New York Times New York Has 280 Miles of Scaffolding, and a Map to Navigate It by Winnie Hu
The big blue dot on the map is not a subway stop, historical site or destination restaurant.
Instead, it is another New York City landmark: scaffolding.
The dot marks a wood-and-steel frame covering the front of a long-unfinished project on a brownstone-lined block in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. The permit for it was issued by the city’s Buildings Department in January 2006, and it is now the oldest such scaffolding in New York, according to department records.
The 11-year-old scaffolding is on a new map developed by the Buildings Department that displays more than 7,700 similar structures currently parked in front of city buildings. Many of them have been up for years with officials sometimes having no idea when they will come down, or, in some cases, if they are even needed anymore.
Though intended to protect passers-by from falling debris, these eyesores known as sidewalk sheds have often become a blight, drawing a barrage of complaints from residents and businesses that they block light and views, attract crime and litter and impede foot traffic along congested sidewalks.
“It becomes part of the city landscape; you dodge it every day,” said Kwanele Mpanza, 34, a real estate agent who lives around the corner from the aging Park Slope scaffolding. “As a user of the city, it makes it more difficult to get where you need to go. It’s an additional obstacle.”
A forest of scaffolding has covered sidewalks in recent years, and city officials have come under growing criticism for not doing enough to police the fixtures.
Now the City Council is considering legislation targeting scaffolding that stays too long, while the Buildings Department is taking a more aggressive approach. It has taken stock of scaffolding and created an online system to better track the structures at a time when there are more of them than ever as older buildings need work and a construction boom produces more towers. In a sweep last year, building inspectors checked every piece of scaffolding and while most needed to remain for safety, about 150 were ordered dismantled because work had been finished.
The new map marks every building with scaffolding with a color-coded dot showing why the structures went up: red for buildings deemed unsafe, light blue for repairs, dark blue for new construction and green for maintenance work. Clicking on a dot reveals more details, including the date a permit was first approved. The older the scaffolding, the larger the dot.
“It synthesizes the enormous amount of information we have,” said Rick D. Chandler, the city’s buildings commissioner. “We sit on an ocean of data.”
Mr. Chandler said the online system would help the department direct enforcement measures in specific neighborhoods and help identify illegal structures that went up without a permit. By the end of the year, permits for sidewalk sheds will be accepted online and the database will be updated as structures go up or come down.
The system makes the department’s efforts more transparent by providing ready access to data about scaffolding that could be found only by searching two or more of the department’s databases, a time-consuming process even for those who knew where to look.
Still, Mr. Chandler acknowledged that these efforts would not necessarily mean that scaffolding would come down sooner. “We’re erring on the side of safety to keep them in place so no one gets hurt,” he said.
The city began requiring scaffolding as part of a 1980 city law that established regular inspections of building facades. The City Council passed the law after Grace Gold, a Barnard College student, was killed by a piece of terra cotta that fell from a 1912 apartment house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Today, there are about 280 miles of sidewalk scaffolding in front of 7,752 buildings, according to the Buildings Department.
But in some cases, scaffolding that was intended to be temporary has lingered for years as construction stalls or repairs remain unfinished. City buildings officials do not set a specific deadline for owners to make repairs and take down scaffolding, and can issue violations only if the work is not completed — leaving what many critics have called a gaping loophole that allows scaffolding to stay up indefinitely.
In Midtown Manhattan, where scaffolding covers block after block, the structures have been a longstanding source of frustration, said Wally Rubin, the district manager for Community Board 5. They take up space on some of the city’s most crowded corridors and encourage loitering and homeless encampments near Pennsylvania Station and other places.
While Mr. Rubin said the city’s new scaffolding database would be useful, he added that it did not go far enough to address the problem. “As long as building owners find it cheaper and easier to keep up a sidewalk shed, rather than remedy the dangerous building conditions that make sheds required, the many problems that are caused by these ubiquitous sidewalk sheds will never be solved,” he said.
City Councilman Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side, said he was “underwhelmed” by the building department’s efforts, adding that it will do little to address scaffolding that has overstayed its welcome. “We already know how big a problem it is, and unless the city is willing to take steps to get the scaffolding down, it doesn’t matter,” he said.
Mr. Kallos has proposed legislation that would give a building owner three months to repair a facade, with the possibility of a three-month extension, so that scaffolding can be removed within six months of going up, or sooner when no work is being done. The legislation has drawn support from many residents and business groups, including the New York State Restaurant Association and the New York City Hospitality Alliance.
But it has been opposed by many building owners who say they do not always have the money to make repairs or finish projects right away. Frank Ricci, the director of government affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 building owners and managers, suggested that the city could instead relieve the burden on building owners by focusing facade inspections on the front of the buildings, and conducting them less frequently for other sides that do not face public spaces. “Then owners might have more resources to address the critical areas sooner and the bridgework could come down,” he said.
City buildings officials said legislation would be required to change inspection requirements and noted that the majority of sidewalk scaffolding comes down within one to two years.
In Park Slope, the scaffolding at 277 First Street has stood so long that it has outlasted some of its critics, who have died or moved away. It covers the front of a nearly 15,000-square-foot modern glass-and-concrete building that was once planned as a couple’s dream home, complete with a swimming pool and a car elevator, neighbors say. But it was never finished.
The building was sold in November to a developer, 277 1st Street Ventures, which is turning it into a six-unit condominium. The developer said it expects to complete construction — and remove the scaffolding — by late summer.
Some neighbors cannot wait. For years, they have put up with an unwanted guest that has dripped water on their heads and sheltered rats and other vermin. Chris Ferrara, 44, a program director at the Pratt Institute, said his wife stomps her feet and claps her hands loudly whenever she has to walk under the scaffolding.
John Fracet, 56, a handyman, said the scaffolding attracted drug dealers and other criminals. He said a woman was mugged last year while walking past the scaffolding. “It gets to the point where you just want to go over there with a few guys and pull it down,” he said.
Mr. Fracet said that he and many other neighbors have repeatedly complained about the scaffolding. Nothing ever happened.
“Come on, how much work can you do?” he said. “I mean, what are they putting in there, gold window frames?”