By Carol Tannenhauser
Scaffolding! It seems to obscure every other building in the neighborhood. Why is there so much of it, and why does it stay up for so long? Several readers asked, including Jeffrey Wade, who got specific:
“How can the church on the corner of West 86th and Amsterdam get away with having scaffolding up for over 15 years?”
Actually, it’s 18 years, and it’s not “scaffolding” that has surrounded West Park Presbyterian Church since 2001, but a “sidewalk shed,” explained Andrew Rudansky, Senior Deputy Press Secretary, NYC Department of Buildings (DOB).
We’ll get to the church in time, but, first, Rudansky provided the following “primer”:
A scaffold is the installation that runs up the side of a building and is used as a platform for workers to make repairs on the outside of the building. A sidewalk shed is the installation that sits on the sidewalk with overhead protection, and is used to protect pedestrians from falling debris from a building or construction site. Generally, most complaints DOB gets are for sidewalk sheds, as these are the installations that people interact with while walking down the street.
Sidewalk sheds are put up on city sidewalks for two primary reasons:
1. Construction projects (which currently abound) – Sidewalk sheds are required for most new building projects, demolition projects, and major alteration projects in NYC. The shed is required to protect members of the public in case construction material drops from the site.
2. Unsafe façades – If the exterior wall (façade) of a building is not properly maintained, parts of the brick, stone, terra-cotta, etc. may fall off the building and land on the sidewalk. If the DOB finds unsafe conditions at a building façade, the owner is required to immediately install a sidewalk shed for the protection of the public.
Many of the sidewalk sheds in NYC can be traced back to Local Law 10 of 1980, and its successor, Local Law 11 of 1998 (which is stricter.) These laws were enacted after the death of Grace Gold, a Barnard student who was fatally struck by a piece of masonry that fell off a building in 1979 (40 years ago this month.) Local Law 11 requires inspections every five years of the facades of any building that is six stories or more in height. These periodic inspections are conducted by private inspectors hired by the building owners. The façade inspection report must be submitted to the DOB for review.
If the inspection report finds unsafe conditions, the owner is required to install a sidewalk shed immediately, and keep it up for as long as the unsafe conditions exist. A building owner who fails to correct an unsafe façade condition is subject to a $1,000-a-month penalty from DOB. Once the unsafe condition is fixed, the owner’s private inspector will put together a new report and submit it to the DOB. At that point, the building is no longer posing a danger to the public, and the sidewalk shed can be removed.
A more recent case of an unsafe façade leading to a death on the Upper West Side was in 2015, when a piece of 305 West End Avenue fell off the building and fatally struck two-year-old Greta Greene. The owners of the building at the time of the accident recently pled guilty to two criminal misdemeanor counts related to that incident. Cases like this show why sidewalk sheds are an important tool to protect pedestrians.
But 18 years? What’s going on—or not going on—at West Park Presbyterian Church that has required a shed to be up for that long? Is there any hope of it coming down soon?
There are people dedicated to making that happen. Completed in 1885, this is a special building, architecturally, historically, and currently. According to the application that led to it being landmarked in 2010:
The West Park Presbyterian Church is considered to be one of the best examples of a Romanesque Revival style religious structure in New York City. The extraordinarily deep color of its red sandstone cladding and the church’s bold forms with broad, round-arched openings and a soaring tower at the corner of West 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue produce a monumental and distinguished presence along those streets.
Since 2010, the church has been home to The Center at West Park, a not-for-profit organization with a dual mission: “to offer a diverse range of programs [and venues] for artists, audiences, and the neighborhood,” according to its website, and “to steward the restoration of [the church’s] historic exterior.”
Zachary Tomlinson has been Executive and Artistic Director of the The Center since 2017. He recapped the history of the church:
The congregation of West Park Presbyterian Church is very small, but still active, and they own the building. Around 2001, the congregation noticed that there were some very small particles flaking off the red sandstone façade of the building, and turning the snow reddish. That meant the façade was not secure, and, by requirement of the city, they had to put up a sidewalk shed to protect people below, in case anything larger fell. What was put up in 2001 is still what is there today.
