The Real Deal New York

City hidden behind 189 miles of scaffolds: OPINION

Temporary structures now a permanent fixture on NYC landscape

September 02, 2014 03:20PM
By James Gardner

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Scaffolding outside 175 Fifth Avenue, St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st streets and 881 Seventh Avenue

Scaffolding outside 175 Fifth Avenue, 460 Madison Avenue and 881 Seventh Avenue

By coincidence, two articles have appeared nearly simultaneously on the website of the New York Times having to do with the scaffolding sheds that, since the end of the 1990s, have become ubiquitous in New York City, and especially in Manhattan. In one of these articles, the reporter provides a photo montage of eight prominent New York structures that are covered, wholly or in part, by scaffolding, among them St Patrick’s Cathedral, the Empire State Building, Carnegie Hall and the Flatiron Building. In the process, the reporter passes on the astounding fact that fully 189 miles of New York City streets have scaffolding.

The second article concerns the building where Mayor Bill de Blasio spent a night last summer to learn what it was like to live in the projects. For the last four years, the property has had half a mile of scaffolding around it. De Blasio made a campaign promise that, if elected, he would bring the scaffolding down. Now, apparently it is coming down.

But neither article addressed some bigger picture questions. The reporter for the first story seems to accept that all scaffolding it necessary to protect the citizens. Some surely is, but all 189 miles of it? As for the other article, it seems never to engage the main point: Why were the sheds needed in the first place, and how much work got done once the scaffolds were in place?

I have always hated these sheds, but mainly as a pedestrian. Four years ago, however, I bought a place on the Upper West Side and came to realize that each time you see a scaffolding shed, you are seeing a building where all units are compelled to pay about $5,000 a year to have work done that is said to provide protection for those on the street. In the four years that I have owned my property, there has been scaffolding up about half the time. For the past year, the entire building has been wrapped in dark fabric. I’m not sure why.

Indeed, it’s unclear to me what inadequacies exist in the building, or why they necessitate the construction of scaffolding and other structures on the building’s exterior. The building that I see out my window was completed 5 years ago and has had scaffolding twice in the time that I have lived on that block.

As for pedestrians, it is unlikely that they will ever again be able to look in any direction, certainly before 150th Street in Manhattan, without seeing scaffolding. I have been covering New York architecture for the past 15 years and have written about hundreds of buildings. But all the new buildings that have gone up are not really the story. The biggest and most dramatically visible change the city has sustained in that period is the 189 miles of scaffolding that clutter our sidewalks.

  • observer

    I’m surprised Local Law 11 never gets mentioned in this whole discussion. It requires facades to be inspected and (more often than not) subsequently repaired every couple of years. For the owners, it is cheaper to leave up a scaffolding for years and push out the repairs; this practice is also considered as Local Law 11 compliant.

  • http://www.nakedurbanism.com Naked Urbanism

    You’re right. The ubiquitous scaffolds are making New York look like a Third World country. Think downtown Havana.

    The reality is that the buildings in New York are aging before our eyes, and the old adage that you don’t own old buildings as much as they own you was never truer than when discussing facades. NY wisely decided years ago that it is good public policy not to have chunks of buildings falling on pedestrians, especially after we had a couple of fatal incidents. That led to LL #11; in an inspired move, NY made the inspecting architects and engineers responsible (and liable) virtually guaranteeing that every building needs some work in every cycle. So when the inspection is done, a repair program follows and with it the shed. Not much you can do there as the public safety trumps everything.

    On the other hand, there are those owners who decide that putting up a shed is cheaper than actually fixing their buildings. It seems like there should be some way to put an end to that kind of abuse of our public spaces.

  • DanM

    The only one to raise these issues before this article was a heckler quoted in Newsday who shouted “But the bricks ain’t fixed” at the Mayor during his press conference. One assumes that the next headline will be about the Mayor receiving a violation for violating Local Law 11 or being arrested when a brick falls and injures someone. Clearly, the right action would have been to investigate why the sheds were there, whether any required work was done, and, if not, why not and who is responsible?

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