By Ann Cooper
The imposing entrance of the landmarked Joan of Arc Junior High School building on W. 93rd Street first towered over Upper West Side students in the early 1940s. But if you walk down 93rd between Columbus and Amsterdam today, it’s easy to miss that entrance; in fact, you can’t really see any of this massive eight-story building, cloaked as it is in curtains of netting and surrounded by the metal beams and wooden planking that signify another New York City scaffolding project.
For seven years since Joan of Arc was first scaffolded, parents and children have squeezed under the protective “sidewalk sheds,” crowding onto the narrowed walkway or spilling out into 93rd Street to await the start of each school day.
“It’s just a total shitshow in the morning,” says Lynn Feng, whose son attends kindergarten at Manhattan School for Children, one of three schools that share quarters inside. Students have graduated “never having seen the school without scaffolding,” says Gui Stampur, another kindergarten parent, who has worked with Feng on a petition demanding the city “give us back” the school, by speeding up the façade repairs that require the scaffolding remains in place.
The Joan of Arc building is not the city’s longest-running scaffolding saga. It’s not even the longest one on the Upper West Side. But it is a particularly graphic reminder of the omnipresence of scaffolding and its impact on city lives – in this case, on parents, teachers and students whose school’s exterior has the feel of a permanent construction project; on residents in surrounding co-ops, who have lived with years of construction noise that begins after school is out for the day and goes on into nighttime hours; and on the city officials responsible for public safety and community relations.
New York is a city packed with scaffolding and scaffolding stories. But how much do most of us really know about why it’s there, and why it sometimes seems to stay in place permanently? Read on for some answers.
Why is so much of NYC encased in scaffolding?
Some of it surrounds new construction, and some is there to enable emergency repairs, such as roof leaks. The work at Joan of Arc was first announced as a three-year project in 2014 to replace an aging roof. But the scaffolding has stayed in place to bring the building into compliance with city-required façade inspections and repairs.
Those requirements were enacted more than 40 years ago in the wake of an Upper West Side tragedy. On a spring night in 1979, Barnard College freshman Grace Gold was walking by a Columbia University-owned building at 115th Street and Broadway when a chunk of concrete masonry fell from the seventh floor. It struck Gold’s head and killed her.
Within months, city officials responded with a new law requiring safety inspections every five years for all city buildings more than six stories high. The scaffolding and “sidewalk sheds” (the metal beams and wooden planks that form a ceiling over the sidewalk) are there to protect passersby from any falling debris during façade inspection and repairs.
How do the façade inspections work?
Local Law 11, an update of the original inspection law, says a licensed architect or engineer must carry out a building’s inspection and send a report to the city’s Department of Buildings. Any deficiencies found by the inspector (such as cracked bricks or masonry, or loose metal anchors) are supposed to be corrected within 90 days. But the law allows for multiple time extensions.
How much of the city scaffolding I see is there because of Local Law 11?
First, a word about “scaffolding.” Many people use the term to refer to any and all of the structure around a building or construction site. But the part most likely to cause complaints is what you see at ground level: the sidewalk shed. It’s the metal and wood structure that protects pedestrians – but also narrows the walkway, creates an eyesore, can collect trash around its supporting poles, and in some places has become an open-air home for the homeless.
So how much is there because of Local Law 11? You can calculate that on a Department of Buildings map, updated daily, that shows where permits have been granted for sidewalk sheds. On February 8, the map showed permits had been authorized for 310 sidewalk sheds, stretching 180 miles, for Local Law 11 compliance. Another 242 sheds, covering 167 miles, were authorized for sites involving new construction or emergency repairs. Total sheds in the city: 552, covering 347 miles of sidewalk. The map also showed that sheds in place for Local Law 11 compliance had been up for 310 days, on average; the figure for new construction and repairs was 242 days.
It seems like some scaffolding is permanent. Aren’t there limits on Local Law 11’s time extensions?
