Columns Newswire Mann Report

Healthy Re-Uses for Retail

The past few years have been quite a surprise for those who predicted vast retail deserts in New York City, largely attributed to online shopping. However, in lieu of endless blocks of empty storefronts, we are seeing dozens of storefronts repurposed into healthcare facilities stretching along the city’s avenues and side streets, including satellite clinics for hospital groups, urgent care centers, surgical clinics, dental clinics, ambulatory clinics, wellness/chiropractic practices, medical spas and various other treatment centers. There even has been a surge in veterinary clinics in former retail sites.

The adaptive reuse of retail space for healthcare purposes is not only a boon for the economy, but also contributes to the health of communities, especially in lower-income neighborhoods where access to medical care has not been as available.

Although this trend points to an excellent use of commercial space that may no longer be all that relevant for certain types of conventional retail, there are significant challenges in the construction of any kind of healthcare facility in order to comply with stricter codes and provide healthy environments for patients.

Beyond the basic buildouts, there are such considerations as ADA compliancy — which can be especially demanding in landmark-designated properties. In addition, adapting a former retail unit inevitably entails comprehensive infrastructure upgrades, including new HVAC units, electricity and plumbing. It is a great deal more extensive — and expensive — than tidying a former clothing store and adding dressing rooms.

Moreover, considering healthcare facilities typically consume twice as much energy per square foot as other commercial facilities — including office buildings, hotels and warehouses — the construction of clinics, surgical centers and medical centers must be precisely planned to achieve energy management mandates.

Long before the 2019 Climate Mobilization Act, many of us in construction were opting to use low V.O.C. materials and low emissivity glass, that is, Low E glass in windows, doorways and paneling. Air filtration systems in commercial buildings were already being upgraded before the pandemic and in medical centers and clinics, and often included the installation of HEPA filter systems.

A prerequisite of any retail to medical facility conversion is the installation of ADA-compliant bathrooms with good space flow, and the use of low V.O.C. materials, including paints, finishes and flooring. Equally important is to install Low-E glass in storefront windows and use insulation that reinforces energy efficiency. Air filtration systems in former retail spaces especially need to be upgraded to provide constantly circulating air, always with HEPA and/or MERV filtration systems.

A few years ago, our team completed its first two clinics for the American Endovascular & Amputation Prevention Group at East River Plaza in East Harlem. The facilities comprised a 4,200-square-foot clinic in a former Sleepy’s store, and a 5,000-square-foot, full-service surgical center in an empty retail space on the same level.

Both of the units in this busy Costco-anchored shopping center had been vacant for a long period and would have required extensive renovations for any use. Each one had large picture windows and neither were energy-efficient. To address air quality and leakage issues, we installed insulated thermal barriers around the glass. We also added high-efficiency HVAC systems and centrally controlled lighting systems to the interiors.

These systems offered practical solutions specific to this type of adaptive reuse project. Added benefits of the energy-efficient insulation and upgrades included reduced utility costs for the practice.

This pragmatic approach to the revitalization of retail corridors was not necessarily inevitable a few years ago, but today there are few urban areas that do not have urgent care facilities and healthcare clinics filling vacancies and adding vitality to communities nationwide.

In older cities, there are a host of construction challenges to overcome. But as building standards and materials continue to improve, it is incumbent on those of us who are responsible for constructing, renovating and adapting spaces into healthcare facilities to commit to materials and processes reflecting the safest and most sustainable solutions available.

April Intrabartola
Vice President
Eastman Cooke & Associates
875 Sixth Ave. #1010
New York, NY 10001