The Face of the City, Hidden Under Shabby Sheds

My apartment building on the Upper West Side has cowered under city-required scaffolding for the better part of a year.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

The building next door to the east is also under scaffolding, which should more properly be called a sidewalk shed. A tall building on the opposite side of the street to the north is similarly covered. So is a huge apartment complex across the avenue to the west.

Buildings immediately to the north, south and west of that huge complex all have sheds, as do still other buildings directly opposite those buildings.

A church abuts my building to the south. It has had a sidewalk shed wrapped around it since the first days of the Bloomberg administration, maybe earlier. Who can remember? An apartment house next door to the church on the east is also under wraps. So are buildings right near that apartment house to the east and the south.

You get the idea.

In my sunnier moments when I’m beneath these structures, trying not to feel as if I’ve entered a mine shaft, I think of Bologna, that beautiful Italian city with miles of colonnaded boulevards. But whom am I kidding? Comparing the unsightly sheds of New York to the graceful arcades of Bologna is pure baloney.

The sheds, ungainly structures of steel pipes and wood, do have their merits. They provide shelter in a rainstorm — that is, unless they leak. Homeless people find a measure of comfort huddling under them. Doormen are grateful for the scaffolding when it snows; it means less shoveling for them.

So much for the bright side. What else can be said except what has long been true: the sheds are Stygian and depressing, sometimes scary and always plumb ugly.

They are terrible for any business scrunched beneath them. That was reinforced the other day when a New York landmark, the Stage Deli, shut its doors. There were several reasons that the Stage couldn’t make it, but the many months that it sulked under a shed didn’t help. “We lost a whole year,” the owner, Paul Zolenge, lamented.

Sheds are inescapable, especially in Manhattan. The city’s Buildings Department says there are roughly 6,000 of them in the five boroughs, covering about a million feet of sidewalk. That’s 190 miles, the distance between New York and Boston. They are supposed to be temporary. But “temporary” in many instances may be taken as a synonym for “forever.”

While sheds of one sort or another have been around for decades, their modern incarnation took shape in 1980 with the passage of Local Law 10, requiring detailed inspections of building facades. That legislation followed the death of a Barnard College student, Grace Gold, who was struck by masonry that fell from a building owned by Columbia University at Broadway and 115th Street.

The intentions behind the law are honorable. Still, where is it written that safety requires structures that are irretrievably hideous? No less than the face of the city is at stake.

The buildings commissioner, Robert LiMandri, apparently agrees. His department sponsored a competition for a more pleasing design. A year ago it announced the winner: something that its designers call the Urban Umbrella, an arching structure that, in fact, resembles a patio umbrella. Made of recycled steel and translucent plastic panels, it allows a flow of daylight. At night, LED units provide plenty of illumination.

“We brought it to the forefront,” Tony Sclafani, a department spokesman, said. “We’re encouraging it.”

Sounds promising. But we’ve yet to see any of these structures, which the city may be encouraging but is not requiring. How many are there?

“There are actually two Urban Umbrellas up,” Mr. Sclafani said.

Great.

“In Toronto,” he quickly added.

Oh.

Indeed, Ryerson University in Toronto and a downtown building there on Bloor Street are umbrella pioneers, said one of the designers, Andrés Cortes. The New York construction industry, not known for readily embracing change, has yet to take to the innovation. Price may be a factor. Besides, there is all that old wood and steel piping lying around.

“I think it’s probably a function of developers being accustomed to paying rock-bottom dollar for something that looks like what it looks like, and not really being able to stomach the premium for the nicer stuff,” Mr. Cortes said.

Still, he has hopes. After all, how long can we go on pretending we’re in Bologna?

“You don’t feel like you’re in Bologna,” he said. “You feel like you’re in the gutters of Bologna.”

And that’s no baloney.


E-mail Clyde Haberman: [email protected]

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