As the pandemic threatens retail businesses on Farmingdale’s Main Street, the village board is considering changes to the downtown’s zoning district to allow medical and legal offices at ground level.
"We are going to lose businesses and … it's very hard to bring retail to Main Street," Mayor Ralph Ekstrand said. Allowing nonretail businesses like financial institutions, doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, walk-in medical clinics and accounting firms will "fill up our buildings" and won’t increase the need for parking, he said.
The village’s downtown mixed-use zoning code — which was created as part of a downtown revitalization plan — allows a range of businesses at ground level such as restaurants, bars, clothing stores, bicycle stores, pharmacies, florists, gift shops and more, but legal and medical offices required a special-use permit.
The village has scheduled an online hearing for the amendment on Monday.
The change would have helped Diane Dilorenzo, who owns the Main Street building where she runs her Allstate insurance office and owns a commercial building across the street. Dilorenzo said that about six years ago a lawyer wanted to rent a ground-floor space from her but that she had to say no because village code prohibited it. The space was in the rear of the building, which she said is difficult for retail.
"Even without the COVID [-19 pandemic], how could I rent the back to retail?" Dilorenzo said. "If you're in retail, you want to be in the front exposure, not the back. They should have allowed me to have the lawyer’s office when I had the chance."
The space eventually became a spa, but that business closed down during the pandemic. Converting the area to professional office space now would require a major renovation because tile floors were installed for the spa, she said.
Dilorenzo had to get permission from the board in 2013 to move her insurance office across the street and operate on the ground floor. The board made an exception for her because the business had been operating at street level before the zoning code was changed in 2011.
The change in zoning would be good, Dilorenzo said. "They finally came to their senses," she said.
Sam Chandan, associate dean of the Schack Institute of Real Estate at New York University, said what Farmingdale is considering reflects the acceleration due to the pandemic of a longer-term trend of moving to online commerce from brick-and-mortar retail.
Retail property owners are asking themselves, "What are the things we can provide through our storefront that an Amazon cannot replicate?" Chandan said. "Amazon will not be able to replicate that in-person visit to a physician’s office, it will not be able to replicate a visit to the gym."
Joseph Garcia, president of the Farmingdale Chamber of Commerce, said the change will be good for the village.
"It’s the natural progression of how downtowns are working these days, the types of businesses that are interested in downtowns and leasing space and frankly that are able to afford the rents and the taxes, especially, that retail space comes with," Garcia said.
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Offices/businesses that could open at street level in downtown Farmingdale under the proposed zoning change:
Licensed health care provider
Testing preparation center
Source: Village of Farmingdale