New York is covered in construction scaffolding. The city holds over 280 miles of scaffolding, your typical plywood and steel fare.
As of late, a new kind of “designer” scaffolding is popping up around the city from a company called Urban Umbrella. The company claims to make “New York City’s first scaffolding design alternative.” This spring, the brand will feature its designer scaffolding in front of buildings across the city in a partnership with Madison Avenue Business Improvement District (MABID).
Expect to see Madison Avenue’s glitzy sidewalks (between East 57th Street to East 86th Street in Manhattan) covered in the recycled steel and plastic scaffolding that aims to complement the shopping avenue, rather than make it look like a construction site.
The partnership is part of the BID’s efforts to promote safe sidewalks, without detracting from the aesthetic investments in the avenue’s storefronts and building design.
MABID President Matthew Bauer said, “Urban Umbrella is a game-changer; it takes what was a necessary element of the New York City streetscape and not a particularly welcome one, scaffolding, and turns it into an amenity. Urban Umbrella scaffolding allows for passage of light and air, compliments the Upper East Side’s historic architecture, and generally looks good, making the street more inviting for pedestrians.”
Urban Umbrella’s scaffolding is currently up outside the Ralph Lauren flagship store and the Apple Store, both on Madison Avenue. It’s also outside of apartment buildings, too, like one at 40 East 66th Street and at 31 East 72nd Street.
It’s also outside Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel on Madison Avenue and East 81st Street.
Chapel President William Villanova said, “We wanted scaffolding that would complement our façade and allow us to remain operational, so we could provide our client families with the services and accommodations they deserve and expect.”
The design is a cross-bracing-free sidewalk overhead made of steel, plastic panels and arching struts. The panels are made of clear polymer resin, allowing for 90% light transmission, with translucent roofs. There’s also protective netting. LED lights give the scaffolding an elegance and safety at night, too.
Though the company kicked off in 2017, it wasn’t until this past March that they installed scaffolding and sidewalk sheds across 100 buildings in New York City, Boston, Chicago, Connecticut, Toronto and Vancouver.
It’s wider than traditional scaffolding sidewalks, allowing for social distancing while visitors (who are shopping, for example) can wait outside while lining up for temperature checks.
The obvious question is: Why does New York scaffolding stay up for so long? It often stays up for extended periods of time, not only due to construction.
The main problem with scaffolding, especially in New York, is that it usually doesn’t come down for years. There have been reports of residents who have watched scaffolding stay up for over 20 years (true story: like the scaffolding up at the Milford Plaza Hotel on Eighth Avenue).
Some of the city’s longest standing scaffolding includes those that have been up for over a decade, like 409 Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem, which has had scaffolding since 2006, or in the Upper West Side at 360 Central Park West, which has been there since 2008.
In 2009 the city’s façade ordinance went into effect. The law requires buildings over six feet tall (over 12,000 buildings) to have façade inspections every five years, where inspectors search for cracked concrete and loose bricks. If a building owner doesn’t have the funds to address the issue, it delays the scaffolding being taken down. That isn’t necessarily the case for all building owners, but it is one of the many reasons why some scaffolding has stayed up for longer than expected (other projects lag behind their scheduled competition dates due to weather, like rain and snow).
If the façade inspections continue (as they surely will), hopefully companies like Urban Umbrella will make the buildings more attractive.
Their Founder and CEO, Benjamin Krall, said, “What sets Urban Umbrella apart from our competitors has always been our dedication to innovation, with a focus on safety. New York City’s businesses and storefronts need as much support as possible to encourage pedestrian traffic in a way that is safe, in order to cultivate prosperity and stability in the wake of the city’s post-pandemic economic recovery.”
Clearly, the pandemic has changed public space everywhere, but especially urban cities. “The sidewalk has become the place where commerce is conducted, where meetings are being held, and where people are eating,” said Krall.
“We’ll start seeing public space used differently over the next couple of years, and that includes shutting down streets for restaurants and allowing temporary structures for retail and restaurant use and for schools.”