To maintain a building as large and old as West Park Presbyterian Church is a very expensive endeavor. Unfortunately, due to shifting demographics and the changing nature of engagement in religion on the Upper West Side—and in the city and nationally—the Presbyterian Church had a declining congregation and resources, and did not have the funds in 2001 to do the repairs. And so began a very long process of searching for a solution.
It’s very important to note that West Park Presbyterian Church was an important institution in responding to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, and was majorly involved in gay rights activism and providing social services to people with HIV and AIDS. It was actually the place where God’s Love We Deliver, the organization that now provides meals to 10,000 people every week, had their first commercial kitchen in the 1980s. The congregation was decimated by people dying of AIDS. There was this massive loss of life, very tragically, and that, in part, set up the situation.
Since West Park Presbyterian Church didn’t have the funds to do the facade repairs between 2001 and 2010, they eventually purchased the sidewalk shed from the rental company after having it up for several years. They hired a contractor to maintain the shed, which they did until 2018. Then the head contractor retired and the new owner of the contractor’s business decided not to keep maintaining the shed and allowed the permit to lapse.
For the past year, the Center has been aggressively looking for a new contractor to take over maintenance of the existing shed. Unfortunately, we have not found a contractor willing to take responsibility for the church’s existing equipment, and replacing the shed with rental equipment is beyond our current financial capacity. We expect the shed to be significantly upgraded or replaced as part of the Landmark Restoration Project. Upon completion of the restoration of the facade, the shed will finally be removed.
There is a lot more to tell about West Park Presbyterian Church—including the story of the successful fight to landmark it, which dashed the congregants’ hopes of a financial bailout—and we will tell it in a future article; this one is about “scaffolding.”
“It’s not that the Church is neglecting the situation willfully,” Tomlinson said. “The Center is working hard to raise funds through ticket sales, by renting out its indoor venues, and through its annual Gala in December. Work was begun on the roof last year, and a capital campaign is being launched.”
“It’s definitely going to be in the seven-figures,” he said.
If you have a question for The Answer Column write it in the comments or send it to westsiderag@gmail dot com Subject: Answer Column
“There is a lot more to tell about West Park Presbyterian Church—including the story of the successful fight to landmark it….”
Yes there is, the vast and forceful efforts by residents of buildings on either side of the church seeking to preserve their apartment lot line views, and as such real estate value.
This is what was happening with Shaare Zedek on 93rd between Amsterdam and Broadway. The congregation is small and could not afford the maintenance of the building. They were also in debt from a bad cemetery deal from years ago.
People were fighting to landmark it to preserve their lifestyles rather than thinking about how the synagogue would likely be abandoned and become even more decrepit.
What strange things people will do to “preserve their lifestyles”.
Welcome to The New Upper West Side!
That’s it. Including one relatively influential party at the NY Times who spearheaded the landmark designation in order to preserve his/her view of the Hudson River. The congregation is no longer large enough or wealthy enough to maintain a 131 year old building.
Clearly no one or no organization of means cares enough about either the physical building or its history to underwrite repairs. As a consequence the corner has lived in shadows for two decades and will continue to do so. When the building collapses the sidewalk shed will probably be designated a landmark.
That is not wholly true; the congregation wanted to commission a redevelopment plan that would have converted part of the property to apartments, but also redevelop the huge, aging (and falling apart) current structure into something more manageable and new. That was like waving red meat to the “Friends Of West-Park” and others including Ms. Brewer and Ms. Rosenthal.
In short order despite wishes of the congregation to the contrary the property was landmarked. This left the congregation stuck with that barn of a place that is falling down on their plates.
FOWP and whoever have banded together to save the place for time being; but that does not change facts on ground. The structure is not wholly sound and requires large amounts of remediation and other construction work to make it sound. Until that time comes that scaffolding, shed or whatever you want to call it will remain.
It was Penn Central vs.City of New York all over again. Only this time no state agency with deep pockets has stepped up to provide funds for this church.
Can WSR find better sources than Andrew Rudansky, Senior Deputy Press Secretary, NYC Department of Buildings (DOB)?
His “explanation is PR, why reprint it and provide any credibility whatsoever.(i.e. ” If the DOB finds unsafe conditions at a building façade, the owner is required to immediately install a sidewalk shed for the protection of the public.”).
