Scaffolding. It’s an $8 billion dollar industry, part of the fabric of New York City, and certainly a fixture of the streetscape of Midtown and Hell’s Kitchen. Earlier this week, W42ST proposed a new survey to our readers — “As scaffolding goes up around the Film Center, Schmackary’s, 5 Napkin Burger, Nizza, Gregory’s Coffee and Marseille — we’re counting the days until it comes down. What’s your guess?”
The answers succinctly pinpointed New Yorker’s feelings on the ubiquitous structures. “2034,” posited Max Von Essen. “I’ll say the 12th of Neveruary,” added Christy Miller. as John Sorrentino remarked: “Oh, I’d venture to guess it’ll come down soon. Like 2029.”
Some readers noted that scaffolding was a permanent part of their NYC landscape. Eileen O’Brien commented: “Listen, there has been scaffolding up on the corner of Park and 34th Street for at least 17 years!!! That’s how long I’ve lived in the area…” Michael Patrick O’Neill lamented: “I live on 49th between 8th and 9th, across from my apartment is World Wide Plaza. About 10 years ago they put up scaffolding, and the nets covered all the terraces — I couldn’t imagine living there, it was up for about 7 years. I have never, not even once, not ever, have seen them do an ounce of work on that building.”
While many urbanites begrudgingly accept scaffolding as a part of city living, the origin of New York’s favorite eyesore is long and (multi) storied (and explained brilliantly through HBO’s How to with John Wilson). While most New Yorkers refer to the ever-present green huts around town as scaffolding, the term is often conflated with the actual view-ruining culprit, sidewalk sheds — scaffolding refers to the work platforms attached to buildings under construction, sidewalk sheds are the street-level pedestrian protection huts required by law to remain on the sidewalk until a building hazard or construction project no longer poses a danger to the public.
According to NYC Dept of Buildings Press Secretary Andrew Rudansky, “Approximately 37 percent of sidewalk sheds in NYC are related to the City’s Façade Inspection & Safety Program (FISP), which requires property owners with buildings higher than six stories to hire an engineer to inspect exterior walls. The other 62 percent of sidewalk sheds in NYC are related to construction and maintenance operations.”
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While many would assume that protective sidewalk sheds have been around since the dawn of time, the regulations surrounding pedestrian construction safety are relatively recent. On May 16, 1979, a student at Barnard College was killed by a piece of falling terra cotta from the 8th floor of a building on W115th St, influencing then-mayor Ed Koch to implement the first iteration of FISP, Local Law 10. It was amended and refitted to Local Law 11 after a series of incidents in 1997 — two of which involved Midtown’s American Airlines Theatre, then known as the Selwyn Theatre, and the Church of Scientology Building on W46th. The new regulations would eventually morph into today’s FISP program, which added a renewed focus on balcony and railing inspections.
The city’s present-day regulations have created an $8 billion dollar industry for both scaffolding and sidewalk shed builders, leading to claims that some companies find it cheaper to maintain a shed than fix structural issues. Local business owners also bemoan sidewalk sheds as a crowd-deterrent that makes shops and restaurants look closed and unwelcoming.
NYC.gov maintains an interactive tracker of every sidewalk shed in the city and their tenure. As of this writing there are 9,063 active across the five boroughs that last an average of 255 days. Said Rudansky, “Only about 370 permitted sidewalk sheds across the city have been up for over a year and a half. Long standing sheds up for multiple years is an outlier.”
“Sidewalk sheds are a necessity in our city to protect New Yorkers from falling construction debris and buildings that have been allowed to fall into disrepair. We know sidewalk sheds can become a nuisance for the community if they are allowed to remain in place year-after-year, when repair work at the building has stagnated. In recent years, the Department has taken steps to crack down on these nuisance long-standing sidewalk sheds that take up valuable space on our sidewalks,” said Rudansky in a statement to W42ST.
The DOB has enacted a Long-Standing Shed Program, where all sheds older than 5 years are inspected regularly by city officials with regular follow-ups to manage repair timelines. In 2020, the FISP was updated to enhance façade inspection requirements and strengthen enforcement actions for noncompliance. Perhaps this will include a removal of the long standing structure at 335 W39th Street between 8/9th Avenues, where a shed has been up since the Obama presidency (Rudansky noted that the building’s owners plan to demolish the structure and the next permit expiration for the structure is 9/20/2022).
Building code changes were adjusted in 2021 to prevent the formation of “blind tunnels”, in which multiple sets of sidewalk sheds take over an entire block (here’s where the map comes in handy!). There is also a Sidewalk Shed Working Group and a legal strategy group dedicated to prosecuting civil nuisance cases against long-standing sheds and designing more innovative pedestrian protection. Over in the West Village, one particularly incensed group of residents created their own organization entitled Take It Down, George, centered around the scaffolding erected by resident George Adams at 26 W9th Street (according to the DOB, repairs are ongoing and the structure’s permit is set to expire on 8/14/2022).
While sidewalk sheds are a bulky, uninvited addition to the city’s scenery, there is something to be said for their efficacy. According to city records of 311 calls, complaints about falling bricks or other debris decreased by more than half from 2005 to 2015, though there are notable exceptions, as when architect Erica Tishman was blamed for her own death by falling debris by city legal officials — although the DOB maintains that they did end up prosecuting the building owners for negligence. And while New York City has the oldest continual façade ordinance in the country, nearly 70,000 buildings across 50 metropolitan centers do not currently require the same level of inspection.
It’s with this level of optimism that some Hell’s Kitchen residents are (temporarily) embracing the neighborhood’s newest sidewalk sheds. “At least it’s this new, more attractive scaffolding,” said Aleta LaFargue, referencing Urban Umbrella’s futuristic, recycled steel and plastic sidewalk sheds that even sometimes include decorative LED lighting. And down the street, the addition of traditional scaffolding at the Matthews-Palmer Playground mural signals hope of a new life for some of the neighborhood’s most-beloved art.
Said Zachary Schmahl, owner of Schmackary’s where the newest structure appeared: “At least it’s tall scaffolding! We’ll try to do our best to integrate it into our storefront design. We’ll do our best!!!”