Resilient Retail

Resilient Retail is a planning initiative to strengthen retail corridors throughout the City’s floodplain with the goal of developing land use recommendations to help businesses and the neighborhoods they serve withstand and recover quickly from future storms and flood events.

Hurricane Sandy left many small retailers heavily damaged and unable to reopen quickly – or at all. Many businesses that were largely unaffected by Sandy’s direct impact still remain at risk from future floods and the associated economic challenges of community recovery and flood mitigation.

The Resilient Retail study is part of the City’s effort since Hurricane Sandy to promote long-term resiliency. Key components of the City’s plan led by DCP are the citywide  Flood Resilience Zoning Text Amendment, adopted in 2013, which removed zoning barriers to resiliency investments; and the Retrofitting Buildings for Flood Risk manual, released in October 2014, which provides practical guidance to property owners on how to retrofit urban buildings against flood risks. This work is informing DCP’s current effort to update Flood Resilience Zoning.

Existing flood risks and New York City’s expanding floodplain present increasing challenges for some of the City’s local retail corridors, and the neighborhoods that depend on them for daily goods and services. Resilient Retail is examining retail corridors within the city’s floodplain to identify ways to protect existing buildings and businesses, and ensure that new resilient buildings contribute to an active and dynamic streetscape. This study complements Resilient Neighborhoods, a place-based planning initiative to identify locally specific strategies, including zoning and land use changes, to support the vitality and resiliency of communities in the flood zone.

Hurricane Sandy and newly issued federal flood maps have affected coastal neighborhoods throughout the city in a range of significant ways. The City responded by developing a detailed action plan for recovery from the storm, outlining strategies for the long-term resiliency of New York City’s coastal communities. Some of these communities suffered extensive damage with many home and business owners continuing to struggle to rebuild and recover. Others may have been largely unaffected by flooding in this storm, but remain at risk from future storms. For property owners within the expanded flood zone, expected increases to Federal flood insurance premiums pose an economic challenge.

The Resilient Retail study is part of the City’s effort since Hurricane Sandy to promote long-term resiliency. Key components of the City’s plan led by DCP are the citywide PDF Document Flood Resilience Zoning Text Amendment, adopted in 2013, which removed zoning barriers to resiliency investments; and the Retrofitting Buildings for Flood Riskmanual, released in October 2014, which provides practical guidance to property owners on how to retrofit urban buildings against flood risks.

The study identifies strategies that business and property owners can employ in making their spaces more resilient, as well as zoning tools and federal regulatory reforms that may be needed to assist them in their resiliency efforts. The report’s main goals are to:

  • Support the continuing vitality of retail corridors and the neighborhoods they serve by addressing short-term needs and long-term regulatory challenges related to flood risk.

  • Promote retrofitting and rebuilding strategies that reduce flood risk to individual businesses, while ensuring they remain accessible, viable and able to meet community needs for critical goods and services.

The Resilient Retail study examined New York City’s physically and economically diverse commercial corridors in order to understand the specific physical and financial challenges facing businesses and buildings across the city’s floodplain as they weigh strategies to mitigate the impacts of future flooding and storms.

What defines a resilient retail corridor?

New York’s commercial communities encompass a variety of built forms and commercial mixes, from very dense corridors with ground floor commercial and residential units above, to single-story strip mall corridors surrounded by surface parking. The Resilient Retail study highlights the range of physical and economic challenges our communities face in adapting for long-term resiliency and while maintaining healthy, vibrant, and accessible retail designs that meet neighborhoods’ local and regional commercial needs.

Dense, mixed-use, and pedestrian oriented

Commercial corridors, such as Avenue C in the East Village and Van Brunt Street in Brooklyn, are dense corridors composed of small lots and multi-story buildings attached to their neighbors. These corridors are busy and active, providing key neighborhood services throughout the day and evening. Most buildings have commercial uses occupying ground floor spaces, with residential dwelling units above. Interspersed at the ground floor are other uses associated with the neighborhood, including residential entryways and commercial loading areas. Within the floodplain, these corridors tend to include the oldest buildings, and the highest concentration of residents, businesses, and buildings. For these reasons, this typology presents unique challenges for mitigation. Some corridors largely provide services for the local neighborhood, while others are destinations that draw citywide patrons.

Q: What are the challenges to resiliency?
A: Residential and commercial building entrances in close proximity to one another pose challenges to successfully incorporating both compliant dry- and wet- floodproofing measures within the same property to accommodate the varying regulations applicable to those respective uses. There are many basement and cellar-occupied commercial spaces within this typology that require dry floodproofing and possible relocation of floor space above grade level, either above the ground floor or elsewhere within the lot. Overbuilt and densely built lots along with the proximity of residential dwelling units directly above means there is often little room within the lot line to relocate any lost sub-grade commercial space.

