If Mayor Eric Adams means business about “supercharging” the city economy, he can start by tearing down the Scaffold Jungle.
Not with bulldozers — but by drastically overhauling the Koch-era laws that spawned the monstrosities in the first place.
“Sidewalk bridges” — an Orwellian term for sidewalk tunnels — darken doorfronts, ruin businesses, harbor drug addicts and enable crime.
No other city in America — or anywhere — suffers such a blight. Today’s 9,000-plus sheds are triple as many as twenty years ago, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
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The Manhattan Institute’s City Journal this year cited New York’s “unique and unusually costly requirements for inspecting and maintaining building facades” even for “buildings that pose little risk of facade disintegration.”
Yet there’s no political impetus to minimize the harm the sheds bring while preserving their core safety mission.
Too many in government are chicken to demand wholesale alterations to the sheds-spawning diktats known as Local Law 10 and Local Law 11. They’re afraid they’ll be accused of letting innocent pedestrians die under an imaginary avalanche of tumbling debris.
Others are deeply invested in growing the shed business, which has done for scaffold merchants what Thanksgiving did for turkey farmers. Culprits include City Council members, the Department of Buildings, some landlords, construction unions, and legions of contractors, engineers and consultants.
Only the mayor has the clout to push for meaningful change.
The DOB calls the sheds a “necessity to protect New Yorkers from falling debris and buildings that have been allowed to fall into disrepair.” In fact they protect what’s become an $8 billion shed supply-and-enable sheds racket.
Other large cities don’t have anything like Gotham’s miles-on-end of sidewalk tunnels. Yet emergency rooms in Chicago, Philadelphia and London aren’t overwhelmed with victims of falling debris.
The DOB claims the majority of sheds are not for facade repairs, but “related to “construction and maintenance operations.”
Actual construction work — to put up a new building, for example, or major renovation to an existing one — certainly calls for sheds to protect the public.
But in every residential neighborhood, most sheds are there for routine facade-fixing jobs — whether or not any work is actually done. Some stand for years on end. They pose their own dangers. An audit last year by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that of 74 sheds surveyed, 45 percent had a total of 47 safety violations.
The DOB says it regularly inspects sheds that are up for five years — as if it’s perfectly normal for a shed to be in place for so long. Thanks for nothing!
Local Law 10, passed in 1980, followed a falling-debris accident that cost a Barnard student her life. It mandated inspections of every city building more than six stories high every five years. A later update, Local Law 11, toughened the requirements.
The five-year rule was the brainstorm of the all-powerful Board of Estimate. It consisted of zero engineers with actual knowledge of building dangers — but rather the mayor, comptroller, City Council president and five borough presidents, eager to convince the public they were taking action in the tragedy’s wake.
The Estimate Board was declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1989 and forced to cede most of its authority to the Council. Why must the Big Apple’s entire streetscape be hostage to rules set down by a long-defunct, discredited governmental body?
The laws don’t require sidewalk bridges for inspections. But the DOB requires them while any “construction” or “repairs” are in progress after inspections find “hazardous” conditions.
The problem is that almost every inspected building of brick, masonry or terra cotta soon falls under “repairs” — and under a sidewalk bridge.
The cruelest stroke is that all buildings more than 100 feet tall must extend bridges 20 feet in each direction beyond the property. This creates nightmares for neighbors who aren’t even party to the work.
The frustrated owner of a townhouse at 114 E. 62nd Street fruitlessly sued the adjacent co-op at 555 Park Ave., claiming its shed extension, which covered part of the townhouse windows, made it impossible to rent out apartments there.
The laws must be scrapped and rewritten to include at least three bold strokes.
First: dump the only-in-New York, iron-clad schedule that requires inspections and “repairs” every five years irrespective of how old buildings are or what materials they’re made from.
The one-size-screws-all rule ignores common-sense lessons of other cities which have different requirements for different types of buildings depending on their ages and materials.
For example, Chicago has four classes; those in the safest class need be inspected only every twelve years. Why can’t New York?
Number two: forbid rows of consecutive sheds when several buildings on a block are under repair at the same time — as on the east side of Park Avenue between East 61st and 62nd streets and many other sidewalks buried under endless, dark pedestrian tunnels.
Yes, allowing only one shed on the same side of a block at one time would mean postponing work on a second building until the first job is finished.
But the world won’t end. And delays won’t be long if the city kicks landlords’ butts to finish repair work promptly.
That means severely punishing landlords who let sheds stand indefinitely, rather than perform repairs. Current fines of $1,000 a month for leaving a shed up while no work is being done are peanuts compared to actual repair cost which can be up to $300,000.
City Council Member Ben Kallos launched a bill in 2016 that would have required landlords to finish repairs within six months — or make them pay the city to finish the job. It never came to a vote.
But even if the fines were multiplied by ten, the DOB is too under-staffed and under-funded to enforce them.
Mayor Adams vowed that to promote economic growth, he would tackle “dysfunction and contradictions in zoning and regulations.”
Getting rid of Local Laws 10 and 11 would be a great place to start.