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Fitness Studio Divides Chestnut Hill Neighborhood

BOSTON (CBS) - The City of Newton's Land Use Committee will weigh arguments over a fitness studio on the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Manet Road during a public meeting Tuesday night.

"We, of course, want to work with anyone who has valid concerns," the owner of Modern Barre, Julia Williamson, told WBZ-TV.

Williamson's studio is a point of tension in its Chestnut Hill neighborhood.  A handful of neighbors object to the city approving an amendment that would reclassify the building's usage license from massage spa to fitness studio.  The landlord was granted the massage spa license in early 2013 before Williamson moved in with her fitness studio at the year's end.

Modern Barre
Modern Barre in Chestnut Hill neigborhood (WBZ-TV)

In the two years she's been open, Williamson's grown the 318-square-foot studio into her dream business. Barre classes are gaining momentum nationwide as a form of exercise fusing techniques found in ballet, Pilates and yoga.  Modern Barre offers about two dozen classes a week and are now limiting classes to 11 students.

Under the massage spa license, clients would be capped to three at a time, though it could operate for many more hours a day than Modern Barre is currently open.  For neighbors the difference in volume of clients at a time is a major problem.

"It's simply too many people for this spot," said Rachel Blankenstein, whose home adjoins the business.  "The issue in this very residential neighborhood is the rushing of parking, people on their cell phones while they're parking, doing three-point-turns, coming into some of my neighbor's driveways who have strollers and small kids."

"We've met those reasonable concerns and made concessions but we do have hundreds of people in Newton that just love this place," said Williamson in defense of her efforts to meet the evolving concerns of her neighbors while simultaneously keeping her business open.  "We've had people say they would be devastated if this place were to close."

The tension between the studio and neighbors seemed to peak at a meeting with three city aldermen last August, during which, several attendees say one opponent turned the conversation into an attack on their workout clothing.  The clients say this neighbor felt their "scantily clad attire" led to too much congestion in the neighborhood.

In a statement to WBZ-TV, the neighbor, Michael Noone, insisted Modern Barre is "flaunting the law" and should be located in a commercial district.

"The operation of this business here jeopardizes the safety of children in the neighborhood and causes noise and air pollution far beyond what is permitted there. Since they have no legal basis for operating their business on the site, they have resorted to name-calling and character assassination in an attempt to bully the City of Newton into allowing them to continue to operate there," said Noone's statement.

Williamson notes she's never received a noise complaint and that many of her clients walk to the studio or take the MBTA, rather than drive.  She says they've also made other adjustments, such as lengthening the time between classes to alleviate parking concerns, and given clients instructions to park in public spaces on Commonwealth Avenue.

"The point of this studio is to uplift women, not tear them down," said Williamson.  "Unfortunately there are people out there that will do that. We're just trying to stay positive and focused on the many clients devoted to the studio."

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