Manhattan Community Boards

Despite Troubled Climate, Hotelier Goes Forward With Chelsea Plan

On the evening of Feb. 6, hotelier Richard Born sat on the scuffed wooden stage of an auditorium in Chelsea holding a microphone. Looking tan and relaxed in a dark gray suit and black turtleneck, the man behind the Mercer and Chambers hotels let his feet dangle casually as he listened to a barrage of questions from local residents and members of Community Board 4 about his plans for a new hotel on Ninth Avenue, between 16th and 17th streets.

“Most people that I speak to think I’m absolutely nuts to do this,” he said, his voice bouncing off the cinderblock walls.

With tourism in the city sucker-punched by Sept. 11 and the recent economic downturn, hotel occupancy rates have plummeted (to about 73 percent last year, from a high of 83 percent in 2000) and average room rates have gone south, from $237 in 2000 to a projected $182 this year. In this climate, plans for new hotels are being unceremoniously shoved onto back burners all over town. A new development by Ian Schrager on Astor Place is on hold, as are two of Mr. Born’s own new construction proj-ects: a joint venture with Mr. Schrager on Bond Street and one with Robert De Niro in Tribeca.

But Mr. Born is going full steam ahead in Chelsea. It’s the one project he says he can afford in this environment. The site is an already-existing building, which makes the project economically feasible. Mr. Born is under contract to purchase the 11-story New York Service Center, which was once part of the Covenant House complex and is notable for its porthole-like windows. Erected by the National Maritime Union in 1960, the building was sold to the Covenant House for wayward children in the mid-80′s. The Covenant House sold it in 1996 to the Chinese government, which has been using it to house visiting Chinese scholars. The ticket price for the combined purchase and renovation of the building is about $30 million, far less than the cost of new construction. “I think this is a fantastic building,” Mr. Born told The Observer .”Those round windows inside are phenomenal; the light streaming in in the afternoon-it’s just spectacular.”

Mr. Born plans to leave the portholes intact and carry the nautical theme to the interior design of the 124 rooms, which he envisions as being something reminiscent of “the state room of a yacht, probably with a fair amount of wood.” He also intends to build a one-story, 120-seat restaurant and cocktail lounge on the plaza that separates the hotel from Ninth Avenue. Mr. Born described the hotel as mid-range, somewhere around $200 per night, and said that it will aim to attract leisure as well as business travelers.

Will it be the next scene about town? Mr. Born says no. He’s going for “contemporary and sophisticated, but not mayhem. The idea is not to create a party,” he told The Observer , though he skillfully avoided answering direct questions from local residents as to what time the restaurant and bar would close.

In addition to fears of patrons causing a ruckus on the street, concerns expressed by residents included congestion at the hotel’s main entrance on 16th Street, where traffic frequently builds up because of crowding on 14th Street.

Mr. Born came before the board seeking its blessing on a zoning variance that would allow more commercial activity on the lot. In its resolution, the board urged Mr. Born to conduct a traffic study to be sure that access to his hotel won’t cause problems. The board also asked Mr. Born for a written pledge that he will tap the neighborhood when filling the 150 or so jobs the hotel is expected to create when it opens in the spring of 2003. Mr. Born acquiesced and the board approved the variance, with 35 votes in favor and one abstention. “It’s such a crazy building, we’re lucky to get this,” said board member Ed Kirkland.

Encouraged by Mr. Born’s generally positive track record in other communities where he operates, the board members were largely behind the project, hoping that it will bring increased security as well as jobs to the area-so long as the venture stays afloat. “He may have his rose-colored glasses on to be opening at all,” said board member Cheryl Kupper.

Mr. Born agrees with the doubters. “The reason I’m going through with this project is because I am nuts,” he reiterated to The Observer . But he also says that he and his partner, Ira Drukier, are “long-term believers in the city.” With all those other new projects on hold, his as-yet-unnamed hotel (“It’ll just come to me one day,” he said) may be the only new opening next spring. “We may turn out, in retrospect, to look very smart,” he said.

-Karina Lahni

Feb. 13: Board 6, New York University Medical Center, 550 First Avenue, Classroom B, 7 p.m., 319-3750.

Feb. 14: Board 5, Fashion Institute of Technology, 227 West 27th Street, Building A, eighth floor, 6 p.m., 465-0907.

Feb. 19: Board 11, La Guardia House, basement, 307 East 116th Street, 6:30 p.m., 831-8929; Board 3, P.S. 20, 166 Essex Street, 6:30 p.m., 533-5300.