Two Small Businesses Struggle Under a Sidewalk Shed for Six-and-a-Half Years; ‘Enough is Enough’

By Carol Tannenhauser

The photograph above shows how Hi-Life Bar & Grill, on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 83rd Street, is supposed to look. (The “Hi-LifeMobile” is a 1936 Lincoln Zephyr that belongs to the owner.) The photograph below shows how Hi-Life actually looks — and has for the past six-and-a-half years.

Metropolitan Window Fashions is a few doors down from Hi-Life on Amsterdam Avenue, toward 82nd Street. The photograph below shows how it is meant to look.

The next photograph shows how it currently looks — and has for the past six-and-a-half years as well.

Earl Geer and Bruce Heyman, the owners of Hi-Life and Metropolitan, respectively, are neighbors and friends. Earl has been at his location for 29 years, and Bruce at his for 15. “Nearly half of those years have been spent under the sidewalk shed,” Bruce said. Earl added,”Except for a guy who was with me from the start, none of my employees have ever seen Hi-Life without the shed.”

Both men expressed their support of Local Law 11, which requires that the facades of all buildings over six stories be inspected every five years, and repaired if necessary. Sidewalk sheds are required by the Department of Buildings (DOB) for the safety of pedestrians when conditions are unsafe or work is being done. The stories of people killed by falling building debris are well-known, including that of a two-year-old girl who was killed in 2015, while visiting her grandmother on the Upper West Side.

Earl Geer and Bruce Heyman in Hi-Life Bar & Grill.

“We accept that scaffolding is part of life in the city,” Earl said. “But it should be the landlord’s responsibility to get a DOB permit to fix the job, and dutifully try to do that in a timely manner. There are always problems with Landmarks, contractors, etc.; all that’s expected in the real world. But it’s going on seven years. Enough is enough.”

Earl and Bruce have little recourse. They can’t withhold their rent, because their businesses are located in buildings that are separate from and adjacent to the one that erected the sidewalk shed. Their landlords bear no responsibility. The shed was erected by Sofia Storage, located at 475 Amsterdam Avenue, between the two businesses. “We are collateral damage,” Bruce said.

“When it first went up, they were like, ‘It’s gonna be a six-month project,'” Earl recalled. “Every six months, they’d say some version of the same thing. Meanwhile, for years, no one appeared to be working.”

A summary of the case sent by a DOB spokesperson showed large gaps in the timeline of the project:

The owners of 475 Amsterdam Avenue filed a Façade Inspection Safety Program (FISP) report in 2013 which indicated that the façade was in an unsafe condition…A subsequent FISP report was filed in 2017, which also indicated that the façade was unsafe…A DOB permit to start repairs on the façade was first issued to 475 Amsterdam Avenue on 7/21/14, and was closed out by the contractor on 2/4/16. The owner hired a different contractor, and pulled new permits for the façade repair work on 4/20/18, and this was most recently renewed on 3/12/19. This permit is still active.

Building owners are legally required to correct unsafe façade conditions… DOB issues penalties of $1,000 a month for failure to correct unsafe façade conditions related to FISP reports. DOB has issued $9,300 in total fines associated with the façade condition at this building.”

Sofia Storage.

“I would estimate that they worked on the building for no more than one year total, out of the six-and-half,” Earl said. “We don’t understand their motivation for leaving it up so long, their negligence. Is it financial problems? Or, maybe, they’re selling it, or, maybe, they just don’t care.”

Both men say their businesses have been hurt “substantially” by the long-standing shed.

”80% of our business is walk in,” Bruce said. “And we’re a design store, so we depend on beautiful windows. I’d say business is down 20% over the last six-and-a-half years. That’s hard on me and my employees, who are waiting for raises. It’s depressing.”

“A half-generation of customers has never see our beautiful, corner neon sign, with the look and the style and the presence that we’re paying an astronomical, market-rate, full-blast, through-the-roof rent for. On top of the rent, you add the burden of scaffolding.”

Earl summed up his sentiments about Sofia Storage, who he is no longer in contact with, simply. “They’re not being very good neighbors,” he said.

