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NYC sidewalk sheds draw watchdog scrutiny: City home to more than 7,000 of the unsightly structures

A woman walks under a sidewalk shed in

A woman walks under a sidewalk shed in front of 409 Edgecombe Ave. in Manhattan on Friday, Sept. 11, 2015. There are more than 7,000 of the unsightly sheds covering the city's streets, which has drawn the attentions of watchdogs and officials. Photo Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Ever feel like city streets are covered in nothing but tall sidewalk sheds as far as the eye can see? You're right.

Nearly 7,300 buildings have a total of 7,708 permits for sidewalk sheds as of Aug. 31 and in many cases, those wood-and-steel structures are clustered around the same block, according to data from the city's Department of Buildings.

Although the sheds are mandatory for construction of new high rises and during repairs on older buildings, some have turned into ugly fixtures in their neighborhoods. Over 1,333 projects are more than 18 months old.

"Five years ago, I certainly didn't see that many around here," said James G. Clynes, the chair of Community Board 8, which covers the shed-heavy Upper East Side. "It's bittersweet because it means that construction is booming, but at the same time it takes away from the mom-and-pops and other buildings that are here."

Community groups, the city and some elected officials, such as state Assemb. Robert Rodriguez (D-East Harlem) have all worked to mitigate the negative effects of the sheds.

Rodriguez proposed state legislation that would mandate construction companies to show they've done at least 10 days work for 12 straight months to get their shed permit renewed.

"We know this is an area where garbage gets thrown, folks loiter, and there are no cameras that can see through," he said. "We need to filter out the sheds that are useless."

Manhattan topped the boroughs with 3,743 shed permits, which came as no surprise to elected officials and community leaders downtown and in neighborhoods such as the Upper East Side and Greenwich Village.

Other neighborhoods with an influx of shed permits citywide include Williamsburg, Downtown Brooklyn and Bedford-Stuyvesant, according to the data.

In addition to the new highrises that have popped up since the economic rebound, hundreds of older buildings require repair work.

"It is a safety issue, that's No. 1," said City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who represents lower Manhattan. "We want to make sure pedestrians are protected [during construction] and we have to take that into serious consideration."

Chin has heard complaints from residents over the years about the sheds being poorly maintained.

"Anyone who lives in the area feels these spots are concerning," she said.

Mickey Dennis, 24, who moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant from Washington state a few months ago, said he wasn't too bothered by the sheds.

"There's always so much construction," he said. "Plus it's good for when it's raining."
Nicole Schneider, 24, of Ridgewood, however said she is bothered by the darkness the sheds create and she believes they ruin the city's aesthetic.

"You used to see the Chrysler Building behind the Irving Plaza [marquee]. It was beautiful and now it's gone," she said of her view at work in Union Square, which has been inhibited by a shed.

The economic impact can be serious, even if an affected store posts a sign on the shed advertising the business.

"If you can't see that sign at the top of the store, then you won't know it exists at all," Clynes said.

About 88 sheds have been up for more than five years, including one at 470 Lafayette Ave. in Bedford-Stuyvesant since Sept. 2004, and 211 Edgecombe Ave. in Harlem since July 2005.
The construction crews and owners of those buildings couldn't be reached for comment. 

Alexander Schnell, a buildings department spokesman, said the city takes the concerns of local residents very seriously when they issue the yearlong shed permits.

Under city guidelines, the sheds must be at least 8 feet tall, can't be placed closer than 18 inches from the curb and must be lit with bulbs at least 45 lumens per watt at all times of the day. When it comes to renewal, Schnell said the city's goal is to make sure each construction or renovation project is completed without any flaws as soon as possible.

"The shed is supposed to act as a temporary remediation," he said.

Rodriguez said the city needs to update the code because the construction delays are piling up. His bill, he said, would hopefully give the construction crews incentive to speed up their work. 

"The question is how do you parse out that work and when does it get completed," he said.
In the meantime, the city is exploring options to make the sheds prettier. Since 2013, the city has mandated a hunter green color and began allowing store advertisements.

In 2011, the city unveiled the winner of a design competition for a more artistic shed, located at 100 Broadway in the Financial District. The white aluminum shed looks like an upside down umbrella and has translucent panels for natural sunlight.

Construction crews have not caught on to the "Urban Umbrella" due to its higher cost, Chin said.

Incorporating it, though, would go a long way toward mitigating the impact of the sheds, according to Chin.

"It's up to private business owners to catch onto that," she said.


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