This is the same Journalistic Approach that replaced real Investigative Reporting on: “Do Landlords Get Tax Breaks For Vacant Retail Space?”. The primary source there was COMPLETELY BIASED (i.e.”To answer [t]his question, we called an Upper West Side landlord and leading tax attorney, who said the following:”).
They spoke to DOB and the head of a non-profit at the church. What more do you want? Who would be a suitable enough expert on the matter for you?
Simple. Fix the building and remove the ugly shed. It’s not rocket science.
Who is going to pay for it? You?
Perhaps, not so simple.
Good Morning, DannyBoy
I can’t help but notice your frequent comments on this website and how hostile and critical they are sometimes. However, I rarely see you present any solutions or insight about anything.
Whereas B.B. always explains the issues and the facts and even goes into the complicated history of the matter. He uses sources, comps and even cites case law (what a mench, this guy!!). This is how adults should discuss and debate issues…not with snarky comments that have no probative value whatsoever and add very little, if anything, to the conversation.
Anyway, so what are your ideas about solving this scaffolding problem? Ya know, besides everyone (including WSR apparently) is corrupt, selfish, and in on some massive conspiracy to undermine everything that is good about NYC and the UWS?
Good Afternoon UWS_lifer,
I guess you must agree with my clarification, so I am glad to have provided it.
I still owe you a Reply to your second question: “Anyway, so what are your ideas about solving this scaffolding problem?”
Well, as you can read yourself, I believe the problem “is that the buildings themselves haven’t spent the money required to remedy the defects, so leave the shed in-place.”
This suggests 2 solution. The first would be a more cooperative approach by the “cooperative” buildings themselves. The alternative is additional enforcement.
As to the first, I do spend a great deal of time and energy attempting to highlight the benefits to a cooperative neighborhood (aka community).
The second approach, namely Enforcement is a useful complement. For example, in the last 2 days I have worked with 4 NYC Departments on ongoing problems in our neighborhood. This takes about half of my time, so I will describe some typical ones.
I called 311 to report unmuffled jackhammers using three jackhammers simultaneously on 96 Street. The Department of Environmental Protection shut them down.
The second report was about twisted and sharp sheet medal being dumped near the Elementary School. This I reported to the Department of Sanitation. Absent any urgency on their part, I subsequently flagged a Police car who immediately identified the dumpers. Cleaned up ASAP by the offenders.
The third was contacting the Department of Parks to report that a trash barrel had been knocked over by a vehicle. and trash strewn about. Again, as with the Police, Parks thanked me and immediately cleaned up.
My point here is that anyone can sit at a keyboard all day complaining about the state of our shared spaces, or they can choose to pick up the phone, or click on the web, or flag a Police car, and we would all be better off.
I’m confused about what you think was misleading about the response. He did explain that the problem was lack of maintenance. He also explained a great deal about why. What was misleading?
“For the past year, the Center has been aggressively looking for a new contractor to take over maintenance of the existing shed. Unfortunately, we have not found a contractor willing to take responsibility for the church’s existing equipment, and replacing the shed with rental equipment is beyond our current financial capacity.”
Hey, take that to the bank!
I am glad that this satisfies you and that it’s all good-in-the-neighborhood.
Good Morning UWS_lifer,
I guess you missed what I was saying, so I’ll try again.
The Question as stated in the article is:
“Scaffolding! It seems to obscure every other building in the neighborhood. Why is there so much of it, and why does it stay up for so long? Several readers asked”.
“The Answer Column” then proceeds to allow the PR man (“explained Andrew Rudansky, Senior Deputy Press Secretary, NYC Department of Buildings (DOB).”) to answer a different question.
The great majority of WSR Commentariat ask about the many, long-term shed installations. And the answer to that is very different.
My guess is that the buildings themselves haven’t spent the money required to remedy the defects, so leave the shed in-place.
You see, it’s not “some massive conspiracy to undermine everything that is good about NYC and the UWS”, but I guess you choose to see what you want.
And, I agree about B.B. and I always let him know.
If the article is correct and I’m reading it right, this explains a lot.
The law requires unsafe conditions to be corrected. But it doesn’t require the facade to be fixed – correction can be the sidewalk shed.
Or possibly if the facade isn’t fixed in some time period (not specified) – the penalty is $1K a month.
Even if it’s the latter, $12K a year is surely chump change compared to fixing a building problem.
