from the same young, active demographic — people who have taken notice of the sport in the wake of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s successful free ascent this year of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall.

Further drawing attention to the sport are local climbing pro Sasha DiGiulian and fourteen-year-old Ashima Shiraishi, a Brooklyn Boulders regular who was recently credited with climbing the most difficult route ever to be completed by a woman.

The Long Island City location will be the fourth for Brooklyn Boulders, which aside from its namesake gym in Gowanus has also opened facilities in Chicago and Somerville, Massachusetts.

The group also has designs on opening a 27,000-square-foot indoor gym at Pier 57 in 2017.

The Queensbridge gym, Pinn said during a recent tour he gave to the media, “was supposed to be a grocery store.” Brooklyn Boulders was an early bidder to lease the space, and the developers of Q41 warmed to the idea of adding a climbing gym, he added.

At 25,000 square feet, the new gym is the largest in the city in terms of its footprint on the ground, he adds. The Cliffs, by comparison, has a footprint of about 20,000 feet, not including the mezzanine, that gym’s owner, Mike Wolfert, said.

“Everyone can make their claims, but I don’t think it matters in the end,” says Wolfert, adding that people should visit his facility and come to their own conclusions about the quality of the gym. “Obviously, people are going to draw comparisons…but I’m trying to stay above that.”

Pinn declined to give the Voice the exact square footage of climbable surface slated for the Queensbridge location, but joined Wolfert in brushing aside any comparisons between the two facilities. “We are not playing the “biggest” game,” he said. “We are focused on integrating with the local community and making a space people never want to leave.”

He added that Brooklyn Boulders will eventually release the information about its total climbable surface area “as a surprise.”

In addition to having the gym be part of a residential building (a first for the city), the new Brooklyn Boulders space will also differ from traditional climbing gyms in that it will have a “collaborative workspace” with numerous desks for customers to use, and a coffee bar, pending approval from the New York City Department of Buildings. It is also being fitted with showers and a sauna.

“It’s the first full-size rock-climbing facility in a residential tower,” Pinn said. “The idea is that you can live where you work and play.”

The idea to include a workspace came from watching customers at the original location, some of whom would take advantage of Brooklyn Boulders’ Wi-Fi between climbs.

Pinn and his partners are also commissioning, among others, well-known graffiti artists Cope2 and Queen Andrea — known for their work at the former graffiti hotspot 5 Pointz — for murals on the gym’s “non-climbing” walls.

The new facility’s climbing walls, which are now mostly complete, reach 30 feet — about a foot and a half taller than the highest walls at the Gowanus location. By comparison, the Cliffs boasts climbing routes as long as 60 feet, which includes horizontal components, as the building is only 42 feet tall, according to its certificate of occupancy. However, some routes at the Cliffs reach 50 feet, Wolfert says, as they stretch beyond what is technically considered the first level of the building.

The new Brooklyn Boulders will have about 25 bouldering features, including a large cave. Unlike top-rope and lead climbs, bouldering involves lower walls that do not require climbers to be tied in to ropes.

Like the original location, it will have about 400 total routes and bouldering problems at a given time, varying in levels of difficulty. The location will employ five full-time route-setters, who remove and replace all of the gym’s climbing holds into new configurations about every six to eight weeks, Pinn said.

The Queens location will also have a crack-climbing route and a chimney feature, which the original Brooklyn Boulders lacks.

Through 2015, the new gym will give free access to existing Brooklyn Boulders members, which is likely to provide an immediate influx of visitors.

Pinn declined to say how many members Brooklyn Boulders has amassed, but he said that the Gowanus gym sees about 400,000 visits per year.

“It’s the most popular climbing gym in the country,” he said.

He expects the Long Island City location to fare similarly.

“We’re within five and a half blocks of seven subways. This is the fifth most accessible area in New York City,” he said.

The Cliffs’ Wolfert agrees, and he adds that people view climbing gyms differently from fitness clubs — they’re actually willing to jump on the subway and cross boroughs.

“With climbing, people are willing to travel a bit. It’s a destination,” he said.

And despite their proximity to one another, he said he feels the two facilities will coexist.
“I really believe there’s a market for both of us to be successful,” he said. “We wish those guys the best of luck.”

No one might know that better than Brooklyn resident Les Pawlak, a frequent visitor of
Brooklyn Boulders, who is immediately recognizable by his burly build and military-style cap. Pawlak has been climbing for more than 40 years, long before there was a climbing gym in the city. He cut his teeth ascending the Shawangunk Ridge in New Paltz, or “the Gunks,” as regulars call it — an even more popular crag among climbers today.

“There was nowhere to go,” said Pawlak, who is also the rock wall coordinator at Chelsea Piers.

The popularity of the sport today has grown in tandem with the number of gyms, he said.
“It’s nuts,” he said. “It used to be a lifestyle….[Now] some people like getting crazy.”

And the city could still use more facilities, he says, perhaps deeper into Queens.
Pinn, who leans more businessman than climber, said he and his partners chose to use the Brooklyn namesake for other locations, as people identify with the borough.

“One in seven Americans is from Brooklyn,” he said, adding that “ ’Chicago Boulders’ is not a consistent brand name.”

Pinn, who climbs about once or twice a month, said he enjoyed bouldering before he came to New York. At the time there were only a few indoor climbing gyms, such as the Chelsea Piers facility and a smaller gym in the Manhattan Plaza Health Club.

“I had the climbing bug, and it seemed like New York was missing something,” he said.

*This article has been corrected to reflect the following changes: The media tour of the new Brooklyn Boulders facility was conducted on Wednesday, April 1. Also, Brooklyn Boulders co-founder Lance Pinn said that the company’s gym in Gowanus, Brooklyn is the most popular indoor climbing facility in the country.

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