Shedding light on shade

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Buildings department maps scaffolding citywide


  • More than 7,500 sidewalk sheds shade New York City, mostly in Manhattan. A new map gives a better picture of the size and safety purposes of these common features. Photo: Steven Pisano, via Flickr

On West 29th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, one structure stands out in a row of multi-colored, five-story buildings.

Number 339 is shrouded in scaffolding and sheltered at the street level by 22 linear feet of sidewalk shed. The permit for that cluster of wood, steel and other material was issued almost a decade ago, in December 2007. While it’s possible that the shed and scaffolding were taken down at some point over the last 10 years, a Department of Buildings spokesperson said, it is “overwhelmingly likely” that the structures have been up since their initial assembly.

A new map engineered by the department charts that edifice and thousands of others — and confirms what for New Yorkers is a truism: sidewalk sheds are everywhere. As of Feb. 1, roughly 7,500 sidewalk sheds provided temporary protection for pedestrians walking under construction sites, according to the DOB. The map also provides evidence for what many suspect: countless of these removable roofs can hardly be described as temporary. When sorted by longevity, the map shows that some of these scaffoldings are more enduring than the tenants and businesses underneath.

About half of the 7,500 sidewalks sheds are located in Manhattan, since the borough is home to about 60 percent of city buildings taller than six stories, whose exterior walls must be inspected every five years. Sheds also have to be installed for construction of a building more than 40 feet high, the demolition of a building more than 25 feet high and when dangerous building conditions exist.

According to DOB Deputy Commissioner Archana Jayaram, publishing the map is part of an effort to “start being more transparent about our massive amount of data” that was made possible by a recent investment into the agency’s analytics team. Jayaram said the map, and the accompanying “Facade Safety Report,” will help tenants and owners appreciate their buildings. “Understanding the relationship between sidewalk sheds and facades, I think, is a critical piece of information in that if you have an unsafe facade, you should have a sidewalk shed,” she said. “If your facade is fixed, you shouldn’t have one.”

The map allows users to view sidewalk sheds throughout the city by the age of their permits, their size and their safety status. But for some, it isn’t a big enough step toward bringing down sidewalk sheds that have overstayed their welcome. “Residents are less concerned about the scaffolding on the other side of the city than the scaffolding that’s blocking out their light and air and causing things to drip on their head,” Upper East Side Council Member Ben Kallos said. “Business owners have told me that when scaffolding goes up their profits go down.”

Though he said he appreciates the Department of Buildings’ effort, he is hoping for more concrete progress. “What you can tell is that the city is covered in green dots representing scaffolds like a sickness,” he said. “We need to do something about it.”

Kallos introduced legislation in the City Council late last year that would require scaffolding to be taken down after six months, or sooner if work is not being done. The bill’s only other sponsors are Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez and Karen Koslowitz, though it has been endorsed by the New York State Restaurant Association and the New York City Hospitality Alliance. This has frustrated Kallos, who believes “elected officials should be working for the people, not for real estate interests.”

Sidewalk sheds were mandated by the City Council after the death in 1979 of Barnard College student Grace Gold, who was struck by a falling piece of a building on West 115th Street and Broadway. It was not the last time such a tragedy would occur ­— 2-year-old Greta Greene died in 2015 after a piece of terra cotta fell on her from eight stories.

Roberta Semer identified sidewalks sheds as a concern of Community Board 7, of which she is chairperson, and said she was grateful for the map. “At both our land-use and business committee meetings, we discussed trying to figure out where all the sidewalk sheds were, and then two weeks later this wonderful map appeared,” she said. Semer told of several cases where she noticed businesses struggling under longstanding sidewalks sheds, but conceded that “on the other hand, you want to protect people.”

Madeleine Thompson can be reached at

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