Though the law gives a timetable for making repairs, the bottom line is safety. So if damage hasn’t been fixed within the law’s timeframe, the city permits sidewalk sheds to remain in place – sometimes for years.
Media stories occasionally highlight particularly long-running cases: a 10-year-old sidewalk shed outside a Harlem deli, a 15-year-old shelter at a Harlem condo, the perennial Upper West Side shed that hides the entrance to Hi-Life Bar & Grill at Amsterdam Avenue and 83rd Street.
That Amsterdam Avenue shed had been standing for 6 ½ years when West Side Rag wrote about it in 2019. More than two years later, the shed and Hi-Life are still there. But Metropolitan Window Fashions, another retailer whose entrance was obscured by the shed, is now replaced by an art gallery that invites visitors by appointment only.
Metropolitan’s owner Bruce Heyman told West Side Rag that the sidewalk shed was “a big factor,” though not the only reason, why he sold the business in 2020. Heyman estimates that by obscuring his entrance, the shed reduced his business by 20 percent. The city should be setting clear time limits for owner repairs and then “fining them up the wazoo” if they exceed them, says Heyman. “You’ve got to enforce the rules.”
Can the city fine building owners for not making repairs?
Yes, but for years critics have argued that the fines were far too low to have an impact and that even when penalties are levied the city has trouble collecting them.
At a 2017 city council committee hearing, city officials acknowledged what many have said for years: that it could be cheaper for a building owner to pay fines and keep sidewalk sheds in place (to protect pedestrians from falling masonry) than to actually repair the faulty masonry. Cost of an average façade repair job, said a Department of Buildings official, could be $300,000. Cost of fines if the owner failed to request a permit extension for its sidewalk shed: $1,000 a month.
A tragic example of ineffective fines came in 2019 at a building near Times Square, where a damaged façade presented “a falling hazard for pedestrians,” according to a city buildings inspection. The city levied a $1,250 fine and ordered the owner to install a sidewalk shed. But that was never done, and several months later a woman was killed when a chunk of the unrepaired façade fell on her.
Did the Department of Buildings increase its fines after that?
According to a DOB spokesman, the agency approved “a substantial increase” in penalties in January 2020. The fines are calculated on the length and age of the sidewalk shed. As an example, DOB said if penalties were called for at 475 Amsterdam (the shed that covers the front of Hi-Life Bar & Grill), they would total $5,720 a month, or $68,640 a year.
Though the department used 475 Amsterdam as an example, spokesman Andrew Rudansky said no new penalties are being calculated right now for the owners of Sofia Storage, which is responsible for the shed at that address, because they “are currently making progress on repairs” and expect to complete them this spring. “If the Department was to determine that the owners were no longer taking those steps” Rudansky said by email, penalties would be levied – adding on to $18,750 in unpaid fines DOB has already imposed on 475 Amsterdam.
The DOB’s public database shows that two of the outstanding fines were issued eight years ago, in 2013, and a third one in 2017.
What’s happened to attempts to get scaffolding taken down more quickly?
The main legislative attempt was a bill first introduced by then-District 5 City Council member Benjamin Kallos in 2016. The Kallos proposal would have given owners six months to finish repairs required by Local Law 11. After that, if a building façade still hadn’t been repaired, city employees would do the work and send the owner a bill. And the scaffolding would come down.
Soon after Kallos introduced his bill, the city unveiled its online map showing just how much scaffolding is out there and how long it’s stayed up. The New York Times editorial board hailed the map for revealing that sidewalk sheds can be “as durable and mysterious as the monoliths of Stonehenge.” It seemed like the map might give a boost to the Kallos proposal.
The bill did get a hearing in a city council committee, where restaurant and retail owners enthusiastically endorsed it, while the Real Estate Board of New York was opposed. The Department of Buildings testified that the city did not have the resources to step in and do repairs if owners didn’t make the deadline.
