Coping With Sidewalk Sheds
Scaffolding and sidewalk sheds are a permanent part of life for New Yorkers, some of whom have come up with creative ways to embrace their presence.
New York City pedestrians are used to dodging, ducking, looking away from unsightly and inconvenient sheds that litter city sidewalks. Some of these "temporary structures" stay up for years, some for decades. Some New Yorkers are coming up with new ideas. -- Twitter photo from @MarkLevineNYC
Sidewalk sheds and scaffolding structures are a permanent part of city life for New Yorkers. And as Union-Built Matters reported last month, scaffolds are the leading locale of injury and death for construction workers; accidents involving them result in about 60 deaths, and more than 4,000 injuries, every year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year alone, five logged construction worker deaths in New York City involved falls from scaffolding. Most of these incidents occur on non-union sites that sidestep safety measures in order to cut costs and speed up project timelines.
Before the construction of scaffolding—temporary structures made out of wooden planks and metal poles, which are put up outside of buildings so that workers can use them to build, repair, or clean buildings—sidewalk sheds must be erected. As the Department of Buildings (DOB) explains, scaffolds and sidewalks sheds “serve very different purposes and are not interchangeable.” Sheds sit on the sidewalk beneath an under-construction or deteriorating building to protect the public from falling debris, like deteriorating masonry or dropped construction material.
The DOB maintains an interactive sidewalk shed map displaying actively permitted sheds throughout the city; as of press time, there are 9,077, though the number changes every day.
Some "temporary" sheds seems to stay up forever. One in Harlem has stood in place since 2006.
Sheds often create sidewalk obstacle courses for pedestrians. -- Twitter photo from @MarkLevineNYC
A New York Nuisance
Despite the deadly danger that scaffolding poses to construction laborers, the general public is, perhaps, largely unaware of this and usually regards scaffolding as an eyesore and sidewalk sheds as a nuisance (plus, for New Yorkers whose apartment buildings are shrouded in scaffolding, an invasion of privacy and a lifestyle disruptor). As the Post stated last summer, other large cities like New York don’t have “miles-on-end of sidewalk tunnels” and are not, in fact, “overwhelmed with victims of falling debris.”
Plus—some of the sheds seem to stay up forever in New York City. According to reportage by the Times, the city rules that residential buildings taller than six stories must conduct a thorough facade inspection every five years and make any necessary repairs (due to Local Law 11). But rather than complete the required repairs and disassemble the scaffold, many building owners or landlords opt to go the cheaper route of waiting until the next city inspection approaches, while they ignore violations. Any fines for delays to facade repairs are probably cheaper than completing tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of fixes. Consequently—the sheds remain.
An interactive map shows where sheds exist in New York City, how big they are and how long they've been there. https://www.nyc.gov/assets/buildings/html/sidewalk-shed-map.html
One New York City pedestrian compared the act of navigating city sheds with spelunking. -- Twitter photo from @MarkLevineNYC
Making The Most of An Eyesore
Some New York buildings have made efforts to spruce up sidewalk sheds and scaffolds, making their imposition more pleasant for pedestrians. As the Times put it in a 2021 article: “Construction sheds are a necessary evil, meant to protect workers and passers-by. But recent efforts have reimagined them as experiential installations.” That same year, Citrovia—an immersive installation that featured giant handcrafted lemon trees—went up near Penn Station under a construction shed at the bottom of a site being assembled by Brookfield Properties, whose marketing team said that while sidewalks sheds are usually a “deterrent” to pedestrians , “this was an opportunity to turn that on its head.”
Over the years, there have been various other attempts to “beautify” scaffolding across the city, including some construction sites having murals painted across scaffolding side fixtures. This has been the case on 47th Street and Park Ave., where the block-long J.P. Morgan & Chase building construction is underway. And, New York has also been witness to some creative holiday displays that utilize scaffolding; Tiffany & Co. on 57th Street and Fifth Ave (which has stated its updates will be completed in April) turned a sidewalk shed on its corner into a dreamy passageway with a cloud-covered ceiling.
Workers assemble Citrovia, an under-shed art experience. -- New York Times
There are also the everyday restaurants or businesses that cover the tops and sides of the sheds in faux vine or flower chains, or with fairy lights that give the illusion of a twinkling tunnel, turning what was once an eyesore into an aesthetically pleasing moment.
Some newer scaffolding companies got their start with an aim to provide structures that are upscale and more visually appealing than the usual wood-and-metal situations. Urban Umbrella, for one, brands itself as a design-forward “premier scaffolding design alternative.” The company became a “game-changer” for New York, as Matthew Bauer—president of Madison Avenue Business Improvement District—told Business Wire in 2021. “It takes what was a necessary element of the New York City streetscape and not a particularly welcome one—scaffolding—and turns it into an amenity,” he said. Urban Umbrella structures can even come equipped with LED lighting and decorative elements, though this makes it a more costly scaffolding option for building owners. (Bloomberg delved into Urban’s operations last year, noting that the brand focuses on partnerships with “elite” retailers and venues.)
Several restaurants with sidewalk seating are seeking the help from Urban Umbrella to make the space more pleasant. -- Courtesy of Urban Umbrella
A Plan To “Shed the Sheds”
Despite the miles and miles of red tape that allow buildings to keep sidewalk sheds and scaffolding up for years on end (the oldest scaffolding structure in New York City, located at 409 Edgecomb Avenue, near 155th Street in Harlem, has reportedly been up since 2006), there is a plan in action to deal with them. As Time Out reported earlier this month, Manhattan borough president Mark Levine and City Councilmember Keith Powers recently released a report titled “Shed the Shed,” which contains their recommendations for dismantling sidewalk sheds across the city.
“Sidewalk sheds play an important role in keeping New Yorkers safe from falling debris and equipment on New York City streets,” the report, which Levine also detailed in a Twitter thread, begins. “But across the city, these sheds, built to comply with local law inspection and repair requirements, are too often left up for months, or even years.” Some of Levine and Powers’ recommendations include implementing an “accelerator program,” streamlining the permit process for façade work, directing fines/penalties at buildings that fail to complete construction work in a timely manner, and creating a task force to supervise everything. Only time will tell if these local officials succeed with their agenda to free up sidewalk space in the city.
The shed at 409 Edgecomb Avenue in Harlem has been up since 2006.
Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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