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A DESIGNER BOOM AMID THE BUST
by Jerry Guo
Every street corner in New York these days, it seems, has a dry cleaner, pizza joint, dive bar, and neighborhood designer hotel. New York has hundreds of hotels, including at least 50 luxury properties. So why, over the past year, has the city suddenly given rise to a slew of new high-end designer properties? After all, this is where the global financial crisis started.
The new gems include the Setai Fifth Avenue, which opened in early November after months of anticipation. One of the biggest developments to emerge in recent years, the 60-story, 214-room ultraluxe property features a full-floor Auriga spa, a Julien Farel salon, and spectacular views of Chelsea and midtown from the upper floors. Yet it didn’t pop up overnight; developer Davide Bizzi, Italy’s richest real-estate tycoon, sealed the $670 million deal in August 2006, well before the Wall Street crash.
In fact, New York’s sudden hospitality renaissance says less about the local economy’s recovery than about the rise of the city’s profile in the eyes of foreigners. In addition to savvy foreign investors, foreign travelers are flocking to New York, drawn by the weak dollar and the glut of tony new digs, from midtown high-rises to chic SoHo boutiques. Europeans—led by the French and Italians—and the nouveau riche from China, India, and Brazil are coming to New York for lavish shopping trips and weekend party blowouts. Last year, New York overtook Orlando as America’s top travel destination for foreigners. "New York City has outperformed the rest of the U.S. in terms of a rebound in hospitality," says Ivanka Trump, the socialite and hotelier, adding that corporate travel and inbound foreign tourism are both fueling the recovery. Her family company’s two New York properties, by the way, are not doing too badly: the newly renovated Trump International is up 15 percent in occupancy, and the sleek Trump SoHo, which opened in April, is up 11 percent this year.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve poked my head into some of the city’s newest buzzworthy properties. Some—like the Chatwal, whose opening in September was attended by the likes of Bill Clinton—are overhyped iterations that turn out to be rather forgettable (think cookie-cutter New York art deco). But a dozen brought something fresh to the high-end hotel scene.
We begin in the financial district, the fastest-growing residential neighborhood in greater New York. Yes, the banks have moved out, and the streets here at night can still invoke that post-apocalyptic "Where is everybody?" feeling, but this part of town is getting a makeover. Designer boutiques are setting up on Wall Street, and several new restaurants have popped up near Battery Park, with a trio of new hotels anchoring the cultural revitalization of the whole neighborhood. The Andaz Wall Street and the W Downtown have the same vibe—corporate cool—and boast trendy rooms and after-work bars, although the Andaz, with its farm-to-table restaurant, exudes more warmth. If you’re looking for something more Old World masculine, with stag trophies to boot, check into the newly rebranded Gild Hall on Gold Street. The Andaz and Gild Hall have already been added to the Kiwi Collection, a prestigious guide to designer hotels.
Nearby SoHo and Tribeca are witnessing a similar boom in designer properties. The hulking tower of the Trump SoHo is decidedly not boutique, but its city views are hard to beat outside the "it" hotel of the moment, The Standard in the meatpacking district. For a more intimate experience, try the James or the Crosby in SoHo, both of which feel residential, thanks in part to the cobblestone streets. For an absolute splurge, check out the penthouse with wraparound terrace at the Smythe Tribeca (insert joke about how a typical West Village studio can fit in the apartment’s outdoor lounge areas).
Midtown has traditionally been the Bermuda Triangle of creative properties, with Times Square its epicenter. But move a few blocks out, and you’ll find several promising new options. Aside from the Setai, there’s the Eventi, near Herald Square, an ambitious hotel-residential complex with an upscale twist on the modern food court on the first floor, featuring high-tech kiosks to place orders. A few blocks east sits the Gansevoort Park Avenue, which feels like an outpost of the W Downtown, with decidedly bigger rooms. In fact, everything about this establishment screams jumbo size, including the indoor-outdoor heated pool and trilevel rooftop deck. (Tip: the rooftop lounge is a less-crowded alternative to the Gansevoort’s meatpacking location.)
For an Upper East Side take on the designer-hotel scene, the Surrey embodies ultraluxury at its most understated. The Mr. and Mrs. Smith-listed property celebrates the subtler things, like Duxiana mattresses, Sferra bedding, and in-room dining from none other than Daniel Boulud. No wonder celebrities like Richard Branson, whom I interviewed in the presidential suite, and Vince Vaughn, who was on his way out, choose the Surrey.
Indeed, in these circles the recession feels like a distant memory, if it ever was a worry. At the black-tie Plaza Hotel, which recently underwent a whopping $400 million renovation, the famed Oak Room has been turned into a dance club, la Bagatelle, for Saturday brunch, with tipsy patrons drenching each other with endless bottles of Dom Perignon and Veuve Clicquot champagne. Some things still can’t be found on every corner in New York.