Scaffolding in NYC: Protection or Potential Danger? Proposed Legislation Would Remove Sidewalk Sheds

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It’s pretty much impossible these days to walk anywhere in New York City -- Manhattan in particular -- without walking under scaffolding, otherwise known as sidewalk sheds. Made up of steel pipes and heavy-duty plywood, the 'sheds' are set up to protect pedestrians from any debris that might fall from overhead construction, renovation, or required façade work. Ironically, many New Yorkers aren't big fans of these protective sheds, calling them eyesores. In fairness, these scaffolds can pose problems, including providing cover for street crime, attracting encampments of homeless residents, and even sometimes collapsing, causing the very kind of injury they were meant to prevent.

How This All Started

The genesis of scaffolding as a permanent fixture on New York City’s streets goes back to 1979 when Grace Gold, a student at Barnard College, was killed by falling terracotta tiles from a building façade on the Upper West Side. The legislative result of her death was Local Law 10, which required buildings of six stories or more to conduct regular inspections of their front-facing facades every five years. That was replaced by Local Law 11 in 1998, which extended the inspection requirement to all facades, and imposed a requirement for protective scaffolding to be erected around buildings requiring facade work. In the 20-plus years since, scaffolding has become a fact of life on pretty much every block in every neighborhood.

How long scaffolding remains up around a given building is less clear-cut than the inspection law itself.  While Local Law 11 requires protective scaffolding to remain until repairs are made and properties are re-inspected, it does not mandate a time period in which the repairs must be made. Because the cost of façade repairs can be so onerous, many landlords will just keep the sheds around their properties indefinitely, rather than complete the repairs. 

Proposed Legislation

In the intervening years, with the threat of death-by-falling-debris receding from memory, many New Yorkers had had enough of the ubiquitous scaffolding, and the dirt and other problems they associated with the sheds. Incidents in both Manhattan and Queens where sheds have collapsed and injured pedestrians unlucky enough to have been walking under them -- including one on a SoHo street in November 2017, injuring five -- have not helped. 

In October of 2017, Ben Kallos, City Council Member for District Five introduced legislation to change the current dynamic. The legislation would require building owners to fix dangerous conditions within 90 days of inspection, with one 90-day extension available. If nothing is done to correct the dangerous condition within 180 days, the City would do the work themselves, and bill the landlord or building owner. And If construction work does not commence within seven days, the landlord or owner would be mandated to remove the shed or face heavy penalties.

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