Eric Adams’s plan to free New York of scaffolding

Send Sidewalk Sheds Packing

Eric Adams’s plan to free New York of scaffolding

Eric Adams is trying to Get Stuff Done (Courtesy New York City Mayor’s Office)

New York City mayor Eric Adams has announced plans to remove the city’s ubiquitous scaffolding in a plan to “Get Sheds Down.” New Yorkers’ favorite not-so-temporary rain shelters line stretches of sidewalk with Code-mandated green-colored plywood scaffolding supported by metal pipes (though white metal structures now populate certain parts of the city) will be faced with redesign and construction timelines mandates under a plan the mayor announced this morning.

The sidewalk sheds, as they’re often called, have long been the target of some city politicians. Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine has been a staunch critic of their sidewalk-caging effects, and Andrew Yang made shed safety inspections a campaign plank in the 2021 mayoral election. Eric Adams has marketed mayoral initiatives with the slogan “Get Stuff Done,” with the GSD-acronymed moniker transferring to the nine-part scaffolding plan rolled out alongside Levine and the Department of Buildings (DOB).

Adams claims that the sheds place “a blight on public spaces and foster illegal activity.” While claims of illegal activity are dubious at best, they have no doubt been a subject of mockery. Sheds are regulated by the DOB’s Façade Inspection Safety Program (FISP) in compliance with Local Law 11, which mandates that owners of the city’s roughly 16,000 buildings six stories and higher must file a compliance report every five years. Private, certified Qualified Exterior Wall Inspectors have to inspect the facade, and file a FISP report classifying the building as “Safe,” “Safe With a Repair and Maintenance Program (SWARMP),” or “Unsafe.” SWARMP-designated building owners have five years to make repairs before being designated as unsafe. 

The Adams administration believes that the current program “incentivizes” building owners to leave sheds up for an extended period of time rather than having work done efficiently, including scenarios where building owners leave sheds up for longer than five years. When a building is deemed unsafe and poses an imminent threat to public safety, its owner must have a shed installed immediately. However, the onus to have repair work completed in a timely manner is on the building owner, with sidewalks left covered with no end in sight when owners move slowly or construction work stalls.  

The mayor’s office says that approximately three percent of the city’s sidewalk space is covered by sheds, 9,000 of which currently span almost 400 miles. Standing for an average of almost 500 days, Adams’s inefficiency argument holds bearing, even if much of the motivation comes down to their ugliness. The first scaffolding laws came into effect in 1980, a year after Barnard student Grace Gold was killed after being struck by masonry falling off of a Columbia University building.

“We have nearly 400 miles of scaffolding in New York City, taking up public space that belongs to New Yorkers and the millions who visit our city every year. Imagine visiting Rome, Tokyo, or Rio and seeing scaffolding everywhere. New Yorkers wouldn’t be happy with these unsightly constructions in other cities, and we shouldn’t be ok with them here at home. For too long, bureaucratic rules have stood in the way of progress, but today, we are turning the page and overhauling these rules from the ground up with our ‘Get Sheds Down’ plan,” the mayor said in a statement issued this morning. 

The nine-part plan is organized around two larger goals: “Protecting Pedestrians Without Blight” and “Removing Unsightly Sheds More Quickly.” In avoiding “blight,” the DOB will begin by rolling-out design standards for netting, which is currently compliant with building regulations in some circumstances, but is not commonplace in the city. The city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS)-owned Queens County Supreme Court building, whose current shed was permitted in 2017, will serve as a pilot for the program when the city will install netting in place of the shed. Once the DOB issues a Buildings Bulletin with more specific rules over when netting will be allowed, building owners will have to move forward on facade repair with netting first, and only resort to a shed if deemed necessary by the DOB. 

Later this year the DOB will issue a request for proposals (RFP) for new shed designs, seeking out “experts to bring the ubiquitous pipe-and-plywood shed design into the 21st century.” Selected designs will be added to the city’s Construction Code, which the DOB anticipates to be entered by the end of 2024, which raises the question of how fast shed statuses will actually change. In the interim, the mayor’s office says, the city will require additional lighting and allow art installation and a plywood color choices for existing sheds. 

Under plans to remove sheds faster, the city will largely resort to financial incentives. The Adams administration and Levine’s office will work to levy monthly fines up to $6,000 on building owners whose sheds are “in the public right of way that are not directly related to new construction or demolition projects,” beginning 90 days after permits for the shed are issued. Owners using netting instead of sheds will be exempt from fines. 

The city will roll-out a program that could levy additional fines on building owners in Central Business Districts (CBD), beginning with Midtown Manhattan, Long Island City, Downtown Brooklyn, and the Grand Concourse. A $10,000 penalty would be issued to owners within the districts whose buildings, if deemed unsafe, do not meet construction timelines including: filing a repair application within three months, obtaining work permits within six months, and completing repairs within 24 months. 

Permit structures will also shift, with the City Council upping fees for shed permit renewals and for sheds that are not taken down before the expiry of their permit. The DOB will reduce the length of shed permits from 12 months to 90 days, and increase scrutiny, including site visits and potential legal action, for sheds that have been in place for at least three years. The city will also look to revise Local Law 11 if they deem that less frequent facade inspections can be implemented without sacrificing pedestrian safety. 

The mayor’s office and Levine will explore one additional, owner-friendly policy in light of the increased expenses that many landlords will face: creating a low-interest loan scheme for owners who cannot afford to make necessary facade repairs. The structure would be similar to the city’s Small Business Opportunity Fund, which was established in partnership with Goldman Sachs and Mastercard. 

DOB commissioner Jimmy Oddo said that “when owners leave up a gloomy pipe and plywood shed for years, while repair work stagnates, they create a tangible negative impact affecting the whole block. This comprehensive plan will compel building owners to make needed repairs so sheds can be removed more quickly — improving public safety while also transforming how we think about pedestrian protection in our city.”

The nine-part plan received support from some canonical city politicians like New York City Councilmember Gale Brewer and Congressman Jerry Nadles alongside neighborhood associations like the Times Square Alliance, Hudson Yards Hell’s Kitchen Alliance, Flatiron NoMad Partnership, Long Island City Partnership, and the Bronx Chamber of Commerce. In a statement, AIA New York interim executive director Jesse Lazar said: “AIANY is thrilled to see Mayor Adams and DOB Commissioner Oddo taking action to reform sidewalk shed regulations… it is evident that reform is necessary to make the public realm a more vibrant and accessible place for New Yorkers, while also prioritizing safety.”