New York City’s Everlasting Scaffolding

When Donald J. Trump returned to the criminal courthouse at 100 Centre Street last week, a familiar feature of the New York City streetscape was there to greet him: a steel-and-plywood parapet the color of a fake Christmas tree, propped over the sidewalk.

How long the protective barrier will remain up is anybody’s guess, but it surely will outlast the former president’s trial. And his current campaign for re-election. And, possibly, his second term, should he win in November.

In New York City, politicians come and go. But the sidewalk shed abides.

There are more than 8,500 sidewalk sheds along the city’s streets, according to records maintained by the Buildings Department. End to end, they would stretch from Manhattan to Montreal.

They are meant to be temporary, erected to shield pedestrians from falling debris while buildings are being constructed, inspected or repaired. But nearly 1,000 of the sheds have been in place for more than three years, city records show, enduring eyesores that can overshadow whole blocks. One shed on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx and another in the Wingate section of Brooklyn have stood since 2011, records show.

At many of those sites, no work is being done. The property owners put the sheds up to comply with local laws that some consider draconian and found that keeping them in place was less expensive than fixing their facades.

Neal Shoemaker’s storefront tour business in Harlem is sandwiched between two sheds, one of which has existed, on and off, for more than two decades. Mr. Shoemaker, a lifelong Harlem resident, said he believed it was one of the oldest in the city.

“It’s been up forever,” Mr. Shoemaker said. “There are not many people around who remember when it wasn’t there.”

Over the years, city officials have railed against the proliferation of sheds, saying they obscure businesses and foster illegal activity. But their desire for change has been constrained by regulations spurred by the death of a Barnard College freshman in 1979.

The student, Grace Gold, was just 17 when she was killed by a chunk of masonry that fell from a building on Broadway north of 115th Street. Laws enacted in the wake of that tragedy mandated periodic inspection of the facades of buildings taller than six stories. Conducting those inspections requires the erection of scaffolding and protections for people on the surrounding streets and sidewalks.

So, a scaffolding industry took root and spread across the city, made up of private inspectors and companies that provide and maintain the structures that loom overhead. In 2022, Bloomberg estimated that construction scaffolding was a $1 billion business in New York City. The industry has its own trade group, the Special Riggers Association, that lobbies city officials.

Changing the rules on scaffolding and sheds involves “navigating a complicated series of stakeholders and issues,” said Keith Powers, a city councilman from Manhattan. That accounts, he said, for “the hesitation for political actors to take this issue on in the past.”

But now, encouraged by Mayor Eric Adams’s full-throated exasperation at the persistence of the sheds, Mr. Powers and other council members are pressing a package of reforms. Some of the measures are aimed at reducing the number and longevity of the sheds by increasing fines and strengthening enforcement.

Others would make the sheds less daunting by requiring better lighting and allowing more variety in their appearance.

“Why not other colors?” Mr. Powers said. “Why not something that blends in more with the building that’s behind it?”

Since 2013, the building code has limited sheds to one shade: hunter green. But in recent years, exceptions have been made to add some style.

ArtBridge, a nonprofit organization in Chelsea, has been commissioning artists to adorn construction sites with murals and photographs. Last year at the Bushwick Houses in Brooklyn, senior residents collaborated with an artist, Dana Robinson, on a mural that wrapped across an expanse of scaffolding. This summer, other installations are planned for the Adams Houses and the Castle Hill Houses in the Bronx, said Stephen Pierson, the executive director of ArtBridge.

While legislation wends through the council, the Department of Buildings is pressing a campaign, labeled Get Sheds Down, that targets the longest-standing scaffoldings around the city.

So far, the department has arranged for the removal of more than 250 sheds that had been up for more than five years, said Yegal Shamash, the department’s chief structural engineer.

The department’s inspectors are cracking down on owners of properties where “no attempt is being made to fix the underlying conditions that necessitated the shed,” said Jimmy Oddo, the buildings commissioner.

In those cases, the department’s inspectors are making quarterly visits and issuing violations and assessing fines. “We try to get as much compliance as we possibly can,” said Rachel McDonald, who has the relatively new role of enforcement attorney for the sidewalk shed removal and litigation unit.

But some intractable situations wind up in criminal court, Ms. McDonald said. The city has been pressing a case for two years against Lenox Hill Hospital, which owns a building on Lexington Avenue where orders for repairs have been defied for years, she said.

Nearly 100 of the remaining longstanding sheds are on city property, Mr. Shamash said. One of the oldest sheds stood in front of the Queens County Supreme Court building for six years. But it was replaced by netting last summer after the Buildings Department informed property owners that, in some places, netting could be an acceptable alternative, Mr. Shamash said.

The Department of Citywide Administrative Services is scheduled to remove sheds from two of its other buildings this year and a third in 2025, Mr. Oddo said.

“I know the narrative is all sheds are bad,” Mr. Oddo said. But, he added, “Not all sheds are the same. A shed that goes up at new construction is a good thing,” because it signals economic activity.

Even an old shed can spur celebration. Mr. Shoemaker said he was no longer angry about the sheds on his block of Lenox Avenue in Harlem because work was being done at both sites.

“I see hard hats,” he said. “I see dumpsters getting filled. I see it happening every day.”

When those sheds finally come down, it will be a “sunshiny day,” Mr. Shoemaker said, over the Isaac Hayes tune he was sharing with his neighbors. “You hear that music? That’s the sound of a community coming back.”

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