Sidewalk Sheds Shield Criminal Acts, Shelter the Unhoused, Blight Small Business Bottom Line, Hassle Passersby


The COVID-19 crisis that wreaked havoc on our city is compounding quality of life problems this summer, as loiterers who use and sell drugs make the streets less safe for those who call West Chelsea home. Now, those residents are reaching out to elected officials for help removing some of the scaffolding and sidewalk sheds where people congregate, sometimes engaging in illegal activities.

“My office has worked hard over the years to eliminate unnecessary and unsightly sheds that have been up for years and aren’t connected to construction, but the city needs to do more. The de Blasio administration must take this seriously, and work with small businesses to provide relief,” said New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who, as District 3 rep, has successfully worked with other community leaders to remove problem scaffoldings in Chelsea.

As of late, the problem has moved to Eighth Ave. btw. W. 20th-22nd Sts. and its accompanying side streets, where individuals are dealing hard drugs, smoking crystal meth on the front stoops of buildings in which they do not reside, injecting drugs, and leaving used syringes in the street. One resident of the 300 block of W. 21st St. has had enough of watching the nearby sidewalk shed used as shelter for drug deals and hookups.

“Everyone on this block is very unhappy about it,” said longtime Chelsea resident Vivek Batra, who has three sidewalk sheds on his block. “Ever since the incidents of people being killed by falling bricks and mortar, there are unlimited permits for sidewalk sheds. The scaffolding [on my block] has been up for a year and a half, and it will be another year and a half before the work is done. And under the scaffoldings any hour, day or night, the homeless are watching porn.”

Said Community Board 4 (CB4) public member and 38-year Chelsea resident Sally Greenspan, “In that particular area, the scaffolding and the LinkNYC [kiosk] tower have a confluence.” (For our recent coverage on that confluence, click here.)

Batra said these street youth sometimes climb the scaffolding in an attempt to burglarize second story apartments. At other times, he said, they engage in sexual activities in vestibules, or steal packages from building lobbies.

Greenspan, who is also an active member of the Council of Chelsea Block Associations, recalled having “always wondered why scaffoldings seemed to always go up, but never come down.”

The reasons, to quote Greenspan’s assessment, are “much more complicated than I’d imagined.” Issues include problems with owners securing bank loans to complete necessary repairs, as well as ancillary issues like delinquent or absentee owners, inclement weather, and, increasingly as of late, the human factor.

John Mudd, who serves as president of the Midtown South Community Council, has been successful in helping an unhoused individual who was using a sidewalk shed located near his residence in the West 30s as a home. He helped the man get stabilized and find housing, but can’t stem the tide through individual effort.

(As noted by Mudd, the term “homeless” is inelegant at best, inaccurate at worst. As such, he suggests, “unhoused” takes into account those who consider city-run shelters unsafe, or choose not to shelter-in-place where they reside, because the domestic situation exposes them to physical or psychological harm.)

“Chelsea has been overwhelmed by sheds,” said Mudd. “There are way too many going and staying up, just being left up. And yes, the unhoused will gather under these sheds to get out of the rain, and set up camp, or whatever.”

This summer seems to be the perfect storm for those seeking refuge under Chelsea sidewalk sheds and scaffoldings.

“These kids aren’t from this neighborhood, and social services should be dealing with it,” said Batra. “I think a lot [of them are] homeless and I feel bad for them, but not worse than I feel about them taking over the neighborhood and doing drugs everywhere.”

Homelessness A Huge Part of the Problem | The proliferation of scaffolding may be irritating, but it seems the behavior of those who congregate underneath it is the real issue that is leaving Chelsea residents at odds, in this oddest of summers.

“It often seems like more scaffolding keeps going up, while existing scaffolding comes down at a snail’s pace, but it’s complicated,” said Greenspan. Local Law 11 inspections and repairs must be made while scaffolding is up, and oftentimes necessary repairs are delayed beyond the control of the building owners, ergo the extended life of the scaffolding. One challenge is to identify the delinquent owners who have either not made repairs in a timely manner or made repairs required by Local Law 11 and still have not removed the scaffolding.

In a Nov. 21, 2019 symposium held by the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club (CRDC), called “Homeless: Challenges, Choices and Crises,” Eric Bottcher, Chief of Staff to New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, noted the rising rates of homelessness in the city. (To read our coverage of the symposium, click here.)

“Homelessness went up 23 percent under Rudolph Giuliani. It went up another 70 percent under Michael Bloomberg and it’s gone up, I believe, another 40 percent under Bill de Blasio,” said Bottcher.