Logistical challenges related to lifting heavy and complex critical systems and fixed machinery used for commercial purposes present additional obstacles to retrofitting. Since many businesses use cellar space for storing materials and inventory, meeting the perishable and non-perishable storage needs of commercial tenants presents another major challenge. Solutions that will allow these buildings to continue safely and comfortably serving both commercial and residential tenants are critical.

Varied building typologies, lot sizes, and uses

Commercial corridors such as Midland Avenue on Staten Island, and Mermaid Avenue and Lorraine Street in Brooklyn, contain a wider range of lot sizes and a mix of attached and detached buildings. Structures along these corridors are mostly low level, single or two story buildings and have less dense lot coverage. These corridors, where the streetwall tends to be inconsistent and where non-commercial uses are interspersed along the corridor, may have difficulty attracting critical pedestrian activity.

Q: What are the challenges to resiliency?
A: A lack of retail continuity, with commercial frontages interrupted by parking and residential uses, presents a range of challenges to integrating dry floodproofing mitigations along streets with a wide range of uses. Businesses and corridors that rely more heavily on shoppers arriving by car may also be more vulnerable to market and economic challenges, as customers are typically more flexible in where they are able to shop and may simply go elsewhere if an anchor tenant leaves, or if the shopping experience suffers as a result of widespread construction or redevelopment. Additionally, the financial vulnerabilities associated with many corridors within this typology means that increased costs associated with resilient design may not be supported by the market as many of this corridor typology.

Large-format, low density shopping corridors

Commercial corridors like Cross Bay Boulevard in Queens and sections of Avenue U in Marine Park in Brooklyn, consist of larger, widely spaced lots, and single story buildings with significant surface parking, resulting in very few buildings built up to the streetwall. In New York City, such corridors often exist along major thruways and atop former water-adjacent industrial sites. Larger-format retailers and facilities such as department, home improvement and electronics stores tend to be found along these corridors, along with some smaller and more locally-serving businesses such as restaurants, medical offices, storage facilities and other retailers. These commercial corridors are often auto-oriented and less accessible pedestrians.

Q: What are the challenges to resiliency?
A: Property owners may be hesitant to invest in retrofitting existing structures when these buildings may be cheaper to reconstruct rather than retrofit. Such corridors may also rely heavily on an anchor tenant without which smaller businesses are vulnerable to a reduced customer base. While larger lots and smaller building footprints may allow properties to more easily adopt certain resiliency measures, access can be problematic as there are often fewer transit options available to shoppers and employees alike.

Special Districts and Destination Corridors

Commercial corridors such as 10th Avenue in West Chelsea and Emmons Avenue in Brooklyn are often defined as much by their unique commercial identities as by their building and lot typologies. These corridors may be composed of a broader range of mixed lot sizes which can vary from small attached commercial store fronts to larger detached, block-level developments. Buildings similar to those identified along the dense, mixed-use corridors are interspersed with larger single-purpose residential or commercial structures. Redevelopment options will have to focus on preserving the unique “destination” features of these corridors and ensuring that building design is appropriate for the type of uses that make these corridors a regional draw.

Q: What are the challenges to resiliency?
A: Niche commercial specializations, such as the West Chelsea Special District’s focus on art galleries along 10th Avenue and the Sheepshead Bay Special District’s focus on maritime services along Emmons Avenue, require policies that support those respective commercial communities. The variety in built forms can make it difficult to have a consistent pedestrian streetscape. Structures with sunken arcades and commercial floor space below grade are especially vulnerable to flood damage.

Retrofitting existing buildings that contain ground floor commercial uses is particularly challenging for a number of reasons:

  • Prevalence of attached buildings that are difficult to retrofit structurally
  • Commercial uses are often located above or next to residential uses, each of which is subject to different floodproofing requirements
  • Complex and varied dynamics between landlords and commercial tenants
  • Lack of capital and financial tools available to help small businesses become more resilient
  • Impracticality of elevating businesses off the ground and away from pedestrian accessibility
  • Loss of the underground cellar and basement spaces so critical to New York’s businesses would be devastating

The study will identify key issues and opportunities based on an assessment of:

  • Retail business vulnerabilities to current and future climate hazards, including economic challenges related to purchasing flood insurance and financing floodproofing retrofits.
  • Building- and corridor-level opportunities to minimizing flood risk.

For more information about the Resilient Retail Initiative, please contact