Last Tuesday, as millions watched ex-President Trump arrive at a Manhattan courthouse for his arraignment, the anticipated scene of him exiting an SUV and entering the building may have underwhelmed some viewers. It wasn’t just because of the crowds of people or numerous law enforcement officers blocking the way. The culprit was the scaffolding that shrouded the building in a bulky, city-mandated hunter green-painted wood, an ever-present and ubiquitous sight in Manhattan and other neighborhoods throughout New York City.
Scaffolding has been around as long as buildings have been constructed in NYC, but lately, the omnipresent sidewalk sheds, as they’re also called, have become more annoying than necessary. After all, the structures are meant to be temporary, but they seem to hang around longer and longer these days. Last month, in a bid to rid the city of redundant scaffolding, Manhattan Borough President Mark D. Levine launched an effort dubbed “Shed the Shed.” The plan was created to streamline the process of removing scaffolding once it’s no longer needed, citing the negative impact on local businesses and quality of life in the neighborhood.
On average, scaffolding sits on the street for 498 days, and 230 installations across NYC have been up for more than five years, according to the new initiative. “Scaffolding in NYC is a good idea run amok,” said Levine. “In Manhattan alone, there are 4,000-plus of these sidewalk sheds. Some have been up for years, creating a blight in many neighborhoods.” The wood and metal structures have become such a mundane and everyday part of city life in the Big Apple one filmmaker even dedicated an entire episode of his genre-defying HBO show How to With John Wilson to scaffolding, extrapolating the city’s growing scaffolding presence into a musing on how things that start out as a temporary fix end up becoming a permanent feature.
I have to say that I’m extremely on board with this. As a New York City resident for nearly 13 years, scaffolding has been an everyday part of my life for as long as I’ve lived here. Any city resident would be familiar with the sheer relief of showing up to work one morning or coming home one evening to find scaffolding has disappeared at last. While it’s necessary to make repairs and renovations and conduct required inspections, scaffolding can be eyesores and downright suffocating after a while. Not to mention, they can negatively impact nearby businesses, shrink the sidewalk for pedestrians, shield trees and plant life from needed sunlight, and most worryingly, can be dangerous despite being erected to protect pedestrians in the first place.
Scaffolding accidents and injuries happen every year, and they can be deadly. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are, on average, more than 4,500 injuries and 60 deaths from scaffolding nationwide every year. In 2015, a gust of wind pried a piece of plywood from scaffolding in front of a luxury condo building undergoing construction in the West Village. The plywood fell, striking a pedestrian walking below, ultimately killing her. Under NYC’s Scaffold Safety Law, the owner or general contractor of a construction project is liable for any injuries that occur from a scaffolding accident.
Incredibly, as I was working on this story, I experienced my own encounter with wayward scaffolding. On a super gusty Saturday morning recently, two panels were blown loose from the sidewalk sheds surrounding the front of my residential building in Brooklyn. One piece landed smack in the middle of the sidewalk, while the other blew into a courtyard between two wings of the building. The scaffolding was originally put up after several bricks fell from the front of the building on another windy day one year ago, and work had to be done to repair the bricks and facade. Thankfully, no one was hurt in either of those incidents. But even though the work was finished several months ago, most of the scaffolding has remained up.
There’s a reason scaffolding is more common in New York City compared to other big cities across the country, and it has nothing to do with the volume of development or renovation going on at any time. Local Law 11 (also known as the Facade Inspection & Safety Program) is part of the city’s building code. It requires building owners to inspect their facades every five years and make any necessary repairs. The roots of the rule came from an incident in the late 1970s when bricks fell from a building facade near Columbia University in Manhattan and killed a student walking along the street below. The rule ended up creating an $8 billion industry for scaffolding builders in NYC. A facade repair job costs around $300,000, while the fine for keeping up a scaffolding without getting a permit extension is $1,000 a month. For many building owners, the cost to remove the structures, only to spend more to put it up again in 5 years for the required inspection, keeping scaffolding up indefinitely is easier and less costly.
For construction sites, scaffolding is just another box to tick off, and the way the structures look hasn’t changed much over the years. But at least one new player has entered the scaffolding game, offering building owners an upscale, fresh take on the required sheds. Brooklyn-based UrbanUmbrella launched in 2010 after Young-Hwan Choi, an architecture student at the time, won an international competition. The company bills itself as the future of scaffolding and is, so far, the only alternative player in the game that has proved to be viable. Unlike the green-painted wood sheds that are required by the city, UrbanUmbrella’s product is bright white and has a more artistic aesthetic (the company was granted an exception to the color rule by the city).
The main benefits the company touts about its product are that it takes up less space on the sidewalk than traditional scaffolding and obscures less of the building where it’s constructed. Building owners can also choose to have UrbanUmbrealla scaffolding with LED lights, heaters, speakers to play music, and clear plexiglass roofs so passersby can see the sky. UrbanUmbrella has been installed at upscale properties in Manhattan, like the Plaza Hotel and a Louis Vuitton flagship store. The downside is that the product doesn’t come cheap; UrbanUmbrella’s scaffolding costs three to four times the price of traditional scaffolding.
But with all the hurdles to develop in high-cost cities like NYC and construction costs already so high, do owners and developers really care about this small detail? And does it make a difference in a building’s value or attracting tenants? Actually, it just might. With scaffolding sitting on a building for nearly 18 months on average in NYC, people walking on the street only really see scaffolding and can miss entirely the facade of a building, or the ground-floor retail businesses, which developers and architects no doubt spent countless hours designing and planning. After all, no one puts scaffolding in an architectural rendering of a real estate development.
There’s no avoiding putting up scaffolding; it’s a necessary inconvenience for building owners, occupants, and neighborhood residents. Scaffolding makes a building look unfinished, obscures the facade, lets in less light and air, and can even cause injuries and, in worst-case scenarios, death. These certainly create an impetus to remove bulky structures as soon as possible. It’s even been an issue for tourism in NYC and major cities worldwide. Who hasn’t been disappointed to travel to Paris only to find the Eiffel Tower hidden or gone to London and experienced Big Ben shrouded in scaffolding?
Building owners should note that while scaffolding is just a routine process that isn’t always given too much thought, ensuring they are properly secured is a top priority, as is getting rid of it when it’s not needed anymore. We all might miss it when it’s pouring rain as we dash to the subway, but we also are grateful to have a broader sidewalk to walk on, not to mention a lovely building to look at.