The 13-story co-op on Edgecombe Avenue in Sugar Hill is a handsome neo-Georgian building with a rich history woven through with both the New York Yankees and the Harlem Renaissance.
It has one other notable feature: the city’s longest-standing sidewalk shed—those omnipresent hunter-green, steel-and-wood structures that are universally loathed by New Yorkers even as they are there to protect pedestrians from falling masonry and other debris. This particular shed was erected more than 6,180 days ago, in April 2006.
Sheds, which are used for new construction, demolition, renovation, and repairs to aging building façades, are supposed to be temporary. Instead, they have become an enduring part of the obstacle course that is New York. Nowhere else in the world, experts say, have sidewalk sheds become such a pervasive feature of the urban landscape.
On a recent stroll along 36th Street, from Eighth Avenue to Madison, I encountered 15 separate sidewalk sheds, many of them dark and foreboding. In most cases, it did not appear that there was any repair or construction work going on.
Each shed, comprised of stanchions, cross braces, and a wood-plank or corrugated-steel roof, forms a poorly lit tunnel that effectively narrows the sidewalk, serves as a catch basin for plastic bags and other garbage, and sometimes shelters homeless people from the elements. Bolts snag coats. The storefronts hidden underneath often see a drop in business.
But those short blocks represent only a fraction of what exists in New York. If the more than 9,000 sheds in the city were laid end to end like railroad tracks, they would stretch roughly 380 miles, from Times Square to Norfolk, Virginia. Nearly half of the sheds are in Manhattan.
“The amount of scaffolding is really stunning,” Mark Levine, the Manhattan borough president, told me in early March. “It creates dark spaces that can be magnets for illicit activity and obstruct storefronts. It is just downright ugly.”
Levine unveiled his legislative plan to “shed the shed” at a March 6 press conference by providing support for buildings that need help getting repair work done, reducing delays caused by the permitting process, and holding building owners accountable for their failure to get the work done in a timely manner.
Mayor Eric Adams, in his State of the City address on January 26, promised to “replace unsightly construction sheds” and increase enforcement against “those that leave those sheds up for years at a time, blocking sidewalks and windows.”
The city’s Buildings Department began a crackdown on long-standing sheds in the fall of 2019. But progress has been slow. The number of sheds is down about 20 percent since the coronavirus-era high of 2020, according to the agency—bringing it down to 2019 levels.
The sidewalk sheds are often erected to protect the public from falling equipment or debris from buildings under construction or renovation, as well as for periodic maintenance and window replacement. But more than a third of the 9,000-plus sheds in New York are related to Local Law 11, which requires owners to hire a licensed architect or engineers every five years, who must file reports with the city indicating whether the building façade is safe.
New York’s vast inventory of buildings—1.1 million—sets it apart from nearly all other cities in the world. “Everything’s bigger in New York,” said Kenneth J. Buettner, third-generation owner of York Scaffold Equipment Corp. “The housing stock in New York is older than most cities. The majority of masonry buildings are 100 years old.”
Multiple freeze-thaw cycles can widen crevices, crack bricks, and loosen terra cotta building ornaments over time. Salt water from the sea does not help, either. There are now about 13,000 buildings in the city with façades that must be inspected periodically, according to Paul Millman, a principal at Superstructures Engineers + Architects, which conducts the inspections.
“New York City is unique in the world in the combination of factors that stimulate façade deterioration,” Millman said.
A dozen other cities, including Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Boston, have adopted laws regarding façade inspections. Still, Benjamin Krall, chief executive of Urban Umbrella, contends that “New York has the most stringent inspections codes in the country.”
Krall’s company fabricates and installs the only sidewalk shed permitted by the city that is not the traditional hunter-green structure. Their award-winning design is a taller, more elegant, quasi-Gothic design that costs three to five times as much as the standard shed. As a result, the Urban Umbrella is found primarily in front of high-end retailers.
An Endless Stream of Complaints
The desire to regulate building façades was borne of a tragedy in May 1979. Barnard College freshman Grace Gold was walking in front of a Columbia University apartment house at Broadway and 115th Street when a slab of ornamental terra cotta fell seven stories, hitting her in the forehead and killing her.
The next year, Mayor Edward I. Koch signed a law requiring the street-facing façades of buildings to be inspected every five years.
In December 1997, the south wall of a modern office building at 540 Madison Avenue collapsed, raining bricks onto the street and adjoining buildings. No one was injured. I wrote extensively about the collapse at the time, discovering that the original owner sued the builder shortly after it opened in 1970, claiming that the south and west sides of the 39-story building had begun “to collapse, crack, spall and otherwise deteriorate.” The lawsuit was ultimately settled, but neither the original owner nor the contractor notified the city of the building’s alarming condition for 27 years.
That accident prompted another round of reforms for the laws governing building façades. But the accidents continued. In 2015, two-year-old Greta Greene was with her grandmother on West End Avenue, between 74th and 75th Streets, when falling terra cotta from a building called the Esplanade Manhattan killed her. A year earlier, an engineer working for the owner had filed a fraudulent report with the city claiming that the building’s façade was safe.