The bill never came up for a vote, though Kallos continued to speak out, labeling sidewalk sheds “the house guest that never leaves” and noting that some scaffolding “is almost old enough to vote.” His sound bites gained media attention but failed to build enough support among council colleagues. Kallos blames the real estate industry’s opposition for the death of his bill; Crain’s New York Business reported that it didn’t help when Kallos lost some clout in internal council politics, endangering the scaffolding bill that he had made a top priority.
Kallos was term limited out of his council seat and lost a bid for Manhattan Borough President last year. In a recent interview he told West Side Rag that he was not aware of any current council members planning to reintroduce his bill. As long as the city continues to allow unlimited time extensions, “no one’s forcing [building owners] to make the repairs,” he said.
Would the Kallos bill have solved the problem of long-term scaffolding?
The bill’s hard, six-month deadline for repairs had some real appeal for those frustrated by scaffolding projects that never seem to come down.
But the one-size-fits-all deadline didn’t leave room for any extenuating circumstances. Delays can come for a variety of reasons, such as weather, supply chain issues, or difficulty finding materials to match the façade of the city’s many landmarked buildings.
For some buildings, the issue is lack of funds. When West Side Rag wrote about West Park Presbyterian Church at 86th and Amsterdam, for example, it had been fronted by a sidewalk shed for 18 years, because the church’s dwindling congregation couldn’t afford pricey repairs on the landmarked, late-1800s red sandstone building.
Three years later, a shed still protects the sidewalk outside the church and looks likely to be there for some time. The Center at West Park, a nonprofit that promotes performing arts, is the church’s main tenant now; center artistic director Zachary Tomlinson said his group is working on a capital campaign for “a multi-million dollar job, for which we do not currently have the funds” to repair the building. Tomlinson described the campaign as “in the beginning phases.”
Would Gale Brewer take up the scaffolding issue, now that she’s representing the Upper West Side again on the city council?
Brewer is chair of the council’s committee on oversight and investigations, which gives her authority to look into a wide variety of issues. Scaffolding delays “is on my list,” she said in an interview with West Side Rag – before adding that the list is five pages long, and everything on it is considered “top priority.”
Brewer said any solution needs to make allowances for legitimate circumstances that make a job longer. At the same time, “there have to be more sticks” to force recalcitrant owners to get repairs finished. But she questioned the Kallos bill’s approach of sending the city to make repairs if a building doesn’t meet deadline. “What happens if the city doesn’t do it?” she said. “Then what? You don’t really sue the city and get anywhere, to be honest.”
The bottom line question that remains unanswered: “How do you get [façade repairs] moving, at the same time make sure that no brick falls and kills somebody?”
If the City Council doesn’t act, is there anything else that can be done?
City officials recommend phoning in scaffolding complaints to the city’s 311 service; some who’ve tried don’t report much success.
Parents of children in the schools at Joan of Arc launched a petition, which now has more than 500 signatures, demanding a speedup of the façade work. They want to see the scaffolding and sidewalk shed removed before a new school year starts next fall.
Their demands have gotten some media and official attention, including an early February Zoom meeting with officials of the School Construction Authority (SCA), which is responsible for capital repairs at city schools.
The authority’s explanations for delays – the pandemic, weather, supply chain issues, the replacement of an unsatisfactory contractor with a new one – did little to win over the handful of parents and residents on the call. Some had hoped that adding regular weekend work to the schedule would mean the job could be finished and scaffolding removed by end of summer. SCA officials confirmed that work would go forward on Saturdays, starting this month, but they said the project still won’t be finished until later this year. Some parents were skeptical that even that deadline would be met.
“I do understand the frustration,” SCA project officer Edward Kelly told the Zoom participants, more than once, as he offered a variety of conciliatory messages. The meeting ended with a new promise – not for a revised deadline, but for a continuation of community meetings with SCA, as long as it takes, until Joan of Arc is repaired and the UWS landmark can be unveiled.