Crain's New York A cure emerges for New York's epidemic of sidewalk sheds by Aaron Elstein
New York was a very different place in 1990. A record 2,645 people were murdered that year and a subway token cost $1.15. The Yankees finished in last place and Six Degrees of Separation was Broadway's hot new show. Meanwhile, a sidewalk shed was erected at the corner of West 115th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem.
Twenty-six years later, everything has changed—except the shed.
"It's a disgrace," said Dianne Howard, a real estate broker who lives nearby. "People loiter underneath, urinate in public. It's a blight."
Sidewalk sheds, the unattractive steel-and-wood structures that pop up anytime a building is being built, repaired or has been deemed unsafe, have spread across the city like kudzu during the past decade. As Crain's described in a cover story earlier this year, approximately 190 miles of them are devouring sidewalk space, cutting off sunlight and hurting businesses trapped underneath.
But at long last, there may be relief for exasperated New Yorkers.
On Tuesday, City Councilman Ben Kallos introduced a bill that would require sheds to be taken down if no work is done on the building above for seven days, with exceptions for weather and other issues. The legislation would close a loophole that allows landlords to keep dormant sheds up forever, so long as the city's Department of Buildings grants a permit, which it routinely does. The bill would also let the city do the work and bill the property owner.
Laurent Delly, who has lived near a shed that has stood since 2004 at the corner of West 123rd Street and Lenox Avenue, called the bill great news for the city. "We would be pleased with a tangible solution to this chronic issue, which has affected all of us as New Yorkers for years," he said.
The shed epidemic traces its origins to 1979, when 17-year-old Barnard College student Grace Gold was fatally struck on the head by falling masonry at the corner of Broadway and West 115th Street. A year later, the city enacted a law requiring owners of buildings higher than six stories to inspect their properties' street-facing façades every five years. If work was deemed necessary, a shed had to be installed to catch debris until city officials gave the OK. Later, the law was broadened to mandate inspections of side and rear façades, and later balconies. All that gave rise to an industry that generates $1 billion a year—$200 million for the street-level sheds and the rest for the scaffolding and the workers who repair the façades.
The inspection laws have unquestionably improved public safety. They've also created a problem by saddling landlords with higher repair bills than some can afford. When that happens, landlords have a shed installed and worry some other time about when it will come down.
That seems to explain why the shed at the corner of West 115th and Lenox has stood for 26 years. The shed surrounds a building owned by the nonprofit Lenox and Pennamon Housing Development Fund Corp., which acquired the property and two others in 2009 for $2.7 million. In early 2013, Howard said, the owner assured neighbors that repairs would be completed by that July and the shed would come down. Then they got word that renovations cost more than anticipated.
A person who answered the phone at Lenox and Pennamon referred questions to the building's management company, which didn't immediately respond.