Corinne Ulmann's “GreenScreen” turns a stalled construction site at 133 Greenwich St. into an oasis across from New York City's Freedom Tower. The installation is one of four winning urbancanvas designs. Each artist received $7,500, which was donated by the Rockefeller Foundation. Photo: Rachel Richards/NYC Department of Buildings

From New York to San Francisco, cities are tackling a common challenge: revitalizing unsightly — and sometimes unsafe — sites left behind when construction projects lose funding before they're finished.

As of July 2011, New York City had more than 650 stalled construction sites — along with the accompanying sidewalk obstructions, litter, and vandalism. The problem inspired Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to urge public agencies and private entities to seek “new and imaginative land uses that could, if only temporarily, revitalize neighborhoods.” He published a report citing successful examples that, in some cases, are boosting the local economy as well:

  • The Dekalb Market. An open-air mall in Brooklyn with shops made from salvaged shipping containers, six incubator farms, an events venue, and a beer garden. (Designer: Urban Space ; Developer: Youngwoo and Associates)
  • The Lot at 30th Street. 20,000 square feet became home to events and food venues including art exhibits, a skating rink, a 350-seat bar, and food trucks. (Operators: the High Line nonprofit conservancy; Owners: Related Companies and Abington Properties)
  • Timeshare Backyard . New Yorkers rent their own suburban-style lawn in Manhattan for $50 an hour. (Consultants/Organizers: The Participation Agency ; Owners: Ludlow Place Corp.)
  • The city also supports programs that address the areas outside stalled and active construction zones. “It's New York City — construction is something we have to live with,” says Danielle Grillo, executive director of community partnerships for the Department of Buildings. “But it doesn't always create the most pleasant environment.”

    The department of Buildings and Cultural Affairs' urbancanvas Design Competition challenged artists to beautify construction fences, sidewalk sheds, cocoon systems, and support scaffolds. Building owners and construction companies can install one of four winning designs (see photo). The Department of Buildings coordinates the setup; project owners pay for installation.

    Another program co-sponsored by the Department of Buildings, the urbanSHED International Design Competition, spawned a sleek alternative to the typical sidewalk shed: the “Urban Umbrella.” Made with recycled steel supports and translucent plastic panels to bring in natural light, improving safety and visibility for storefronts, the $69,000 first installation was funded by the Alliance for Downtown New York and completed in December 2011.

    “People didn't know what to make of it at first,” says Grillo. “They thought it was a new awning for a business.”

    She stresses the importance of involving the community and getting buy-in from the construction industry. “Make sure the end result is something project owners are willing to use — otherwise you end up with something that's a nice idea, but won't be successful,” she says.

    Stringer's report recommends several ways cities can support revitalization efforts, including: passing legislation allowing government agencies to partner with developers to temporarily convert unused sites; creating more campaigns to generate ideas for using stalled sites; streamlining permit approvals for temporary commercial uses; reclaiming sidewalks at stalled construction sites; and removing regulatory barriers that delay construction from starting again.


    For an “Urban Umbrella” slideshow and photos of these and other projects across the country, click here.