Umbrella clause: New scaffolding firm aims to turn Downtown’s blight into a boon

Urban Umbrella
Urban Umbrella’s snazzy scaffolding looks more like a decorative flourish than a mandatory safety precaution.

BY JACKSON CHEN

A startup company wanting to revolutionize the city’s sidewalk scaffolding industry is getting a warm reception from Downtowners eager to be free of the neighborhood’s signature blight.

The founders of Urban Umbrella wowed members of Community Board 1’s Quality of Life Committee in April, and presented their innovative designs to the full board on May 23.

Urban Umbrella is the brainchild of designer Young Choi, architect Andres Cortes, and structural engineer Sarrah Khan, and they want to transform the image of the scaffolding that wraps around so many buildings Downtown with designs that make the mandatory safety sheds seem almost decorative.

“There hasn’t been innovation in the scaffolding industry in over 50 years, so the product looks exactly the same,” said company co-founder Ben Krall. “We’ve designed the Urban Umbrella to do the opposite.”

Urban Umbrella
Urban Umbrella’s scaffolding design brings in light from above while reducing the clutter of posts and crossbeams below.

Unlike the dark, claustrophic sidewalk sheds that blight so many Lower Manhattan streets, Urban Umbrellas have translucent tops that bring in natural light and offer open views to those walking underneath. To reduce congestion and improve mobility, the design also does away with the horizontal beams that corral pedestrians. The design also eliminates the upper plywood facings that obscure storefronts. And at night, the structures are lit by LED lights that both increase visibility and save energy.

“[Urban Umbrella] is a whole new redesign that’s never been done before,” Krall said. “We let more sunlight onto the sidewalk with translucent paneling, we’ve got LED lights built in and created a safe pedestrian walkway.”

The company was first introduced to the city after winning the 2009 urbanSHED competition under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, leading to a contact to deploy its unique take on scaffolding around a development at 100 Broadway in December 2011.

But being more expensive than the entrenched providers of traditional sheds, Urban Umbrella couldn’t gain a foothold in a New York real estate industry still reeling from the financial crisis, so the company refocused its efforts on Canada, where its designs were well received.

Following their experience with our neighbor to the north, Krall decided it was time to return to the Big Apple now that demand is picking up, and developers — especially of the type of luxury projects proliferating Downtown — are increasingly concerned about their image.

The company’s first batch of Urban Umbrellas, totaling around 1,000 feet of scaffolding, are already booked by several “high visibility developers” for a handful of projects to be completed in the fall, Krall said.

Now the Urban Umbrella founders are hoping to build wider interest by presenting their product to residents they think will be most positively impacted — and they found a highly receptive audience at CB1.

“We’ve been working on the issue of there being so much scaffolding in our community, scaffolding that for some unknown reason had been up for many years,” said Pat Moore, chairwoman of CB1’s Quality of Life Committee. “Let alone scaffolding that goes up to start a new structure, we’re talking about scaffolding for repairs that stays up for no apparent reason.”

Moore said the many complaints they’ve heard about Downtown’s conventional scaffolds include accumulating garbage, attracting homeless villages, and creating sidewalk congestion. After Urban Umbrella’s presentation and a discussion at a CB1 full board meeting on May 23, Moore said they’ll be talking to the mayor’s office to find ways to encourage more building owners and developers to use more innovative scaffold designs — from Urban Umbrella, or anybody else. Though she said Krall’s group already seems a few steps ahead.

“We would want to see any scaffolding company that is available,” Moore said. “We’re not just saying it has to be Urban Umbrella, but it seems to be the only company that is not only aesthetically pleasing but it’s functional.”

Urban Umbrella
Sidewalks covered by Urban Umbrella’s scaffolding have a completely different look and feel from the dark, claustrophobic sheds that plague Downtown.

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