What 280 Miles of Scaffolding Mean for NYC Pedestrians

New York City’s built environment is rich in many things, from architectural landmarks to award-winning parks. But one other famous (or infamous) staple of the cityscape tends to get a lot less love: scaffolding.

Scaffolding, and the sidewalk tunnels below them, are signs of a city in flux. But the structures aren’t always safe for pedestrians, especially when they’ve stood for years — or decades — outliving even the neighbors who complain about them.

A recent report from the New York City Department of Buildings takes aim at the city’s supply of scaffolding — the good, the bad and the falling apart. The report maps the facade conditions of roughly 14,000 buildings citywide. The good(ish) news is that the majority of facade inspection reports in the most recent filing were either rated in good condition or were in a repair and maintenance program. The not-so-great news, at least for some: Upward of 7,700 buildings in the city have that tunnel effect, what DOB refers to as a “sidewalk shed,” in front of them, for a total of about 280 miles.

(Credit: NYC DOB)

(Credit: NYC DOB)

“Sidewalk sheds are a necessary evil: They’re ugly, but they’re required by law to keep pedestrians safe,” Buildings Commissioner Rick Chandler said in a release.

According to The New York Times, the city began requiring scaffolding in 1980 after a college student was killed by a piece of terra cotta that fell from a renovation site in Manhattan.

But that safety measure has led to some practices that aren’t so safe. The Times notes: “City buildings officials do not set a specific deadline for owners to make repairs and take down scaffolding, and can issue violations only if the work is not completed — leaving what many critics have called a gaping loophole that allows scaffolding to stay up indefinitely.”

According to the DOB website, the new report is part of an ongoing series of improvements to its Facade Inspection Safety Program. Some changes include establishing a system for tracking inspection reports and mandating that any building filing a report indicating unsafe conditions make corrections within 90 days and install public protections. The department is also using GIS tools to aggregate data sets, historic maps and field reports to develop “risk profiles” for specific buildings.

(Credit: NYC DOB)

But those steps don’t go far enough according to some fed-up residents. Wally Rubin, the district manager for Community Board 5, told the Times that scaffolding takes up space on crowded sidewalks and encourages loitering and homeless encampments.

“As long as building owners find it cheaper and easier to keep up a sidewalk shed, rather than remedy the dangerous building conditions that make sheds required, the many problems that are caused by these ubiquitous sidewalk sheds will never be solved,” he told the newspaper.

The report features maps of all the known facades ranked by their safety status, and a breakdown of sidewalk sheds that shows how safe they are, as well as their age and size.

Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.

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Tags: new york cityurban designreal estatepedestrian safety