WSR attempted several times to get in touch with John and Frank Sofia, both by going to the office and leaving messages. We also reached out to the engineering firm responsible for the job. We did speak to April Adams, Community Liaison at Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office. Earl had reached out to Brewer last summer, and Adams had arranged a conference call, in August, between Earl, the engineers, and representatives from the DOB. “They promised they would take it down by this fall,” Earl said. An email from the DOB shows that, as of this post, they have not yet filed the paperwork to begin doing so.

“Local Law 11 is necessary to protect the residents and visitors of New York City, but not a license to wrap buildings with scaffolding for years on end while businesses languish in the shadows,” Brewer emailed WSR. “Safety is paramount yet the impact on the community must also be considered, and we must expect building owners to be courteous and respectful of their neighbors while repairing façades completely and quickly.”

This week, Brewer personally called and left a message for John Sofia, Adams said.

FOOD, NEWS, OUTDOORS | 41 comments | permalink
    1. CCL says:

      Well done! Great article. It illustrates so clearly the problem. Hope it helps.

      Broken record alert. These dank dark sheds are a blight on the whole City and putting local shops and restaurants out of business every day.

      The scourge of scaffolding. Has to be a better way.

    2. TakeItDown says:

      Yay for Local Law 11 which ensures we are not killed by random falling bricks. But nothing about that law should permit situations like this. Do the inspection, make the repairs, take down the scaffolding. If you can’t afford the repairs, we should pass legislation that forces a sale of your building. Each of our actions have consequences for those around us when we live in such a tightly packed city and it is beyond unfair that business owners who are trying to be good citizens are hurt by their neighbors in this way/

      • Paul says:

        The 5 year cycle is overkill.
        As seen at the Esplinade it’s far from tamper proof.

        Go back to 10 years and insure the integrity of the inspection.

    3. Alex says:

      I wonder, too, and am discouraged by sidewalk sheds up indefinitely even when no businesses are affected. They wind up housing garbage, restricting sidewalk use, diminish light, and damage trees.
      For the entire time I’ve been on the UWS (over 10 years) Trinity Lutheran, on West 100th St., has had a shed up. I walk by daily. It’s a blight on the neighborhood. The permit on the building is expired. I’ve not seen work being done. What can one do about this?

    4. Mark P says:

      So angering. Clearly the penalties are insufficient to motivate complying with the law.

    5. Mike Z says:

      Obviously the fines aren’t high enough

    6. Earl Geer says:

      Thanks “West Side Rag” and Carol Tannenhauser for bringing some attention to this issue. We certainly appreciate your effort!
      Sincerely, Earl Geer
      Owner, Hi-Life Bar & Grill

      • Mark Moore says:

        Hi Earl. I like your place. Is the car with the light on top just for advertising or do you actually drive it around when you need to like a regular car?

    7. liz says:

      Ban Kallos introduced a bill to change the rules about sheds…in 2016. No idea why it’s been languishing in City Council limbo since then. But REBNY is opposed to it, so it’s not a surprise. You can read about it here:

      https://benkallos.com/legislation/introduction-1389-2016-time-limits-scaffolding-and-sidewalk-sheds

    8. John Connor says:

      7 years is a long time but not uncommon.
      Construction is extremely expensive for outside work , time consuming because it is weather dependent, complicated due to the rigging work involved and in getting neighbor access/coordination, severely beaurocratic due to how things are filed ,and Landmarks is notorious for delays and responses/approvals. You should give landlords 2 years to make the repairs after which the city should step in, do the repairs and bill the owners afterwards.

      • CAL says:

        2 years is like 2 lifetimes to small businesses. There has to be a better solution.

      • your_neighbor says:

        The city can’t repair their own properties and is the biggest slumlord in America – good luck with your idea.

      • NN says:

        I’ve got an idea. If your scaffolding is up with no work done for six months, your project goes on a public list that union-labor contractors can claim from, do the job (under all appropriate safety regulations), and bill the landlord at the union rate after the city inspects and approves and the scaffolding comes down. Any contractor who claims a project and doesn’t complete it within six months loses their claim and whatever work got done and it goes back on the list.

