The wood-and-steel frame covering a busy corner of Harlem blots out the sunlight, blocks foot traffic and attracts unsavory crowds and litter. It has been there, in one form or another, for at least 17 years, making it one of the most notorious examples of that increasing scourge of New York City sidewalks: scaffolding.
“Everybody complains,” said Joyce Nicholas, 73, whose hair braiding salon sits under the scaffolding. “It’s been up too long.”
The scaffolding wraps partly around a six-story apartment building with crumbling stonework. It was intended to be a temporary fix until repairs could be made, to ensure passers-by were not hit by loose stones and debris. But as the years came and went, the building’s facade remained unsafe, and the scaffolding not only stayed but grew bigger.
Now it has become a cautionary lesson as scaffolding has blanketed the city.
In total, more than 285 miles of scaffolding cover the front of 7,862 buildings, according to the city’s Buildings Department. The city began requiring scaffolding as part of a 1980 city law that established regular inspections of building facades after a college student was killed by a chunk of terra cotta that fell from an apartment house.
As the scaffolding has proliferated, the Buildings Department has faced growing criticism that it is not doing enough to police those structures that stay too long. A City Council bill targeting such scaffolding would require it to be taken down within six months of going up, or sooner when no work is being done. The bill has drawn opposition from building owners and managers who say they may not have the money to make repairs immediately.
City building officials say that scaffolding ensures public safety and that they are required to ensure that it remains up as long as a building needs work.
Over the years, the city has struggled to keep track of scaffolding when permits have lapsed, or when existing scaffolding is simply replaced with new scaffolding under a new permit. In the case of the Harlem building, city records initially showed that the scaffolding went up only in 2012, which is when the owner replaced it.
A New York Times story in May about the city taking a more aggressive approach to scaffolding cited an 11-year-old structure in front of an unfinished Brooklyn home as the oldest in city records, which prompted readers to write in about the Harlem scaffolding. “The Buildings Department can’t even keep up with the scaffolding it itself has approved, probably because the people who approved it have long since died,” wrote Peter Benjaminson, an author who lives near the Harlem scaffolding, to the reporter.
The Harlem building, 100 Lenox Avenue at West 115th Street, has a troubled safety and repair history. It is owned by the Lenox and Pennamon Housing Development Fund Corporation, and has been cited for 29 violations of city building codes that have yet to be addressed. It has been assessed penalties of more than $86,000, of which $38,618 has been paid, according to city records.
Joseph Soldevere, a spokesman for the Buildings Department, said it “has long been a problem building and has facade defects that could pose a danger to pedestrians.” “The building owner needs to meet their legal responsibility to keep the building safe,” he added. “Until that happens, the sidewalk shed has to stay up to protect the public.”
The city once owned the building, which has 20 apartments and several stores on the ground floor. It acquired the building in 1974 after foreclosing on a tax lien against the property. In 1990, it transferred ownership of the building to Lenox Avenue Housing Associates, which in turn later transferred it to the Lenox and Pennamon Housing Development Fund Corporation. Both are controlled by the West Harlem Community Organization, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing and education services.
The West Harlem Community Organization did not respond to questions about the building. It has been embroiled in legal and financial problemsover its real estate operations, according to court papers.
The Buildings Department initially issued a permit for scaffolding at 100 Lenox Avenue in 1990, around the same time that the building left city hands. That permit expired seven months later, but it is not clear from city records or people’s memories when that scaffolding was taken down.
By early 2000, Ms. Nicholas recalled, there was no scaffolding when she opened her hair salon in the building. Not long after, she arrived at work to find a pile of stones that had fallen from an ornate window frame above. “I was worried,” she said. “It could have come down when customers were coming. It could have hurt somebody.”
Within days, scaffolding went up in front of the salon. Some years later, a huge chunk of brick fell on the corner, and the scaffolding was extended further around the building, according to Ms. Nicholas and others.
City building records show that a permit was issued in 2003 for scaffolding that the city went ahead and installed when the building owner did not. A series of yearly permit renewals by the owner followed, with one lapse in 2007 for about 20 months. A new permit was issued in 2012 when the owner replaced the scaffolding.
The lingering scaffolding has drawn unruly crowds who drink, smoke and make noise. Building residents toss trash out their windows onto the top of the scaffolding, some of which has blown onto people on the sidewalk.
“I don’t want it,” said Peter Sweet, 53, a contractor who lives down the block. “It’s in the way. It takes up space.”
The stores trapped under the scaffolding have suffered, too. Ms. Nicholas often has to stand on the sidewalk to wave at customers who cannot find her salon. A deli on the corner has lost customers who see the crowd in front and head elsewhere, according to the manager.
In May, the Buildings Department received a complaint through the 311 hotline that the scaffolding had caught fire and dispatched an inspector who found it unsafe. Soon afterward, the owner replaced the existing scaffolding.
But for a brief time — after the old structure was dismantled and before the new one went up — there was no scaffolding at all. Residents and business owners who believed it was finally gone for good snapped photos and reveled in the blue sky overhead.
“It was a wonderful day,” said Neal Shoemaker, the founder of the Harlem Heritage Tourism and Cultural Center, which is next to the scaffolding. “I was able to see my neighborhood. I was able to see it all. I started to see what it could be like.”
Then the new scaffolding went up and the celebration ended.