So basically, property owners actually have an incentive to NOT fix their buildings. It’s cheaper to throw up a shed and leave it there.
Do clarify if this is wrong. But if it’s not, basically we’re allowing property owners to take public space (the view over the sidewalk) for $1K a month. Seems to me the price should be much, much higher – and indexed to inflation.
@Mark P: The law requires that unsafe conditions be corrected within 30 days, and if that is not possible due to certain types of delays, an extension must be requested. The law explicitly notes that “Financial considerations shall not be accepted as a reason for granting an extension.”
While installing a shed immediately is required to protect pedestrians, it is not considered a remedy to the unsafe condition.
If an extension is not granted, the DOB fine is $1000 per month for failure to correct unsafe conditions. There are additional ECB penalties that can be levied for failure to maintain, failure to certify correction of hazardous conditions, etc., and the amounts of those are not entirely clear to me. But you’re right in that there are some delinquent building owners who are not put off by the fines and just leave the sidewalk shed up.
Except of course for reality.
If you landmark a building owned by nobody and only useful as a church, you can’t levy collectible fines, and you can’t threaten the owner with foreclosure for nonpayment of fines.
The decision to landmark a church owned by an independent congregation too small to maintain it was a colossal error.
ACTUALLY, the name of this article by the WSR is Why Has the Sidewalk Shed at 86th and Amsterdam Been Up For 18 Year? So it’s not about construction. It’s supposed to be the answer to that question. Which has not yet been answered. We know why it’s there. How it got there. When the laws were passed and tightened. But we don’t know why it’s been up for 18 years. And I also want to know why the sidewalk shed has been up between 75th St and 76th St has been up for more than 5 years. It’s the old Astor Hotel being turned into condos while people still live there under old leases. There is no exterior work going on at all. Why is it still up?
Because the structure is unsafe. There is no will or money to repair it. That’s why scaffolding stays up under these old buildings for years and years.
Iirc the church is run at a deficit, so mounting penalties just add to the difficulty. They wanted to sell the air rights, I mean they didn’t have many choices y’know? And apparently the well heeled newer folks in the area aren’t interested in helping, they’d rather weep and give money to tourist traps in other countries than support their own environment, while complaining about eyesore sidewalk sheds.
turn the church into yet another condo bldg already
That is just what the “Friends of West-Park” fought to prevent. Again that group had more than a few members who were residents of apartment buildings on either side of church. Any large new building would block their lot line views.
Giving that church landmark status all but ensures nothing of the kind will ever happen. Well aside from it falling or burning down, the only other chance is if the structure becomes so unstable it must be torn down.
Not a bad idea…but unlikely to raise 7 figures, it seems to me. Unless there was a threat to tear the thing down. Then maybe Friends of West Park would put their money where their mouths – I mean, lot line views – are.
What is the solution when a building is both landmarked and derelict? To let the facade crumble for almost twenty years seems like demolition by neglect.
Is this shed currently safe? The article suggests that it has been completely neglected since 2018. If this can’t be rectified immediately then the church should be sold and fixed. Is historical preservation more important than risking facade or shed pieces falling on passersby on the sidewalk?
Church must have gotten an estimate to totally update structure. What is that amount? Critical to an informed discussion about future of structure. Is number so high as to make repairs permanently unrealistic?
IIRC from numbers bouncing around at the time it will take north of $20 million to fully rehab West-Park church. Each year or so work is not done inflation will raise that number higher.
Unless one or more tech billionaires, and or some equally wealthy persons suddenly get religious and donate large sums, it is going to take far more income than that theatre can bring in via revenue. Certainly more than the congregation will have going forward.
In a couple of decades or less unless things change congregation of West-Park like so many others will become extinct or close enough.
What will happen is same as with other ancient buildings owned by those without financial means to keep in good repair. Sidewalk shed will come down when current repair work is “good enough” to stabilize things.
This will last for a few years or maybe even longer, but sooner or later something else will happen and up will go the sidewalk shed again, then the process starts all over.
The children of your children’s children will be asking why corner of West 86th and Amsterdam has a sidewalk shed.
It says 7 figures on the last line of the article. Certainly sounds unrealistic to me…unless Friends of West Park ponies up…
There are rules about putting up the scaffolding but none about taking it down. And repairs to a building like that are expensive. So it sits. They should just landmark the scaffolding already it’s been there so long. Whatever they paid to rent it for this long could have bought a whole set of scaffolding by now.
