Sam Chang isn’t your typical New York hotel developer.
While others strive to emulate the chic boutique model, popularized by luxury lodging pioneer Ian Schrager, Mr. Chang has taken an alternative approach, bringing the suburban-style comforts of national hotel chains to urban explorers across the five boroughs.
Sure, even Mr. Schrager himself has a new line of hostelries now in the works under the Marriott moniker. But it’s hard to imagine him ever erecting a Holiday Inn Express, Comfort Inn or Candlewood Suites—much less sticking them all on the same block, as Mr. Chang is doing on West 39th Street.
A 20-story Comfort Inn already towers over the street, between Eighth and Ninth avenues. Five adjacent hotels are currently under construction. Mr. Chang and his partners are also building on nearby West 44th, 43rd, 36th, 35th, 29th, 26th and 24th streets, to name a few locations. His stated goal: a whopping 50 new hotels, stretching from the Bronx to Staten Island. “We’re getting close,” Mr. Chang told The Observer, adding, “And we can always do more.”
His appetite for construction is apparently so ravenous that he’s been known to start building, say, a Hilton Garden Inn before even bringing it up with the Hilton Hotel Corporation.
“Most developers don’t have the financing capabilities that Sam Chang does,” said Bill Fortier, Hilton Hotels’ senior vice president of franchise development, “so they have to get our licensing agreement before a bank will give them the money to build. Sam doesn’t necessarily need that, so he’ll go out and start building and then come and get the licensing agreement from us after the fact.”
Hilton execs aren’t exactly put off by Mr. Chang’s roundabout and rather presumptuous franchising tactics. To the contrary, they named him their multibrand “Developer of the Year” last winter, citing his multiple Hampton Inn, Hilton Garden Inn and Doubletree Hotel projects. Mr. Chang has since sold off at least one of his Hilton hotels, along West 28th Street, for nearly $50 million more than he paid for the lot, preconstruction, in 2005.
Still, his portfolio expands. Last month, he purchased a lot along East Eighth Street for $4.9 million with reported plans to build a new condo building. But the site’s future use wasn’t the most striking aspect of the deal. Mr. Chang reportedly bought the building “site unseen,” over the phone in a matter of mere minutes.
“He’s very fast—he can normally make decisions on the spot,” said Eastern Consolidated broker Charlotte Fu, who represented Mr. Chang on the blind condo buy, among other purchases. “I remember this apartment building I sold him in Flushing, Queens. He just stood in the hallway, took a look around, and gave me an offer right away. I said, ‘You should look inside an apartment.’ He said, ‘No, no, it’s not necessary. Don’t bother people.’”
Indeed, the Comfort Inn king of New York tried to keep a low profile while he and his partners quietly snatched up properties across the city. But his ambitions soon metastasized to the point that people couldn’t help but notice, making the CEO of the fast-foodishly named McSam Hotel Group something of a celebrity in real estate circles. “I’m not a movie star, I’m just an investor,” he said.
On Monday afternoon, according to an assistant, he was meeting with fellow building titan Donald Trump (about what she declined to say).
His seemingly insatiable hunger for land and apparent affinity for cladding his buildings in synthetic stucco, meanwhile, have become recurring jokes for those who follow local development. Mr. Chang, a 47-year-old Taiwan native, has just begun to embrace his newfound fame, sometimes granting interviews and occasionally making public appearances.
This past October, he joined a panel discussion, convened by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, about hotel development in the borough.
Mr. Chang clearly stood out as the rock star of the group, arriving late, talking bluntly, eliciting laughs and looking bored as others spoke, according to attendees.
And, contrary to the usual boosterish tone of chamber meetings, Mr. Chang, who already built two hotels in Brooklyn and currently has others in the pipeline, declared that the borough’s apparent boom time was already bust. “I’ve stopped buying in Brooklyn,” he reportedly said, and shook his head as others played up the demand for new rooms boroughwide.
“His attitude was more or less, ‘I speak from experience, and you newbies are in for a serious spanking,’” said Gabby Warshawer, who covered the debate for the Brooklyn real estate blog Brownstoner.
Other parts of town, meanwhile, are still yearning for some of Mr. Chang’s frank perspective.
Residents in the Bronx were miffed when the developer skipped public meetings and instead sent an attorney to answer questions about his proposed Comfort Inn on Webster Avenue, a project that, critics fear—given its remote location and the neighborhood’s seedy lodging history—could devolve into an hourly rate motel or makeshift homeless shelter.
Even subsequent protests failed to persuade Mr. Chang to show up.
“When you’ve got the chairman of the Democratic Party, the borough president’s office, and the local city councilman all walking the picket line, saying, ‘Stop this hotel’—that would’ve been the ‘Aha!’ moment for me,” said Gregory Faulkner, chairman of the Bronx’s Community Board 7. “That would’ve been the time for me to go out there and meet with people.”
Next week, the board is scheduled to vote on a resolution expressing its opposition to Mr. Chang’s proposed hotel. Not that it stands much chance of ever stopping the McSam steamroller.
“It’s as-of-right,” Mr. Faulkner conceded, “so he’s perfectly able to build without us.”
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