For years, residents of the city have been looking at levels of large metal-and-wood structures obstructing their views and detracting from the architecture of their workplaces. Some forms of the composition remain standing for a few weeks, while others become multiyear props that stir controversy among community members.
Often referred to as “sidewalk sheds,” the structures are erected over sidewalks to shield pedestrians from falling debris caused by building construction. According to the city Department of Buildings, the sheds are temporary structures meant to keep sidewalks open for pedestrians while structures undergo renovations.
Residents of Queens are quite familiar with them.
According to an interactive online map released in April by the DOB, the borough has 961 active sheds that stretch over 240,000 linear feet. As of Monday, it was noted that each shed is up for an average of 371 days. But many remain in place for several years.
Some note that they’re unattractive. Others cite the purpose they serve.
“You have to be able to protect pedestrians,” said Beverly McDermott, president of the Kissena Park Civic Association. “It’s [the building owner’s] right to protect and inspect. Whoever is doing the work has the right to put these up.”
McDermott, who has lived in her Community Board 7 neighborhood for the majority of her 74 years, said she understands the frustrations of both the building owners and residents about the scaffolding. Tenants can’t assume that landlords know everything, she said, and landlords don’t often take initiative to prevent problems.
“I think sometimes contractors sign on to as many contracts as they can, and then they have to do them piecemeal because they don’t have construction crews to finish everything,” McDermott said. “Financially, they have to buy supplies. Then, they can’t get the supplies they need and they don’t have backup.”
According to CB 5 Chairman Vincent Arcuri, building owners pay two-thirds of the total cost up front to have the sheds put up. Monthly rental fees account for the penultimate payments, with the final third coming once the scaffolding is taken down.
Arcuri, who worked construction for four decades, said the biggest complaints he has heard from residents about the sheds relate to safety. Some are worried about the poor lighting and getting robbed. Others think problematic issues require immediate fixing, regardless of potential safety concerns.
“The plus part of having sheds up is protecting the public during construction,” Arcuri said. “The negative part for the local businesses on the ground floor is that they’re losing their visibility.”
The problem that Arcuri alluded to regarding businesses that occupy spaces on street level is how many parts of the low-hanging structures cover store names and block entryways, resulting in customers having trouble finding certain businesses.
Tom Grech, president and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, said most of the concerns he has heard don’t pertain to businesses, but rather the length of time the sheds stay up and how long they take to come down once construction finishes.
Despite the few complaints Grech has received, he reiterated that residents should stand behind the city’s efforts to rectify the issues with the structures.
“With nearly 1,000 of these sheds in Queens County, it’s imperative that we support the efforts from the Department of Buildings to facilitate their installation and removal as quickly as possible,” Grech said. “Again, like many things in New York City, it’s important to focus on enforcement of current rules and regulations regarding these sheds.”
Building owners across the city must comply with Local Law 11, which requires inspections of building exteriors that are over six stories tall, 60 percent of which are in Manhattan.
Once design professionals complete inspections, a building’s condition is placed into one of three categories: safe with no problems, safe with a repair and maintenance program or unsafe with problems that threaten public safety.
Buildings determined to have unsafe facades require sidewalk sheds. SWARMP designations require repairs within one to five years to prevent potentially unsafe conditions.
The area that Arcuri oversees has 52 reported sidewalk shed locations. Twenty of them are associated with large-scale construction projects or alterations, while 30 buildings are experiencing maintenance activity. The other two are categorized as SWARMP.
“A lot of the people who own these buildings do not act responsibly and they don’t start repairs before problems start,” McDermott said, citing why many buildings have severe damage.
Nearly two years ago, City Councilman Ben Kallos (D-Manhattan) introduced a bill that would require sheds to be taken down when construction is inactive. Councilman Bob Holden (D-Middle Village) has sponsored the bill, which was reintroduced this year after a new section was implemented.
The bill proposes that all unsafe conditions are corrected within 90 days of a critical examination report being filed. A commissioner may grant a 90-day extension upon review of the building’s progress.
“This is a safety issue, by and large,” Holden told the Chronicle. “We aren’t saying remove sidewalks sheds where buildings are unsafe, so there are exemptions of the law. There’s a balance.”
Holden said that he is confident that the bill will pass. Kallos, he said, is thorough in his thoughts and what he wants to see come of the proposal. He also said that he is a proponent of the bill and signed it because Holden himself proposed a bill similar to Kallos’. This one seems to be more active, as Holden said it “would probably pass.”
Holden also said that it’s important to look at parts of the city outside of Queens and problems they are having.
“We have a number of sites that have sidewalk sheds,” he said. “We have to take into account other boroughs. In Manhattan, they’re left without work being done.”
One he pointed out, on Chambers Street near Tweed Courthouse, has a shed that has caused traffic jams, especially with nobody working there.
“The shed is good as long as construction is going on,” Holden said. “It becomes a problem when it ceases.”
Over 8,000 sheds totaling more than 300 miles line the streets of the city. Close to 4,000 are in Manhattan due to the borough’s abundance of skyscrapers. They are listed at https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/buildings/html/sidewalk-shed-map.html.
As of now, Holden said, the bill is likely having its nuances discussed in the Committee on Housing and Buildings, which has jurisdiction over the DOB and Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
“Sidewalk sheds are like the once welcomed house guest that never leaves,” Kallos said when the bill was reintroduced. “While we need them for safety during construction, that construction must happen immediately, and then it’s time for that sidewalk shed to come down.”
For civic leaders such as McDermott, the conflicting views deal more with safety than anything else.
Above all, she said, that should be the top priority when determining whether or not sidewalk sheds are necessary.
The Rev. Ed McKay, the vice chairman of Community Board 12 in Southeast Queens, said that he has heard of a number of incidents in which residents feared for their safety. Poor lighting and blocked exits, he said, are just some of the complaints he has received.
“People are walking under tunnels and are not being able to get out because they are cornered,” McKay said of muggings. “The seniors are especially concerned.”
McKay said that the general consensus in the area is that the sheds are useful in protecting pedestrians during construction. While he agrees with the bill’s proposal of having equipment removed if there is no activity for seven consecutive days, McKay said that it’s better to remove the scaffolding as soon as possible.
“They have more drawbacks than they have positives, in my opinion,” he said. “Don’t let it be an eyesore. Do what you have to do and take it down.”
For now, or until or unless the legislation Holden supports wins approval, the ever growing controversy the city struggles with will leave leaders at a crossroads.
“It’s a very complex problem, and I think safety has to be taken into account,” McDermott said. “Anybody that’s ever been in an accident from debris falling has had their lives interrupted. They have lives, but they have trouble living with their legs in a cast or their neck in a brace.”