Why are so many buildings on the uws replacing balconies all of a sudden? what gives?
see 70 west 95th – the building on 93rd and columbus, 96th bet cpw and columbus, etc …
Over past several years there were accidents including a few deaths (IIRC) from persons falling off or whatever balconies that were not properly maintained.
As usual this prompted action by city (something it should have been proactively doing anyway), and it was found a number of balconies were unsafe. Buildings were slapped with violations, restrictions on use placed (until same is cleared), etc..
All this lead to a flurry of action by buildings as they either were forced or by results of their own inspections found balconies needed work.
It would be nice of the damn short-sighted Landmarks Cmtee. would address such problems before bestowing landmark status. What’s the use of a landmark if the building is unsound and collapses? Then, let Landmarks provide the necessary funding to preserve their precious landmark and stop putting the church in a financial ditch. They and we deserve better.
NYC’s landmark laws grew out of the demolition of old Penn Station head house. Had they been on the books then it is highly unlikely Penn-Central would have been allowed to tear down that old barn of a place.
As things stand landmark laws *did* save Grand Central Terminal from suffering near same fate, but only just. While efforts of Jackie Kennedy Onassis did keep the wrecking crews at bay, it was the MTA taking out a 99 year lease on the place, and subsequently pouring hundreds of millions into repair/restoration that truly “saved” GCT.
LPC and others will point out that the laws contain numerous outs and or can offer assistance if a landmarked property truly is in danger of falling down or whatever. City cannot really prevent a landmarked building from being torn down without very good reasons, otherwise it would be in violation of the takings clause of USC.
Before Saint Vincent’s finally went bankrupt and the Rudin family go their mitts on entire campus; LPC approved (over very much noise against) plans by Saint Vincent’s to demolish the landmarked O’Toole building and build a new hospital on that site.
In defending their actions LPC feared that Saint Vincent’s would prevail in any legal challenge citing their precarious financial state and needing to build a totally new modern hospital in order to save itself.
Just as with New York’s rent control laws for most part the landmark statues have survived any and all legal challenges (again including Penn-Central v. NYC). Yes, city will landmark a property against wishes of owner, but then will turn around and work with same to help save the property if it truly in danger of falling down or whatever.
This being said many property owners have been accused if not outright have done “demolition by neglect”. The city/LPC can only do so much in such instances. Funds are not unlimited so they can’t save everything. Best LPC can do is haul owner into court, fine and so forth in order to prompt action. However if owner pleads poverty and or otherwise lacks means to keep the property up again as with GCT city must either find the money or let the place go.
It is important to note that the church was la snarked because it’s dwindling congregation wanted to sell the building to a real estate developer who wanted to build a hi-rise on the site. So that’s what would be there now instead of the sidewalk shed.
There was more to it than just building a high rise. Since some complain am rather long winded these sum things up: https://www.cityrealty.com/nyc/market-insight/carters-view/carters-perch/west-park-presbyterian-church-west-86th-street-declared-landmark/1631
In short the congregation lost out on a huge pot of money including a sizable addition to their endowment fund. Their only and main asset (the church property) has effectively been taken away from them for redevelopment purposes. With that also went any hope of not only shoring up that barn of a church, but their fiscal future as well.
There are only 100 (or less) congregants left for West Side Presbyterian Church. As with many other houses of worship of all faiths this church will likely never see its congregation ever again at levels of fifty or one hundred years ago.
What it comes down to is basically who has greater rights when it comes to property; the “community” or actual owner.
Since the USC forbids federal and or local governments from giving taxpayer funds directly to houses of worship for their religious ministry, the congregation of West-Park has been diddled.
OTOH governments can give funds for non-religious purposes and as such the LPC has provided all sorts of funding towards repair. Again indeed city must as it has stepped in and prevented owners from selling/redeveloping the property.
LPC along with like minded supporter and adherents justify their actions by saying these houses of worship are now “community assets”.
Actually as in most cases it is not the “community” whose rights are expressed but rather of folks with special interests and influence who reside in the community.
