New York City is covered with sidewalk shed— those gross, dark, often shoddily built overhangs meant to shield pedestrians from the dangers of construction sites and falling facades. The sheds are meant to protect, but they can also harbor their own dangers. They are frequently ugly, in disrepair, shelter nuisances like drug deals and public urination in less-affluent neighborhoods, and can stay up for years at a time. The sidewalk sheds themselves have even injured 39 people since 2011! The city’s 200 miles of sidewalk shed are attributable to some well-meaning and aggressive regulation implemented during the Giuliani years after falling debris hurt two in 1997. Their injuries were minor—one victim didn’t even seek medical help— but the reaction was major.
Stricter rules meant 10-12,000 buildings had to be hand-inspected for flaws, the definition of which had been broadened, and repaired to the city’s liking every five years to pass muster and remove sidewalk sheds. Because the inspection scheduled isn’t staggered, this meant a rush on a small supply of inspectors and contractors who can fix such problems, and their prices went up considerably. In many cases, keeping a sidewalk shed up and paying fines for not removing it within the 5-year inspection period became cheaper and easier than repairing the relatively minor problems now classified as unsafe by the city.
Now, New York has a solution. Are you ready for this? Artists and architects are going to revamp and re-envision the sidewalk shed. As I write in the New York Post today, putting really expensive lipstick on your pig doesn’t make sense when you could just remove the pig:
This month, architect Zaha Hadid made news by creating a beautified, gossamer improvement upon this ubiquitous structure in Manhattan’s High Line neighborhood. The Iraqi-born artist’s sidewalk shed of transcendence, constructed of taut white fabric between 27th and 28th Streets, is also ephemeral. It’ll remain only until the work on the building it surrounds is completed in a couple of months.
Not so with the city’s other 199.8 miles of sidewalk shed, which range from architectural afterthought at best to semi-permanent blight and physical danger at worst. A design contest of the New York Building Congress is also attempting to improve on this plywood canopy of the concrete jungle. These are fun, creative, entrepreneurial efforts to harness the spirit of the city to unleash it from this unsightly mess.
Let me offer another modest proposal. What if the city literally unleashed itself by removing some of the sidewalk shed?
These efforts are private and creative. Have at it. But you know you can’t get through a NYT piece about a decent civic idea to fix the problem overzealous regulation caused without someone pitching the idea of MORE REGULATION to enforce the solution:
But many developers said that little will change unless the city, through mandates or incentives, gets involved. Most building owners do not have the budget for a well-designed shed, and given that the run-of-the-mill version does its job well, city officials have not considered shed beautification a priority.
There it is.