        Contractors would have a steady supply of high-paid work to see them between jobs, owners who wanted to save money or ensure particular standards would be incentivized to promptly handle projects, and the scaffolding comes down. The city doesn’t need to do the work itself, just create and decently regulate a marketplace to see that the work gets to people who actually have the capacity to do it at that time.

        • Kindly Dr Dave says:

          Love this creative idea!

        • John Connor says:

          This is a fantastic idea and the Union idea is genius. As it is right now though If you were to ask the majority of the union construction firms who are properly licensed with the right safety standards, they have too much work and are incredibly backlogged… however this would be a great incentive for new firms to start up. There is a severe construction shortage in NYC due to the complexity and overregulation involved . Streamlining the workflow should help significantly.

          But t has to be 2 years not six months.

          You can’t do most of the work from October -March due to weather and temperature concerns unless it’s just simple brick repointing. 99 percent of the time it is not simple repointing. These buildings are old and need tons of various maintenance which requires Stone work,metal work, etc. you can’t do this work below 40 degrees nor would you want them to do the work below 40 degrees. also Landmarks strictly enforces that the majority of the work will not be approved for work in these months months. While to a small business owner 2 years is a lot of time, imagine them having to deal with this every 5 years because work has to be redone over and over.

    9. George UWS says:

      The city needs better regulations on time permitted, broken into individual segments, with publicly available delay excuses specific to each segment, and with response deadlines by city agencies built in. In addition to the economic burden on establishments shrouded by sheds, we have recently seen that they are conducive to violent crime.

    10. Jeff says:

      Until our elected officials decide to actually help with this longstanding problem, business owners are smart to decorate their scaffolding like crazy. Wrap some strands of white lights around the poles for nighttime and something bright, like fake flowers, for daytime. It’s not ideal but it’s better than nothing.

      • CCL says:

        How will that help see the beautiful windows and signage and architecture of buildings and storefronts as this article so beautifully illustrates? It’s ruining the vibrancy and character of the City.

        And. From the inside. It’s still really dark and uninviting.

    11. Leon says:

      This problem is easy to solve. Sheds can be up for six months. After that there are escalating fines. After a few years fines are onerous enough to really make the owner want to do something. If fines aren’t paid, it is the same as not paying your taxes, and the city can foreclose on the building.

      These sites with longstanding scaffolding also have a tendency to become homeless shelters. The police do not seem to think this is a problem. Perhaps these homeless people can be relocated to more appropriate shelters and such?

      Ironic that this article ran today shortly after I walked past the church at 86 and Amsterdam with the perpetual scaffolding. I think WSR ran a good article about it and how the building is both landmarked but in poor condition and no one can afford to fix it, so the scaffolding has to stay up forever. Oy vey.

      All this being said, on a rainy day, I do appreciate being able to walk under these sheds and stay dry!

    12. George says:

      For longer-term scaffolding, a solution I’ve found to be refreshing is Urban Umbrella — they offer white, sort of stylish scaffolding that allows for more light to come through and more visibility for the stores and restaurants at the base of the building.

      It’s unfortunate to hear that the Sofia Storage scaffolding has been covering Hi-Life for as long as it has. They caught a raw deal with their UES location, so I really hope this clears up soon.

    13. Evan Bando says:

      Some restaurant/bars have that certain something about it when you spend time there that just feels right, feels good and friendly and overall has a welcoming vibe to it. In my experience Hi-Life is one such establishment. The NYC scaffolding scandal needs to stop. As usual, local city officials only talk their game and never actually do anything effective. Other cities place a time limit on such renovations. If the landlord does not comply, they are severely fined. It dissuades procrastination. If the building does not comply out of financial hardship, the city lends the landlord the money with interest and gets the job done. If the landlord defaults on the loan, then, in economic fairness to the community, the building owner must sell. Exterior maintenance to buildings and scaffolding is a necessity. Excessive, neglected scaffolding is an unlawful financial hardship on business owners and a serious quality of life issue for citizens. Well done WSR for the story. One can only hope the cozy local officials will put on their thinking caps and come up with a real solution to this problem – and then do it.

