They rob the city of sunlight and oxygen. They strip the avenues of their view corridors and the streetscape of its continuity. They undermine the street-grid system and engulf the treasured space of the sidewalk.
If that’s what they take away, what do they add? In a word, blight. They attract vermin and invite litter. They provide a secluded den for drug dealers and an impromptu bedroom and bathroom for the homeless.
Not only that, they create an obstacle course and an urban wind tunnel that impedes foot traffic, heightens congestion — and poses a physical barricade to shops and businesses that often drives away customers.
The scourge in question is the street scaffold, also known as the sidewalk shed. Billed as a “temporary” protective structure, it has morphed instead into a permanent feature of the city’s architecture.
Now, a bill has been reintroduced in the City Council that would, for the first time, mandate the removal of a giant chunk of the scaffolds that front 7,750 buildings and envelop more than 275 miles of city sidewalk.
Sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos, whose district on the Upper East Side is pockmarked by hundreds of sheds, the legislation would require a structure to be dismantled within six months of being erected — or in seven days if no work has been performed in that time.
Failure to complete necessary building repairs and demolish the nuisance structure after 180 days would call for the city to intervene, finish the job, take down the shed and bill the property owner for all costs, according to the language of the bill.
Built with planks, poles and a steel roof, the pop-up eyesores are designed to keep pedestrians safe as they pass beneath construction sites. But the structures typically stay put when a project is delayed for years, runs out of financing or encounters other stumbling blocks.
“Sidewalk sheds are like the once-welcomed house guest who never leaves,” Kallos said.
Addressing fellow City Council members on Wednesday, January 31, he termed scaffolding “my number one pet peeve.” The issue has long been one of his top priorities, and it was the last topic he brought up in his last appearance at City Hall before starting a six-week paid paternity leave.
“The scaffolding goes up, and it doesn’t come down — for months or years, even decades — all while no work is taking place,” he said. “Some scaffolding is almost old enough to vote!”
In cases where the city is forced to step in to remedy the problem, Kallos added, the solution is to “make bad landlords pay.”
The measure, which he first introduced in 2016, faced steep opposition at the time from the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents residential landlords, and the Real Estate Board of New York, which represents mostly large commercial property owners.
Both RSA and REBNY argued that it would place an unfair burden on building owners, and said that the majority of sidewalk scaffolding is taken down in roughly one to two years.
PAINFUL TOLL ON SMALL BIZ
Trade groups supporting the bill include the New York State Restaurant Association and the New York City Hospitality Alliance.
“Scaffolding that’s left up for months or years on end can devastate restaurants and bars,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the hospitality group. “It deters customers, reduces foot traffic and decimates sidewalk café business.”
The bottom line in many cases: Owners of the establishments are forced to reduce employee hours, lay off workers — and even shutter their businesses, Rigie said in a statement.
In Kallos’ first attempt to steer the bill to passage, he won support in 2017 from the Council’s Committee on Housing and Building. But it never advanced in the full Council.
Now, the legislative process starts all over again – at a time when hundreds of new sheds are going up amid a development boom and a robust construction-industry economy.
It’s hard to miss them: There are currently 3,510 scaffoldings installed throughout Manhattan, almost half of the citywide tally, according to data from the city’s Department of Buildings.
That includes 491 structures in Community Board 8 on the Upper East Side; 390 in CB7 on the Upper West Side; 302 in CB4, which takes in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen; and 245 in CB1, which runs from Tribeca to the Battery.
Among the West Side’s longtime street fixtures is a 90-foot length of scaffolding that has fronted 360 Central Park West — a 1929 Rosario Candela-designed limestone apartment building at West 96th Street — since October 2008.
Meanwhile, on the East Side, a 44-foot-long shed has stood outside 1850 Second Avenue, an apartment tower at 96th Street, since September 2009.
And right around the corner from Kallos’ district office, an unsightly 56-foot-long structure has fronted 1772 Second Avenue, an old tenement at 92nd Street, since August 2009.
“It’s like walking through an urban catacombs,” said Donald McCabe, a software consultant who lives off Second Avenue and passes under the two structures almost daily on his way to or from the 96th Street Q train station.
“It’s supposed to be 2018, but I still see beer cans and the occasional drug paraphernalia on the sidewalk,” McCabe said.