Ace in the Hole

l tales 0 Ace in the HoleLike many hospitality moguls, Alex Calderwood is a consummate optimist. Just ask him when his long awaited Ace Hotel at the corner of Broadway and 29th Street will finally be open for business.

“I can’t actually give you a firm, firm date,” Mr. Calderwood told The Observer during a brief tour of the as yet unfinished, 258-room Roman & Williams–designed lodge on the afternoon of March 12. “It will either be the last week in March or first week in April. It’s right around the corner.”

A planned hotel restaurant, operated by Ken Friedman of Spotted Pig fame, won’t be ready until June, however. Trendy new retail offerings, including outposts of West Coast standouts Rudy’s Barbershop and Stumptown Coffee, will take even longer. “We’re trying to figure out right now exactly how big the barbershop would be and then what other components we’d have,” Mr. Calderwood said. “We’re talking about putting a newsstand in, and there is a boutique from the Lower East Side called Project No. 8 that’s on board.”

But at least three floors of the stylish 12-story hotel, featuring fully refurbished rooms outfitted with original artwork and custom-designed furniture—some even come stocked with turntables and an assortment of old vinyl!—will be ready for overnight guests in just a few weeks, he predicted; the lobby and check-in area, too: “It really just needs to be painted and a little bit of infrastructure put in,” Mr. Calderwood said. “But you’ll see when we go downstairs. It’s ready to go.”

Downstairs, construction workers in surgical masks loudly blasted away at the floor with some sort of mechanical hose, filling the air with a palpable cloud of unknown particles.

“I believe this is part of the grinding process,” Mr. Calderwood shouted over the noise, explaining how the sandstorm, which was quickly and rather distastefully beginning to manifest itself inside this reporter’s nose and mouth, was necessary to uncover the building’s original mosaic tiles from beneath a more contemporary layer of concrete.

Even through the haze, the affable hotelier continued his tour: “Around this wall will be the front desk. … And then all of this is seating area.”

It was rather hard to visualize amid all the dust and debris—unless, of course, you have the right attitude. And the 39-year-old Ace Hotel honcho has that in spades. Even when admitting his New York project has become rather “controversial,” he means it “in a positive way.

“Or, conversational—you can put it that way,” Mr. Calderwood clarified. “I think there’s definitely a lot of conversation about it because we’re doing some unique things and it’s in a unique location.”

Transforming the shabby, century-old Hotel Breslin, located along one of the last largely ungentrified retail strips in Manhattan, into a gleaming new super-hip Ace Hotel has been the most complicated build-out yet for Mr. Calderwood’s stylish Seattle-based company, which has demonstrated a knack for refurbishing old hotels, with similar locations now operating in Portland, Ore., and Palm Springs, Calif.

Beyond the regulatory rigmarole that inevitably weighs upon such a massive construction project in New York City, there’s the rather prickly issue of dealing with the people who currently call the place home.

The ancient Hotel Breslin, which first opened in 1904 and has over the years sheltered such luminaries as the boxer Joe Louis, the author W. E. B. Du Bois and the avant-garde filmmaker Harry Smith, is another one of those long-neglected, rent-stabilized, single-room-occupancy buildings that have made such attractive targets for hotel developers recently.

In 2007, GFI Development Company shelled out $40 million for a long-term lease on the landmark building, secured another $35 million to finance its renovation, and appointed Mr. Calderwood’s up-and-coming Ace Hotel Group to manage the property.

The developers also began pressing residents to vacate their rooms in exchange for cash buyouts. Many took the money and split. Those who chose to stick it out have been grappling with chronic heating problems, malfunctioning elevators and various other frustrations that come with camping out in a construction zone. The process has prompted multiple lawsuits and divided remaining residents into two rival tenant associations.

Most of the building’s ground-level retailers have also been encouraged to leave, with only two remaining. Management is trying to evict M&K Jewelry over $31,000 in unpaid rent; the unflinching retailer has in turn charged management with breaching the lease by failing to provide heat and water. (A hearing was scheduled for March 19.) A lingering perfume shop, meanwhile, sued management this past December over similar service disruptions. Management has since agreed “to continue to provide electricity and water as required by the lease and law,” according to court papers.

Yet, unlike similar SRO conversion efforts at the Jane hotel in the West Village, where angry tenants have repeatedly taken to the streets in protest, and the famous Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street, where relentless taunting on the hotel blog prompted the most recent manager to resign this winter, the drama at the old Breslin-turned-Ace has generated much less publicity.

That could all change, of course, when the first well-heeled guests arrive next month, or whenever the hotel actually opens.

“Do they even think about what tenants are going to be like to these guests?” asked Suzanne Lenora, a 17-year hotel resident and president of the Breslin Tenant Association, who charged that new management has shown little to no regard for the welfare of its tenants. So why should residents play nice?

“There was no give-and-take,” Ms. Lenora said. “It was basically, ‘You live in squalor and this is what you get and you should be happy about it.’” She longed for the days before the engines of change started churning. “It was always kept clean, nothing was ever broken. You never had shoelaces holding things together.

“It’s not like we’re going to go after [hotel guests],” stressed Ms. Lenora. “But do you really think if I hear a noise next door that I’m going to tolerate it? Why should I?”

Even Mr. Positivity has to admit that not everything is rosy in the old Breslin. “There was definitely a heat issue,” Mr. Calderwood said. “It was complicated. You’re going from an old boiler system to a new system. You’ve got Con Edison involved. It was largely a lot of issues that weren’t necessarily completely within our control. … Now that the heat’s on, things are settling down.”

“My room has been warmer,” noted Ms. Lenora, who spent much of the winter bundled up in her tiny apartment on the fourth floor. She suspected, however, that the noticeable rise in temperature was emanating from the lower floors, where the finished hotel rooms are located. “If I owned a building and the heating system worked, I would want the living to have heat, not my imaginative hotel guests.”

The sanguine Mr. Calderwood preached patience. “I think that ultimately this will really be a much better place to live when it’s all said and done,” he said. “The people who’ve remained, they get a brand-new HVAC system, brand-new windows. They have an option to move to a completely renovated unit if they want.”

He added that management has reached out to a number of tenants to partner with on various projects: “For example, there’s this woman: She actually lived here for a long time, then decided to move, but she still lives in the neighborhood. She owns a glove factory across the street. It’s been in her family for years and years and years; I think it’s the oldest glove factory in Manhattan. We met her and she’s great. … So we’ve put together a program where we’re going to have a bespoke glove service for the guests. We’ll do the fitting here and the next day the gloves are waiting in your room.

“There’s a couple artists that live here, too, that are doing murals for us. There’s a filmmaker that wants to do a documentary on the building. There used to be a gentleman named Harry Smith that lived here years and years ago. We’ve reached out to his foundation; they’re super-ecstatic. We’re talking about reissuing his Anthology of American Folk Music on vinyl. We’re talking about incorporating a lot of his art into the building. Hopefully, they’ll license some of his experimental films that will go on the video-on-demand system.”

Not to be out-glossed, Ms. Lenora, too, holds out hope for a bright future in tenant-guest relations.

“Did I tell you about the woman at the Carlton?” she asked, referring to the luxury hotel on Madison Avenue where deep-pocketed guests share common areas with tenants of old. “She takes her cane. She swings it around when she comes in. ‘Get out of my way!’ Just wait till I’m old and gray.”

cshott@observer.com