    14. J Davis says:

      Boycott Sofia Storage.

    15. Brian Perkins says:

      Earl and Bruce seem like very reasonable people. They and other store owners deserve better. The whole “shed” business has graft and cronyism written all over it. I suggest Helen Rosenthal, who seems to be a staunch advocate for our neighborhood, lean into this city-wide issue and get something done.

    16. Judy Kass says:

      My husband and I eat the Hi-Life 2-3 nights a week. It’s a rotten shame that the customers, Earl, and his employees have to live with this shameful situation. What’s with the DOB? Do they want to be vilified for not doing their job in a timely manner?

    17. Carroll says:

      How about after 6 months…start charging rent for the scaffolds still up, with that collected rent going to the affected businesses or renters or, gasp, the city?

    18. Gina says:

      The scaffolding extends around the block up to and including 166 W. 83rd. I am not in business but I do abhor the look and feel of the scaffolding which has provided a place for people to hang out as though they were under a cabana. It is right outside my window and is an eyesore. It will be more years I expect but no laws encourage a speedier process. Shameful.

    19. Margaret says:

      I was in Paris in September and was impressed by — the lack of scaffolding! When there was scaffolding, it was covered by some sort of tromp l’oeil thing that made the scaffolding ornamental.

      It was appalling to come back and see the entire city — and especially the UWS — blighted by scaffolding. Every block in my neighborhood has two or more projects “going on” — sometimes for years.

      Let’s figure out how to fix this, before we lose more businesses.

    20. Steven Morvay says:

      This is an issue throughout the City. Scaffolding stays in place but no work is being done. Owners should be required to certify that work is being done justifying leaving scaffolding in place. Contractors take on a project….start work in earnest completing a portion of the job…then they move their crew to a new assignment leaving the existing scaffolding to stay up indefinitely. Contractors should be required to finish work on existing buildings or show proof they are assigning workers to existing buildings before being allowed to start on a new project. Scaffolding is an eyesore that reflects a totally out of control situation.

    21. Victoria Bowling says:

      Thanks West Side Rag for covering. There were generations of Laguardia high school students who never saw their school without scaffolding. It is finally down, but took years and years. How can our city work more effectively to avoid this insane delay, which is potentially hurting our precious local businesses?

    22. Chris M says:

      Wait… where are all the people who side with landlords?

    23. chrispy says:

      In addition to the great comments here I hope everyone will take the time to write to their councilperson. Unfortunately I don’t think they read these but should read letters directed to them.

    24. Helen says:

      There is a similar situation with the church on Columbus and 86th Street. The scaffolding has been up for years. It’s an eyesore but our local representatives do nothing

      • 86er says:

        That church, unfortunately, has a lot of terra cotta on the exterior which has rotted (if that’s the right word) and crumbles constantly. I’ve lived here long enough to remember how scary it was to kick through the “rocks” on the sidewalk. The shed is really a safety measure, albeit a hideous one.

        The church does not have the $ to do any restoration.

    25. CCL says:

      I forwarded this article with a plea for help to Linda Rosenthal.

    26. Virginia says:

      Someway, somehow, make it a bicycle issue and it will be taken care of lickety-split.

    27. Local yocal says:

      Brewer seems to be the only elected official doing anything in this city. Where is the Commissioner of NYC SBS? How is it that NYC SBS does nothing to help small businesses and advocate for scaffolding block the biz community. How is it that they don’t coordinate the Buildings Dept? What about all those Business Improvement Districts shouldn’t they also be addressing the scaffolding in their districts for years and years?

    28. Mr THINK OUTSIDE BOX says:

      It should be possible to design technology to protect pedestrians – without using this cheap antiquated old and busted scaffolding technology.

    29. Ellen Azorin says:

      I’m glad to see this story that calls attention to the tangle of permits, regulations, and I suspect abuse of same — and has resulted in the city’s sidewalks being increasingly covered by unsightly sidewalk sheds. I hope that Gale Brewer will use the power and resources of her office to do something about this.