There are over 300 miles of scaffolding in this city. Those damp, dimly-lit plywood tunnels installed alongside construction sites are meant to keep construction materials from falling on pedestrians below. But sidewalk sheds can also be dangerous. Earlier this month, construction workers in Williamsburg were injured when a sidewalk shed gave way beneath them. Last summer, scaffolding in Brooklyn Heights fell outside a Starbucks, injuring three people below. And in 2017, a young woman suffered major spinal damage when scaffolding collapsed on her in SoHo.
“That shouldn’t happen to anyone,” said Councilman Ben Kallos, the author of a new bill that would tighten safety standards for sidewalk sheds. Kallos's office has tallied seven sidewalk shed incidents since 2017, many of which resulted in pedestrians being injured. (The Department of Buildings puts the number of incidents at nine, but holds that six of these incidents were minor, such as a wooden board falling off the top of the shed.)
The way Kallos sees it, the problem is that the city lets contractors do their own inspections — with minimal oversight from the Department of Buildings.
“Those who put [the scaffolding] up get to certify that it's safe,” he said. “And when that happens, when you've got bad actors, that means you've lost the right to self-certify, and that's what this legislation [corrects].”
Kallos's bill would put safety inspections for sidewalk sheds under city control. The Department of Buildings would show up to inspect sidewalk sheds to verify they’re in safe condition and in compliance with city regulations. These checks would occur every six months after the initial inspection — and building owners would pay for them. Fees would start at $250 per inspection, but they’d go up incrementally, topping out at around $1,000. The longer the sidewalk shed is in place, the higher the fee.
For building owners who will have to pay those fees, the new legislation is frustrating. Frank Ricci, Director of Government Affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association, a group that represents landlords, tells us, “I think this is just another attempt by the Councilman to try to force owners and managers to try to take sidewalk sheds down quickly."
Ricci says that landlords often only put up sidewalk sheds to facilitate building facade inspections, which are required by the city every five years. And that process, Ricci claims, can be time consuming: To erect scaffolding, arrange the inspection, and then complete any required work — all that can easily take an owner several years.
A spokesperson for the Department of Buildings said they were still reviewing the legislation. “While we share the Council Member’s desire to reduce the number of sidewalk sheds, we take pedestrian safety with the utmost seriousness,” the spokesperson said.