Jun 22, 2023
NYC embarks on crusade to combat scourge of scaffolding
Much like piles of smelly garbage, ubiquitous, janky sidewalk scaffolding has become a sight to horrify visitors and for New Yorkers to mostly glaze over, at least until some long-standing shed has
Much like piles of smelly garbage, ubiquitous, janky sidewalk scaffolding has become a sight to horrify visitors and for New Yorkers to mostly glaze over, at least until some long-standing shed has finally been removed after months or years and we can marvel at the light and building façades that we had forgotten were even there.
Let’s consider this a summer of New York’s rejuvenation then, because just as Mayor Adams’ administration has taken action on cleaning up some of the trash, it is now moving to wipe away some of the blight of forever scaffolding with measures to punish excessive use and find alternatives to the unsightly wood-and-metal structures.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams speaks during press conference in front of building located at 181 Seventh Avenue in the Chelsea area of Manhattan early Monday July 24, 2023. During the presser Mayor Adams unveiled “Get Sheds Down,” a sweeping overhaul of rules governing sidewalk construction sheds and scaffolding that will remove eyesores from city streets more quickly while redesigning and reimagining those that are needed. During the presser the Mayor held a instragram picture showing former President Donald Trump arriving at Manhattan Criminal Court covered by scaffolding. City Council Member Gail Brewer is pictured at left, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine is pictured at right next to the mayor. (Photo by: Luiz C. Ribeiro for New York Daily News) (Luiz C. Ribeiro/for New York Daily News)
The idea behind these sheds is defensible enough: New York City has a lot of buildings, many tall and often old, that tower over pedestrian-filled sidewalks below. During construction, and even just given the age and diminishing integrity of these façades, people are at risk of falling debris. So, if routine building inspections determine that this is a danger, buildings are required to put up scaffolding to safeguard the public.
Simple enough, except that the sheds were intended to be very temporary while landlords made repairs. In practice, many realized it was cheaper to just leave the sheds up indefinitely, to the point that some of them became dangers themselves (CBS New York now has a tag specifically for scaffolding collapses). It’s gotten so bad that over half of scaffolding remains up for longer than a year, accomplishing little but making our streets less welcoming and letting landlords — including the city — offload a core responsibility onto public space. As the mayor noted yesterday, the sheds would stretch to almost 400 miles if laid end-to-end.
Adams’ initiatives would expand the use of alternatives like netting and end the expectation of practically automatic scaffolding permit renewals for lazy landlords. Most of the actual impact of these plans will have to be measured by how they’re rolled out, particularly since a number of the most consequential planks will require new regulations and new legislation, largely based on Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine’s sensible recommendations earlier this year.
For example, actually imposing recurring financial penalties for prolonged scaffolding use will be one of the most effective tools to change the incentives for building owners who see shirking on speedy repairs as just good business when it costs nothing to keep the sheds up, while propping up program of low-interest loans for building owners that legitimately can’t shore up the immediate capital for repairs. The roadmaps are there, City Hall and the Council now has to act on them.
In the meantime, we can’t complain about efforts to make the existing scaffolding more aesthetically pleasing, though it’s not altogether clear why the Department of Buildings has to embark on a process of selecting a new, more contemporary design for sheds when former Mayor Bloomberg already had such a contest to much fanfare in 2010. Still, if the city can find something that offers good protection and low maintenance costs and looks better than the winning Urban Umbrella design, have at it, but we should take care not to make it so nice that we consider it mission accomplished to keep those up.