|By Eric Gershon, The Hartford Courant,
Conn.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 4, 2007 - As Paul McGowan attempts to transform a bygone motor inn at 1157 Chapel St. into a glassy boutique hotel, he's got countless details to fret about, from the pace of construction to the brand of shampoo he'll leave on the bathroom sink.
One thing he doesn't worry about is the location: It's square in the heart of Yale University, New Haven's main magnet for out-of-town visitors.
Yale refers visitors to several local hotels and licenses or lends its name to a few of them, including the Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale, a 306-room full-service hotel near the green that is generally regarded as the city's top hotel.
But the Omni is often full and that has made it a prime target for emerging rivals.
"We'll be competing mainly with the Omni," said McGowan, a former Starwood Hotels and Resorts executive whose development and consulting firm, Hospitality 3, bought the no-frills Colony Inn a year ago for nearly $7 million, then closed it for a multimillion-dollar overhaul that will add two stories and put a sleek new face on the street.
The five-story, circa-1963 building sits directly across from the Yale School of Art and just west of the School of Architecture. The Yale Repertory Theater and the university's two major art museums are one block east. A slow walker could reach some of the city's most popular restaurants in five minutes or less, as well as several cafes and bookstores, a news shop and a haberdasher.
"That is a good starting point," said McGowan, who has hired KPMB Architects of Toronto to design the hotel. The firm handled renovations of Yale's Sprague Memorial Hall in 2003.
The reinvention of 1157 Chapel is the most ambitious hotel project in New Haven in a decade and one sorely needed to meet demand, estimated to be at least 200 to 300 rooms above the 1,310 rooms now in the city, according to local real estate experts.
But McGowan's project, which will add 39 rooms to the 86 the Colony already had, for 125 in all, isn't even the biggest hotel project on the horizon.
Four blocks away, on College Street, Centerplan Development of Hartford plans to build a 19-story structure where it envisions a 250-room "four or five-star" hotel, 124 luxury condominiums and ground-floor retail. Robert A.M. Stern, dean of Yale's architecture school, has been hired as the designer. The project is expected to break ground next year and open in 2011.
Meanwhile, city officials are preparing to seek bids for redevelopment of the site occupied, until last January, by the demolished New Haven Coliseum. The city has studied the feasibility of a conference center and hotel complex for the site and officials anticipate some bidders to propose lodgings, although a conference center is now considered unlikely. Elsewhere downtown, at least one major hotel has sought approval to add nearly 50 rooms.
All the activity is really no wonder: "'Can you help me get some rooms?'" is a question Anthony Rescigno, president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, says he hears often. And it's not uncommon that he makes referrals to hotels in the suburbs, where most of New Haven County's hotel development has happened in the last 10 to 15 years.
Finally, he said, "The pressure is starting to hit the boiling point where I think we're going to start to see some new hotels" in the city.
Developers' interest in downtown New Haven as a place for hotels coincides with their interest in building new apartment and condominium projects there, some on a grand scale. Fairfield developer Bruce Becker is planning to break ground this winter on a 29-story apartment project at Chapel and State Streets intended to include 485 units, for example. When finished, it will be one of the city's tallest buildings. Smaller residential projects have already been built. Others are in progress.
Like the residential developments, the hotel projects are inspired by New Haven's renaissance, marked by its lively night life and restaurant scene. Unflagging demand from Yale-related visitors encourages hotel construction in particular.
"We may not have the corporate community that some other towns do, but the academic community also puts a lot of stock in face-to-face meetings," said Karyn Gilvarg, executive director of New Haven's City Plan Department.
Yale and affiliated institutions, such as Yale-New Haven Hospital, generate the largest share of hotel room stays, municipal and tourism officials said, though no one could say how many room-nights that equals in a year. Bruce Alexander, Yale's vice president for New Haven and State Affairs and Campus Development, said the school does not centralize record-keeping of this information.
Nonetheless, Alexander, who has met with developers to discuss the city's hotel market, predicts that a "200-300 room hotel would do very well in New Haven."
While the 1157 Chapel and Centerplan projects stand to remake the hotel scene in New Haven by expanding the number and variety of high-end accommodations, some less ambitious but welcome improvements have been made already. Several hotels have changed hands in the last couple of years; the Whalley Avenue Holiday Inn became a Marriott, an upgrade Yale appreciated enough to bestow its name on the operator. The hotel is called the Courtyard New Haven at Yale, and it is preparing to add rooms.
So far, local upgrades have added precious few rooms to the net hotel stock and no large hotel has challenged the Omni as the lodging of choice for consumers not preoccupied with price. (The Omni's standard corporate rate is $209 per night, before taxes, though promotional rates are sometimes available. Suites typically cost $399. By contrast, the average hotel room in greater New Haven costs between $90 and $100, according to tourism agency figures.)
Located on Temple Street, just off the New Haven Green, the Omni opened in late 1997, after a roughly $30 million renovation of the former Park Plaza Hotel. Since then, the Omni has been regarded as the city's premier hotel.
But rooms can't always be found there, especially on the two dozen or so nights a year when New Haven is flooded with visitors, often for Yale-related events, such as graduation, reunions and the Yale-Harvard football game.
So McGowan, a Woodbury resident who was deeply involved in the creation and expansion of the W Hotels brand while with Starwood, saw an opening: "You've got a highly intellectual, pretty affluent community here, in terms of alumni and families of students and graduates of the university, visiting professors, dignitaries, friends. I think the need for upscale lodging is pretty evident."
Thomas Sullivan, the Omni's general manager, said he welcomes other hotels to New Haven.
"It means the city's growing and that benefits everybody," he said. "We don't look at new competition as a threat. What it does is it gives us a new opportunity to be sure that we're also on our game."
By the time McGowan's as-yet-unnamed hotel opens next summer, it should have two extra stories, 125 guest rooms, 100,000 total square feet, a penthouse lounge with views of Yale's spires and courtyards, a ground-floor restaurant, a coffee kiosk, meeting spaces, new elevators -- and a glass exterior embedded with small pieces of amber, blue and green.
McGowan declined to discuss the cost of the "top-to-bottom" overhaul, and has not yet announced room rates.
The developer, who is simultaneously working on a W Hotel in Hoboken and a residential development in Woodbury, envisions his future New Haven patrons as "highly intellectual but not necessarily pretentious." The interior and furnishings will be tailored to meet the approval of their needs and tastes, he said.
The main lobby will have floors of walnut and granite and will evoke a "modern-day library," with pockets of seating to invite lingering, for example. Rooms will be decorated in "warm" tones and outfitted with wide desks facing the windows, ergonomic desk chairs and leather reading chairs with ottomans.
"We want this hotel to have soul," said McGowan. "We want people to feel something different when they stay with us. We're trying to create a place."
Contact Eric Gershon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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