In 2019, architect Erica Tishman, 60, was struck and killed by debris that fell off a 17-story building at 729 Seventh Avenue, near Times Square. Months earlier city inspectors had told the building owner that the structure was missing terra cotta pieces from its façade. But a sidewalk shed was not erected until after the accident.
Engineers, shed builders, tenants, and elected officials tell me that some owners are either financially unable or unwilling to pay for repairs to a building façade that could cost millions. Sidewalk sheds alone cost anywhere from $80 to $150 a linear foot to erect, not including insurance and permits. Some shed builders offer a three-month grace period, but the monthly rent can run as high as $30 a linear foot.
“There’s an underlying problem: the façades are not being repaired,” said Levine, the Manhattan borough president. “There are building owners who have decided it’s cheaper to leave the shed up—renting it for a modest sum—than pay for a multi-million-dollar repair.”
If the more than 9,000 sheds in the city were laid end to end like railroad tracks, they would stretch roughly 380 miles, from Times Square to Norfolk, Virginia.
As part of a crackdown on long-standing sheds, the city’s Buildings Department filed complaints and civil suits against the co-op at 409 Edgecombe Avenue. Since April 2006 the sidewalk shed has stretched 220 feet along the front of the building, loomed over the sidewalk, snared wind-blown garbage, obscured the lobby entrance, and provided a home for raccoons from nearby Jackie Robinson Park.
But it was not until February of this year that the co-op pleaded guilty and agreed to complete the repairs to the building façade and take down the shed, while accumulating $138,500 in fines and penalties.
The 13-story building opened in 1917, only blocks from the Polo Grounds, where the New York Giants and the rival New York Yankees played baseball. After the Yankees acquired Babe Ruth in 1920, Ruth moved into the building, where all the residents were white.
By the late 1920s, however, 409 Edgecombe had become the most sought-after address by influential members of Harlem’s elite, including W. E. B. and Shirley Du Bois, painter Aaron Douglas, critic William Stanley Braithwaite, future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, and N.A.A.C.P. leader Walter White.
The rental building fell on hard times in the 1970s and was eventually taken over by the city for unpaid taxes. In the 1990s, the city sold the property to the residents under an affordable-housing program. The co-op has been dealing with a series of issues since then related to “deferred maintenance,” said Nikki Berryman, president of the co-op board. “We’ve been working on this building since 2016.”
“The shed is unfortunate,” said Jacob Pine, a resident who can’t recall a time when his co-op did not have a sidewalk shed. “It’s a New York story. It’s an old building. It’s got a lot of costs.”
The city also pursued the owner of 114 West 86th Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, where a shed was erected in July 2010. Since then, tenants and neighbors complained bitterly that the structure had become an eyesore and a pigeon roost. “It’s disgusting,” said a neighbor, lawyer Robert Salzman.
The city filed suit against Robert Gilardian, claiming that as the owner of the 17-story building, he had “failed for many years to repair the facade and come into compliance.” Cracks at the columns on the 15th and 16th stories as well as bulging brick and eroded mortar joints were not repaired, despite 46 Department of Buildings violations, including several for failure to file the required inspection reports.
Gilardian finally signed a stipulation with the city in March 2021 to complete the necessary work on the building. On March 8, workers dismantled the shed, which had been up for 4,625 days. The owner was assessed $142,250 in penalties.
Peter Salwen, a historian, tour guide, and 45-year resident of the building, was glad to see the shed gone. “These sidewalk sheds,” he said, “have become permanent features of the urban landscape.” But the dangers are real, if remote. “I was sitting at my desk one day when something plunged past my window. I looked down. There was an air conditioner sitting on the sidewalk shed. It may have saved somebody’s life.”
“It’s a question for society: what is the risk everyone is willing to assume?” asked Michael Petermann, an architect. “Probably more people die from car accidents in New York City than pedestrians from falling debris. How do you evaluate that?”
The real-estate industry opposed proposals by East Side councilman Ben Kallos in 2016 and 2017 to force building owners to dismantle sheds after doing the work required to keep buildings safe in a timely manner. But momentum now appears to be gathering to get something done.
In his speech in January, Mayor Adams focused on “strengthening enforcement against those who leave up those sheds for years at a time, blocking sidewalks and windows” and replacing unsightly sheds with “newly designed structures that preserve the vibrancy of our streets.”
It is unclear when his administration plans to unveil any details.
Levine, the Manhattan borough president, said that his office gets “an endless stream of complaints about sidewalk sheds and rats. No single policy will resolve the problem. But if we attack on multiple fronts, we can rein this in.”
He, together with City Council members Shaun Abreu, Erik Bottcher, and council Majority Leader Keith Powers, are offering legislative proposals that would: provide support for building owners who need help in getting work done quickly, streamline the permitting process, reform design standards (for example, allowing the use of drones for building inspections), and hold owners accountable for failure to complete façade work in a timely manner.
But the sheds are unlikely to disappear altogether.
“I don’t see a time when there won’t be scaffolding in New York,” said Krall of Urban Umbrella. “And I live in Tribeca, and I don’t love scaffolding.”
Charles V. Bagli is a former reporter at The New York Times and the author of Other People’s Money: Inside the Housing Crisis and the Demise of the Greatest Real Estate Deal Ever Made