Sometimes it seems the official landmarks of New York City should not only include the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, but also the infamous sidewalk shed.
Mistakenly called “scaffolding” from time to time, the city boasts more than 10,000 of the temporary structures, designed to protect pedestrians from being hit by anything from above. While most common at construction sites, more and more often, they are popping up around buildings in need of renovations.
Overall, sheds cover more than 2 million linear feet of sidewalks in the city — or enough to stretch from New York City to West Virginia.
One of those sheds in particular has been a thorn in the side of some Waldo Avenue residents for years, covering just over 2,000 feet on the West 238th Street step street between Waldo and Irwin Avenue.
Its permit was granted to the managers of 3660 Waldo Ave., an apartment building just south of Gaelic Park and the entrance to Manhattan College, some five years ago, the same time the city’s building department issues warnings about loose façade that could fall and hurt people below.
While the shed might help 3660 Waldo buy time to get necessary renovations done, for Joan Kaufman — who lives nearby at 3800 Waldo Ave. — it’s been a nightmare. She’s lodged complaint after complaint about the building, and especially about the long-standing sidewalk shed, for years.
“This is ridiculous,” she said. “There’s vermin. There’s rats running all over the place. I can see them, (and) we can’t live like this. It’s filthy, they’re not cleaning it, they should take that down.”
One of her in-building neighbors, Annette Douglas, had even gone so far as to post flyers around the neighborhood, she said. They warned of the rats that had shacked up under and around the step streets, encouraging neighbors to instead call Councilman Andrew Cohen and Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz in the hopes of cleaning it up.
Complaints filed with the DOB date back at least five years. One, from September 2015, says the shed was constructed earlier that summer, but that construction didn’t appear to be occurring above or around it. Other complaints say the shed blocks access to handrails, and that the lights under the shed were out.
“Our neighbor has an issue, a DOB issue, with Local Law 11,” said Steven Berisha, an agent and property manager for 3800 Waldo. “Basically what happens is the city requires you to file your buildings as ‘unsafe,’ or ‘safe with repairs.’”
Local Law 11 is a successor to Local Law 10, enacted by Mayor Ed Koch in 1980 after a college student was killed by a piece of terra cotta that fell from a building. Now buildings of six stories or more — which describe 12,000 such structures in New York City — must be inspected every five years by a licensed architect or engineer. If the façade is found to be unsafe, building owners must put up scaffolding or sidewalk sheds to protect pedestrians from any potential falling masonry while construction or repairs are carried out.
Three inspection reports from 3600 Waldo found unsafe conditions — including one from this past July, according to documents filed with the city. That report noted that while some previously discovered issues had been fixed, there were new unsafe conditions in need of repair.
Those included damaged and “fractured” stone and brick at the top of the building, which already had been repaired to some degree, but needed further repairs.
A 2019 analysis by the New York Post found that some buildings throughout the city were covered in scaffolding more than a decade old, as putting up scaffolding or sidewalk sheds after an inspection and just leaving them up is easier and cheaper than putting up the sheds, taking them down after repairs, and reconstructing them after another inspection.
The city’s buildings department said permits for the shed were issued in 2015, and that the shed is required to stay up by law until repairs on the façade are completed. A spokesperson said they have issued multiple violations to the owner of the building for failing to maintain the façade and the shed.
The owner has hired a contractor and there are active permits for the repairs.
Kaufman and her neighbors have tried to make contact with the building’s managers, but getting through to the people in charge on the phone is a Sisyphean task.
Only assistant managers would speak to her or Berisha, Kaufman said, and hadn’t been helpful when they called about issues with the shed.
“We don’t have the support,” Kaufman said. “We got the people fighting. We have a terrific building, we have a terrific agent, we have a terrific board, we have a terrific agent. Our shareholders, they’re supportive, but we can’t get the support outside.”
She has been in contact with Cohen’s office, but has been frustrated with a lack of concrete, tangible changes. Even representatives from Cohen’s office were struggling to get a concrete response on when construction would be over.
“This was before the pandemic,” Berisha said. “When we started complaining, it was January, February, March. We hadn’t really gotten into the pandemic just yet. The conversations that Pat and I had were prior to everything being locked down.”
When reached by phone, a representative at the number listed online for 3660 Waldo told The Riverdale Press it was the wrong number — that she was not the apartments on Waldo Avenue.
Kaufman and her neighbors want an effort to take the shed down and revamp the step-street, which was in rough shape even prior to the construction of the shed. A similar effort was carried out on a step street just blocks away, on West 232nd Street, she said, resulting in clean, new concrete steps connecting Irwin and Riverdale avenues. Such an effort, they said, would make walking through the neighborhood much safer and easier.
“We want everybody in the building to be safe,” Berisha said. “Our safety for our building also reflects in the neighborhood. We want everyone in the neighborhood to be equally safe.