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Ask the Architect

A building with ‘a lot of potential’


Q. We bought a building that has three stores on the bottom and an attic above each store tall enough to stand in. The real estate rep said it was intended to be apartments that were just never built, and that it had “a lot of potential.” The building also has an easement driveway that goes to the back, for our property as well as the property next door and two houses behind. We were told that we could maximize the property by building over the driveway, since it’s part of our property. How do we find out about these things? Our attorney suggested that you might know.

A. Hopefully you bought the property for the rental income of just the three stores, because you can’t imagine that nobody else ever saw the potential for the buildings in the past but just didn’t try to develop the property further. After rule No. 1 in real estate, which is “location, location, location,” comes rule No. 2, to develop the highest and best use of a property. Always maximize these two for the greatest return on investment, according to my real estate professor. If not, we were taught, then know when to walk away.

One of the first things to evaluate, after the building and property condition, is the municipal zoning requirements, such as required parking based on use. Parking is the largest amount of space limitation, and can be the most challenging to investment return. Retail often requires space for one car per 200 square feet for onsite parking, plus driving aisles 23½ to 24 feet wide and a two-way driveway for entry and exit from the site. This takes a lot of space away from the building area.

You can’t take street parking or municipal lots into account, because they’re shared by the public, but there may be a written decision in property records that grants a waiver of the off-street parking requirement if the same use is continuous. If you add or change a use, the waiver may not continue, and a new zoning case may need to be evaluated before a zoning board. Easements are the attorney’s job to juggle, since title and deed restrictions are part of land limitations set by local law and government legal decisions. I have rarely seen anyone be successful at building above an easement without expense that may be more than the value of the purpose.

The attic space, if adapted to more retail or housing, opens up many more issues, such as space-consuming access stairs for entry and separate fire escape. Sprinklers, flame-retardant finishes, elevator, emergency lighting, alarms, strobes, control panels — the list is long. Always ask before you buy. The tough part before purchase is allowing the time it takes to get real answers. Every requirement is based on so many varying factors due to differing materials, building areas and uses. There will be a lot of number crunching and research to possibly reach your goal. Good luck!

© 2020 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.