Convert Commercial Buildings to Residential in NYC

by | Last updated Jul 6, 2023 | Building Conversions, Lofts, Property Development

With the growing trend of working from home, more and more office space in New York is becoming unoccupied. Due to this ever-increasing trend, more people are interested in knowing if you can convert from commercial to residential.


Can You Convert a Commercial Building to Residential in NYC?

You can convert a commercial building to residential in NYC if it complies with all applicable zoning regulations. The NYC Zoning Resolution outlines special provisions for converting existing buildings. You must bring the building up to code for residential use. 

If the building complies with all applicable zoning regulations, you will renovate it to meet the Building Code, Fire Code, and Multiple Dwelling Law requirements.

I am Jorge Fontan, an Architect in New York and owner of Manhattan-based architecture firm Fontan Architecture. In this post, I will outline some special requirements for converting commercial buildings to residential use in NYC. Commercial to residential conversions are complicated, and not all buildings will comply with these rules.


Special Regulations for Conversions in NYC

First, I want you to know that New York City zoning and building codes are incredibly complicated. The biggest problem with converting a commercial building to a residential building is that the commercial building may not meet residential regulations.

Let me give you an example. Residential zoning code typically requires a thirty-foot rear yard for residential buildings on interior lots. Commercial zoning only requires a twenty-foot rear yard for interior lots, and many older buildings have much less than that. So you could encounter a problem where the building does not meet the requirements. These discrepancies are why New York City made special regulations for certain conversions. These rules do not apply to all buildings in all areas. Below is a list of applicable locations.

These special regulations apply for buildings built before December 15, 1961, in:

  •  Manhattan Community Districts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, & 6, 
  • Brooklyn Community Districts 1, 2, 6 & 8. 
  • Queens Community Districts 1 & 2


These regulations apply to buildings built before January 1, 1977, for a portion of Community District 1 in Manhattan.

In the case of Special Zoning Districts, there may be exclusions or modifications to these rules.


Zoning Regulations

The zoning has to allow for residential use or have some special provision for residences. It will work if the building is in a commercial district with a residential equivalent, if it is in a Mixed Use district with Manufacturing or Residential use, and of course, if it is in a Residential Zoning District. Also, there are Certain Manufacturing Districts that allow for residential use. These are examples of where one can convert commercial buildings to residential in NYC.


Light and Air Requirements 

The one big problem with converting commercial to residential is the Natural Light and Air requirement. Fortunately, there are modified regulations in some instances where a building may require less than thirty feet for a rear yard or light and air as typically needed for residences.


Home Occupation Special Provisions

The zoning code for Home Occupation limits the floor area of a residence that can be used for a home business. The Home Occupation Zoning Regulations are expanded in certain areas for commercial to residential conversions, allowing a greater percentage of floor area than usual. This does not apply to all areas.

We have another post that describes the typical NYC Home Occupation Requirements.


Certificate of Occupancy for Conversions

All conversions of use in NYC require a new Certificate of Occupancy. An architect must first assess the building, design the modifications then produce drawings and specifications for the proposed project. After the drawings are complete, we submit an application to the DOB, which we file as an Alt CO. A plan examiner will review the project. The plan examination is a thorough process to verify code compliance. The project must be approved before a permit is issued.

The general contractor can start the renovation after the approvals, which is when they can get their permits. A project like this will most likely be a gut renovation and may include significant upgrades to the building. Upon completion of all the work, there are inspections and paperwork for signoffs. The Certificate of Occupancy is issued upon completing all work, inspections, and required items.


Creating Lofts

In NYC we commonly refer to apartments in residential buildings that were converted from commercial or manufacturing buildings as Lofts. We have another post on What is a Loft Apartment in NYC, if you want to read more.


Converting a Commercial Property to a Residential in NYC

The rules for commercial to residential conversions have a lot of nuances, but the main point is that these special regulations might make this process easier. As an architect, we always start off on every project by reviewing the zoning and major code requirements to see if it makes sense. 


Thank You for Reading Our Blog Post on Commercial to Residential Conversions in NYC.

I hope this was helpful. If you want to speak with an architect about a potential project, contact us at Fontan Architecture directly.


Contact Fontan Architecture

Jorge Fontan

Jorge Fontan

This post was written by Jorge Fontan AIA a Registered Architect and owner of New York City architecture firm Fontan Architecture. Jorge Fontan has earned 3 degrees in the study of architecture including two degrees from the City University of New York and a Masters Degree in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University. Jorge has a background in construction and has been practicing architecture for 20 years where he has designed renovations and new developments of various building types.