By Arthur Z. Schwartz
For the better part of 22 years, scaffolding shut out all light on the sidewalk in front of and around 26 West 9th Street, forming a dirty tunnel of darkness on an otherwise classic Greenwich Village block.
The 26 West 9th Street scaffold was the second-oldest sidewalk scaffold in the five boroughs: The structure, technically a sidewalk shed, went up in 1999 due to an unsafe façade and stayed in place through the end of the Giuliani era and the better part of the Bloomberg administration. That shed came down in 2007, but another one went up in 2012 — again due to an unsafe façade.
The city’s current shed rules date back to 1979, when a piece of masonry fell off a Columbia University building and crushed a student. Since then, Local Law 11 has required the inspection of larger building facades every five years; those that fail must put up a sidewalk shed until the repairs are complete.
But building owners have often found it cheaper to renew the shed permits than complete the required work. The Building Department requires unsafe façade repair work to be completed within 60 days, at which point it begins issuing enforcement actions. Those enforcement actions proved “effective,” in the case of the second shed at the above address only taking 3,600 days.
In recent years, the city has announced initiatives to crack down on negligent shed stewards: increasing penalties for uncompleted work, while bringing nuisance abatement cases against the worst offenders.
Early on in the pandemic, local residents led by Leslie Breeding and Nina Kaufelt, working with the 9th Street Block Association, organized to finally have the structure removed, forming a neighborhood group that leafleted and postered the block with a simple demand: “Take It Down, George!” (a reference to George Adams, the building’s owner, who did not respond to a request for comment). But even as violations piled up, the structure remained in place.
On April 28, 2021, an account called @TimesUpGeorge announced its mission with a flurry of tweets. They ranged from the descriptive — “This is when it all started,” one reads with a photo of a permit dated back to 1999 — to the poetic: “22 years under a 75 ft. shadow.” The tenants of 26 West 9th Street were fed up; they wanted George Adams, to take down the scaffolding that had been erected around their building for the better part of 23 years.
The tweets, polite but firm, kept coming: “Hey George: The tenants at 26 W 9th have been complaining to us about the egregious sidewalk shed. You’re also imposing on the folks at 22 W 9th and 30 W 9th. Send news soonest.” “Landlord George Adams at 26 W. 9th St. has no respect for city law or his tenants. See City records below. Take it down, George!”
Then, on Monday November 14 – after a lengthy process of repairs and inspections to the damaged facade – the Department of Buildings deemed the building safe. Contractors arrived to cart off the timeworn scaffolding. The tenants had finally succeeded.
The structure was one of at least 21 sidewalk sheds that have stood for at least a decade, according to data provided by the Department of Buildings (there are likely others not permitted by the city). These are the outliers, the agency said. The average age of the nearly 10,000 sheds spread across the city – enough to reach Canada – is a little over seven months.
But the fact that some sheds go up and do not come down for years on end is a reflection of the city’s oversight failure. And while it shouldn’t fall on neighborhood activists to fight absentee landlords, the shed’s end is a cause for celebration
Arthur Z. Schwartz is the Democratic District Leader in Greenwich Village.