New York Times Sidewalk Scaffolding, the Unwanted Neighbor, Is Under Scrutiny by Winnie Hu
The scaffolding went up six years ago in front of a rundown apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was supposed to be temporary, to keep loose bricks and debris from raining down.
Only it has never come down.
Instead, needed building repairs went undone and the covered steel-and-wood frame has become a daily nuisance — like the guest who never left. It is not just an eyesore, but also a magnet for trash, pigeons and their droppings and patrons from a bar next door who treat it like their private porch and leave behind chicken bones, cigarette butts and dirty napkins.
“It’s really disgusting,” said Jane Foss, 74, a retired nurse who lives in the scaffolded building on Second Avenue. “And there’s nothing you can do about it.’’
Lingering scaffolding has become an annoying visitor across New York City, fueled in part by the city’s aging building stock and a construction boom that has created an abundance of residential and commercial spaces. In many neighborhoods, the metal-and-wooden structures have become a despised fixture, contributing to sidewalk congestion and trash problems, hurting local businesses and attracting homeless people seeking shelter and drug dealers and others up to no good.
Now a new City Council bill aims to target the ubiquitous scaffolding, requiring that the structures be taken down within six months of going up, or sooner when no work is being done. The bill seeks to rectify a glaring weakness: While the city knows when scaffolding goes up, critics say it does a poor job of ensuring that it has not been kept up for an unreasonable length of time. City officials say scaffolding ensures public safety and must remain as long as buildings need work.
Robert Feiner, 53, an advertising sales consultant who is on the board of his co-op on East 74th Street in Manhattan, said the building across the street had scaffolding up for at least four years for work on its facade. The scaffolding finally came down last summer.
“Unless you’re building the Taj Mahal and using hand tools, it shouldn’t take that long for facade work,” he said, adding that during that time, a nearby high-rise tower was built from the ground up.
The city began requiring scaffolding as part of a 1980 city law that established regular inspections of the facades of buildings. The City Council passed the law after Grace Gold, a Barnard College student, was killed in 1979 by a piece of terra cotta that fell from an apartment house built in 1912 at 115th Street and Broadway in Manhattan.
Today, scaffolds, which are also known as sidewalk sheds, have proliferated. A total of 6,667 permits were issued for new structures in 2015, up from 1,016 in 1990, according to city building records. The largest number of permits, 2,938, was for projects in Manhattan, followed by Brooklyn with 2,069 and Queens with 889.
Currently, the city’s Buildings Department does not set a specific deadline for owners to make repairs and take down sidewalk sheds, and can issue violations only if the work is not completed. City building officials said they did not have the legal authority to do the work for a private building owner, except in an emergency situation when the building is in danger of collapsing.
In Lower Manhattan, where there has been a flurry of construction, sidewalk sheds have become a sore spot. Anthony Notaro, the chairman of the community board that represents the area, said he knew of at least a dozen scaffolds that had been up for more than two years, in some cases with no visible building work being done. “People know now what route to take to stay out of the rain because the sheds have been up for so long,” he said.
The new bill will be introduced Tuesday by Councilman Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side. If passed, it would give a building owner three months, with the possibility of a three-month extension, to make repairs to a facade so that scaffolding can be removed in a timely manner. If the work is not completed in that time, the city will step in to do it, and charge the owner for the work. The proposal would allow exceptions for factors such as bad weather, permit delays or in cases where removing scaffolding would be deemed dangerous to public safety.
“A specific timeline for landlords to get the work done will finally work toward holding someone accountable for scaffolding that goes up and never comes down,” Mr. Kallos said.
While the bill is likely to draw support from many residents and businesses, it faces strong opposition from many building owners. Carl Hum, a senior vice president for the Real Estate Board of New York, a leading real estate trade group with more than 17,000 members, said the proposal was “ill conceived and should be reconsidered.”
Frank Ricci, the director of governmental affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 building owners and managers, said that owners sometimes do not have the money on hand to make costly repairs.
“Nobody wants to leave up sidewalk sheds for longer than they have to,” Mr. Ricci said. “The bottom line is sometimes it’s cheaper, and safer, to leave up the sidewalk sheds than to do the repairs because the repairs can go into millions of dollars.”
Kenneth J. Buettner, the president of York Scaffold Equipment Corporation in Long Island City, Queens, said scaffolding that stays up for many years was the exception. “Unfortunately, there are times when sidewalk sheds remain in place for protracted periods of time because owners are dallying either intentionally or because of internal problems,’’ he said.
Building owners often have no choice but to leave up sidewalk sheds, even when there is no construction going on. Under city law, a shed is required for any building whose facade could pose a danger. Timothy Hogan, the deputy commissioner of enforcement for the buildings department, said that when building workers went out to inspect all 7,700 buildings with sidewalk sheds during a one-time sweep in January, they found that less than 2 percent could be taken down.
The department requires building owners to obtain a permit to erect a sidewalk shed and to renew the permit annually until work is completed. The department will inspect the sheds for safety when it receives complaints or in special cases such as when a car hits a shed. It will give owners 48 hours to make needed repairs, and if the owners do not comply, it will have the repairs done at the owners’ expense.
Joseph Soldevere, a spokesman for the Buildings Department, said that the department was reviewing Mr. Kallos’s proposal. “While the councilman’s bill is well intentioned, this is a tough problem,” he said.
Mr. Kallos said he sponsored the bill because he had received many complaints about scaffolds. He passes under them every day to get to his own home, and his “pet peeve” is getting dripped on by water — or something worse. “I was irritated by the fact that everywhere I went in the city, there was scaffolding,” Mr. Kallos said. “It’s one thing to put it up for safety, it’s another to just leave it up without doing any work.”
The sidewalk sheds can also cover signs for local stores or drive away foot traffic. At Eva’s Garden Florist on the Upper East Side, which sits on a block covered by scaffolding, some of the flower displays have withered away because the scaffolding blocks out the sunlight. Nick Vlahos, 49, the owner, said he had also lost potential customers who did not like to walk under scaffolding. “Business goes down and it’s a nuisance,” he said. “It’s very frustrating.”
Ms. Foss, the Second Avenue resident, said she hoped the bill, if passed, could finally get rid of the scaffolding at her doorstep. The financially troubled building was acquired by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development in 2003, and assigned to an interim owner, Neighborhood Restore, while the department looks for someone to buy and rehabilitate it.
“Would you want to live under scaffolding?” she said. “It’s been up for six years and it’s time for it to come down.”