The scourge of scaffolding in the neighborhood is epidemic. Darkens sidewalks. Obscures storefronts. Blocks views of apartment dwellers. Costs restaurants and businesses customers. May be reasons for it. But. Nonetheless. It’s a sad blight.
DOB Press guy says sidewalk sheds are required for building projects to protect the public from construction material dropping from the site. If that were true, DOB would stop construction at 200 Amsterdam until a shed protecting the 69 St. entrance to Lincoln Towers is in place. Instead, construction goes on and the entrance is closed, enormously disrupting life at Lincoln Towers. A shed is now going up, but is not expected to be completed for another six weeks. If the developer were under a stop work order, the shed would be up in two days. It’s inexplicable that DOB hasn’t issued a stop work order.
The problem is that the space you’re concerned with is private property.
This is a very interesting and informative article—so many issues involved in what would seemingly be a very simple question.
I LOVE sidewalk sheds! Absolutely love them…for the times when I need to walk my dog when it’s raining or snowing. 😉 But seriously, friends, this has got to stop.
Well, here’s an idea: If they aren’t using it much as a church, why not offer space to local artisans and displaced UWS retailers at reasonable prices.
Maybe uninstall the pews and use the main room for a kind of bazaar space, but make it all collapsible so you could wheel it out and wheel the pews back in for services. Only allow vendors with links to the community.
I’ve only been in the main room (to see an acrobatic exhibition), but I’m guessing there’s be storage space and probably even workspace, and if they didn’t charge the rents commercial landlords want these days, they could do good and do well.
That is exactly what has happened.
Congregation long has moved to another space IIRC.
This sounds like it would make a great script for a Hollywood romcom, where the hot young clergyman battles the hot young real estate developer until they realize their feelings for one another and join forces to create an arts bazaar so that all the secondary characters (the elderly painter, the foster mom who knits, the high school lesbian sculptor) all have a place to sell their wares and make a fortune and they all live happily ever after.
But this is the real world and a church bazaar isn’t going to bring in enough to pay a decent wage to the artists and save a crumbling historic building. Wake up.
Or you could turn it into a disco like the old Limelight. I’m sure that would go over really well with the neighbors, though personally I can think of few things better than dancing all night then going to Barney Greengrass.
And have local artists paint incredible scenes on the shed in the meantime. People will come from far and wide.
As an UWS preservationist, I’m wondering, in the 3rd from last paragraph, how or why the landmarking” dashed the congregants’ hopes of a financial bailout”.
See links above.
With West-Park church landmarked all deals for redevelopment are now off the table.
Developer had offered $15 million for the property of which $10 million would go directly into endowment fund.
No one is going to buy West-Park because they cannot do anything with the structure as of right. That and the place needs tens of millions of rehab work. So the congregation is stuck with a white elephant they cannot afford to keep up, but are prevented from selling easily .
AT SOME POINT, SINCE I DO NOT BELIEVE THE FUNDS WILL EVER APPEAR FOR THE RESTORATION….WE NEED TO FIND A DIFFERENT SOLUTION FOR PROTECTION OF THE SITE…..18 YEARS AND NOW FACING A SHED THAT WILL LIKE THE CHURCH FALL INTO DECLINE IS NOT A SOLUTION.
A friend and I recently saw a reading of the play by Ishmael Reed called, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda. It was put on at the church by The Center at West Park and is answer to the Broadway musical Hamilton.It includes what Reed thinks should have been included in Hamilton. My friend and I agreed as well as the audience at the church.
The play was fantastic! The actors were incredible. My friend had seen “Hamilton” with a ticket that cost $250. The ticket price for the reading was $15 and my friend said it was far better.
They raised enough money to have the play (including costumes) at Nuyorican Poets Cafe May 23-26 and May 30-31.
I encourage you to see it. For ticket info, go to:
I didn’t realize that the shed has been up for so long and that the church cannot afford repairs. It is heart-breaking. These are good people who do great things for our neighborhood.
The programs put on by The Center at West Park all sound wonderful. I wish that I had been able to go to see Antigona, Martín Santangelo’s staging of Sophocles’ Antigone performed by world famous, the NYC-based, flamenco performance troupe Noche Flamenca.
There must be some way to help this church – GoFundMe, a rich donor, the city (as long as theyinclude low-income apt rentals in part of the building).
Knock it down and make condos already.