Impulsive reactions to the recent, horrific death of architect Erica Tishman — who was killed when a chunk of terra cotta fell from a building on Seventh Avenue in Midtown — threaten a worse scaffold scourge than already blights the city.
It should hardly be surprising that, in the tragedy’s wake, there are calls for more scaffolds to go up. Why shouldn’t we be protected from falling debris in a city full of old, tall and often ill-maintained structures?
Following Tishman’s death, the Department of Buildings immediately cited 1,300 buildings in need of immediate repairs and ordered “sidewalk bridges” for them.
But reason, not momentary emotion or anger, should decide what we do next. At stake is providing meaningful protection for New Yorkers, not just scaffolding for scaffolding’s sake.
Despite 8,000 sidewalk sheds spanning a total 300 miles already in place, city officials are clamoring only for more scaffolds. The frenzy will paper over the real problem: a chronically under-funded, understaffed and loosely managed DOB.
How neglected is this vital agency? The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has 19 times more inspectors proportionately for restaurants than the DOB does for the city’s million-plus buildings, based on a 2017 analysis I did of the agencies’ respective workforces.
It might seem insensitive to grumble about scaffolds so soon after an accident where a sidewalk bridge could have saved a woman’s life. But it’s crucial to grasp that lacking a scaffold was only one of several miscues at the site. Local Law 11 requires facade inspections every five years at structures taller than six floors.
The Seventh Avenue building was last inspected six years ago, and its owners ignored warnings by the toothless DOB in April 2018 to fix the crumbling facade and to install a scaffold.
Moreover, it is by no means clear that “sidewalk bridges” — which are really sidewalk tunnels — don’t cause more deaths and injuries than they prevent. Council Member Ben Kallos last January cited seven instances of people in the city injured by scaffold collapses since 2017.
In one case, Katherine Lefavre, then 34, was nearly killed when a “shed” collapsed at 568 Broadway in Soho in November 2018. The accident fractured the top model’s spine and required her to learn how to walk again.
Tishman’s tragedy notwithstanding, the Big Apple has not too few, but too many scaffolds. They harm stores and restaurants, invite squalor and scare off pedestrians who rightly fear to walk beneath them.
Worse: A Post investigation found some that have stood for 13 years so landlords can avoid high reinstallation costs every five years.
Their out-of-control proliferation has spawned an absurd spinoff industry — inspections of scaffolds themselves. Ridiculously, New York City mostly delegates shed inspections not to the DOB, but to the contractors who installed them.
Even so, it is unfair to dump all the blame on the DOB. The agency and its 1,870 full-time employees are absurdly under-budgeted at just $183 million in fiscal 2019, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
By comparison, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has 6,000 employees and a budget of $1.6 billion. Even the Department of Cultural Affairs gets more dough than DOB — $198 million this year.
With peanuts to work with, it is no wonder the DOB can only provide criminally haphazard inspection and enforcement.
A recent Post investigation found thousands of buildings with violations similar to the one that killed Tishman. A casual perusal of the DOB web site finds innumerable open violations of every type. Case in point: 129 Fulton St., a small building owned by the Coalition for the Homeless. After I wrote about its seemingly immortal sidewalk bridge a few weeks ago, a woman contacted me who was badly bloodied by sharp-edged scaffold poles three years ago — a hazard yet to be fixed.
The damage will only get worse until City Hall gives us a stronger DOB. Until then, we are at the mercy of scaffold companies that get rich providing them while doing little or nothing to keep the public safe.