Ask the Architect

A new store, and a new permit


Q. We leased a store that used to be a personal trainer and are putting in a retail space to sell health supplements and goods. We were told that we need a permit when we called to ask the building department, but as we are meeting our neighboring storeowners, they tell us they didn’t need permits, and that the stores are “grandfathered.” We’re only painting and not even changing the flooring, so I’m wondering, do we really need floor plans and a permit, and what is the permit for?

A. Yes, each store needs a permit, although many shop owners are either told by landlords that it’s up to the tenant, even though the landlord is actually the responsible party, or both tenant and landlord just don’t get a permit. Because obtaining a building permit is often not a simple task, takes time and costs money, most people want to avoid it.

I remember the surprised reaction I got from a building department when I was working with a landlord with 20 tenants to make sure each occupancy was documented and up to code. The official told me he wished every landlord were so honest and concerned. I wondered why enforcement and cooperation aren’t consistent. Some get away with things for years without question, and others are strictly scrutinized.

There are basic reasons for getting a permit and regulations that created that need for good intentions. Safety for occupants, the community, emergency rescuers and the environment are one layer of why the requirement is in place, along with preventing traffic and parking congestion as well as public nuisances like noise and other types of pollution. Permits aren’t passed from one use or occupancy to another. A nail salon can’t just transition to a computer store. Believe it or not, if you open a restaurant that used to be a bar, and/or if the number of seats and layout is changed, the aisle width between seats and the number of restrooms must meet disability and plumbing codes. Different types of food and beverage sales must be safety regulated by building and health department review.

The key word is safety, and most people take it for granted, but it doesn’t just happen. The reason for having accurate plans is so there is documentation of what you plan to do, how and where equipment and fixed-in-place furnishings will be placed, and notes reflecting the law and building codes so that everyone involved — from designers to builders to the operators of the establishment and the landlord — is on the same page, no exceptions. Your landlord is the end-all responsible party, even if he or she leaves the permit process up to you. Don’t be misled by the false statement that it’s your responsibility. If anything, your landlord should be accommodating you with surveys of the property and information to get you through the process. Good luck!

© 2021 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.