Anyone who has walked in New York’s central areas has seen sheds enshrouding many of the city’s sidewalks. The sheds constrict pedestrian space, impair visibility onto the street, and block views of historic buildings. Several shed collapses, moreover, have occurred in recent years, injuring several pedestrians. A New York Times article from 2014 even noted that some scaffolds have become magnets for antisocial behavior such as drug dealing.
Though sidewalk sheds might give the impression of a city perpetually under construction, most have nothing to do with construction. They exist, rather, thanks to New York City’s unique and unusually costly requirements for inspecting and maintaining building façades, including buildings that pose little risk of façade disintegration. New York City’s Local Law 10, passed in 1980, requires that building owners conduct regular inspections of the façades of all buildings of six or more stories—with exceptions for those sufficiently far back from public walkways—every five years. A successor, Local Law 11 in 1998, made these regulations even more stringent by requiring inspections close-up rather than from a distance with binoculars.
These inspections can be expensive. One 2016 article in a magazine for housing co-op managers estimates that costs can range from “a few hundred thousand dollars to more than a million.” Some specific architectural features, such as balconies, can make buildings far more expensive to examine: inspections are usually conducted by dropping scaffolds from the roof (though alternatives such as boom trucks can work in some circumstances), and balcony railings cannot be inspected from scaffolds; inspectors must instead check every balcony individually. Sidewalk sheds owe their existence to a provision in the city’s Building Code that requires building owners to put up a sidewalk shed underneath. Setting the sheds up is a considerable expense: Stephen Valone and Peter Varsalona, two executives at the New York City–based repair and renovation firm Rand Engineering & Architecture, estimate installation costs of about $100 per linear foot, plus ongoing maintenance costs of about 5 percent of that sum per month. For buildings taller than 100 feet, moreover, sidewalk sheds must further extend 20 feet in front of neighboring buildings whose owners can demand “license fees” (which can be typically $1,200 to $1,500 per month).
If inspections uncover any potentially unsafe conditions, then the sidewalk sheds have to be left up until repairs have been finished—which can be a long time. As Valone and Varsalona note, “Winter shutdowns and project delays are normal for most exterior repair programs.” A 2018 report from the New York Times claims that of the 8,249 sidewalk sheds (totaling 303 miles) then extant, 455 of them, or 5.5 percent, had been up for more than three years. A further 2,363, more than one-third, had been up between one and three years. Some sheds have been left up for several years outside the buildings of churches and other nonprofit organizations that simply don’t have the money to make mandatory fixes.
Unlike many other cities’ façade-maintenance requirements, New York’s regulation makes no allowances for building age or materials—even though newer buildings have far lower risk of façade disintegration, and particular materials such as terra cotta pose a much worse danger than others. Chicago’s façade ordinance, for instance, divides buildings into four classes based on their materials: those in the safest class must be inspected only every twelve years. Building owners in Chicago who conduct briefer examinations every two years, which can be carried out at a distance, can also skip the more expensive up-close inspections. Some other cities also require façade inspections only for older buildings: for instance, Cincinnati mandates façade inspections only for buildings over 15 years old. There’s ample reason, in short, to doubt Local Law 11’s utility (except, of course, to vendors of sidewalk sheds): many other dense cities manage to keep pedestrians safe with far less onerous requirements. Though no organization keeps systematic statistics on pedestrian fatalities from falling façades, such accidents don’t seem less common in New York than elsewhere.
Fortunately, the problem has simple solutions. City regulations requiring sidewalk sheds to be built under façades in disrepair, for instance, could be broadened to allow lightweight, low-visual-impact netting instead—a solution that also spares pedestrians from the risk of injury from a sidewalk-shed collapse. The need for sidewalk sheds during inspections is questionable in any case—other cities do fine without any such provisions—and New York could safely allow longer inspection cycles for newer buildings built with safer materials. The city Department of Buildings is currently studying a proposal to allow inspections with camera-equipped drones rather than via direct human inspection, obviating scaffolds altogether. These reforms would reduce needless expenses at no cost to safety. They would also make the city a better place to live.
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