According to the department of Buildings, New York City has approximately 9000 scaffolding sheds set up along its streets. Some of them have been there for as long as twelve years. Much to the dissatisfaction of community members, the amount of scaffolding invested in by the city is on the rise, but to what end and why?
The boom in the amount of scaffolding is partly due to the city’s strong economy and investment interest for developers, but for the most part, the sheds are part of a billion dollar industry that came together around the formation of a single law.
Local Law 10 was drawn up in response to the tragic death of Barnard College student, Grace Gold, who was struck and killed by a chunk of debris that dislodged from the façade of one of New York’s many aging buildings. The law enforces regular safety checks and maintenance of building facades and requires that proper safety precautions be put in place if necessary, often times as a temporary measure before inspectors have a chance to investigate a building. In most cases, these safety precautions involve scaffolding and protective sheds being erected over the sidewalk in front of such buildings to protect pedestrians from falling debris and crumbling facades.
For the suppliers of scaffolding materials and the contractors commissioned for the restorations, NYC’s appetite for scaffolding has translated into thriving businesses, a steady flow of job creation and more than just a little bread to put on the table, with some of the city’s leading scaffolding companies earning upwards of $60 million a year and placing in the 50 fastest growing companies in the city.
Not even the financial crisis of 2007-2008 could slow the steady growth of the massively successful scaffolding industry. In fact, not only does the scaffolding industry support itself, but it has become the central cash vein for a myriad of other contracting and manufacturing industries, including electricians, painters, and paint and steel manufacturers.
Of course, with its success, the industry has become heavily regulated and while it is relatively safe compared to other types of construction work, the rise in labor costs have substantially narrowed profit margins. Some argue that the market has become utterly saturated for this type of company and competition is at an all-time high.
Love them or hate them, sidewalk sheds are everywhere in the city. They have been accused of being eyesores, obscuring shopfronts, and even providing criminals and homeless people with dark alcoves in which to hide and conduct their underhanded business. Still, despite voices from detractors, the scaffolding industry shows no sign of slowing down and the sheds have become a de facto icon of the contemporary New York street.
Furthermore, the sheds are a necessity in protecting pedestrians from the aging skyline. Until the city can figure out a better way of doing this, the best course of action may not be to fight the trend but to embrace it. Recent regulations put into place ensure that the sheds are correctly lit at all times and that they are maintained, clean and safe. In the true New York spirit, emerging artists have capitalized on the existence of the sheds as a place to showcase their work for free. Like many New Yorkers, they’ve realized that for now, the scaffolding industry is here to stay - might as well make the most of it.