“Sleep with us,” reads the provocative ad, written in squiggly cursive, on the window of the recently opened Ace Hotel on W. 29th St.
Out on the sidewalk, young women in low-cut dresses smoke cigarettes. It seems a strange place for such hipness—the ungentrified area along Broadway in the 20s is filled with low-end retail and clothing stores during the day, and abandoned at night. The neighborhood, caught somewhere between the Flatiron District and Chelsea, has no name, but some in real estate have been referring to it hopefully as “NoMad”—or North of Madison Square Park. A good-looking, studiously scruffy young man opens the door with a smile.
Inside the lobby, loud rock music pulses through the cavernous, fastidiously renovated space. Dimly lit, with wood-paneled walls and bookcases, long tables with desk lamps add to the faux-library theme. There’s an old-fashioned photo booth in one corner, and plenty of plush lounging space. The bar in the back appears boisterous even at 8:30 on a Monday evening, and a waitress descends offering a menu.
Besides a group of little-seen permanent residents living inside, these are the last vestiges of the Breslin Hotel, a rent-stabilized, single-room-occupancy building whose more than 300 tenants were bought out—some say pushed out—when the 105-year-old structure was converted into the Ace Hotel.
“It’s all about taking historic buildings to the next level,” Ace spokesperson Ryan Bukstein told Chelsea Now last December—words that proved ominous to the Breslin’s permanent residents.
Two long-term tenants, Suzanne Lenora and Tienne Vu, appear in the lobby. Only they aren’t supposed to be here—the front entrance and lobby that they used to pass through daily are now off-limits to the 40-some remaining holdouts. “Staff asked us to leave the other day when we were talking down here,” Lenora said.
Slipping into an unmarked door on the right side of the lobby, they enter a tiny space that’s a mess of construction and dust. “This is our lobby,” Lenora said. The hotel is in the process of fixing it up, but tenants say that their vestibule is really just the service entrance. They’ve been assigned a new address, on Broadway instead of W. 29 St., and have had trouble getting mail ever since.
Crossing the main lobby to take the elevator upstairs, in defiance of the rules—permanent residents are confined to a single service elevator at the Broadway entrance—one of the women grabs two apples from the basket, simply out of principle: The tenants aren’t supposed to touch those, either.
“It’s all just so petty,” said Vu, who has lived there for six years.
“Our sensibility is democratic and inclusive,” reads the Ace Hotel’s Web site. “The Ace is built around collaborations and friendships with local designers, artists and independent businesses.”
The hotel’s opening has been a perfect storm of cool. The Seattle-based Ace boutique chain has a hip image—“the idea is that you feel as if you’re staying overnight in your friend’s cool New York pad,” wrote The Guardian. It’s part of the recent West Coast mini-invasion: Portland roaster Stumptown Coffee recently came to the city and will open its first East Coast store inside the Ace. The Breslin Bar and Dining Room, a new gastropub slated to open in mid-October, is the creation of Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield, the restaurateurs behind Downtown hotspots The Spotted Pig and The John Dory.
Alex Calderwood, owner of the Ace Hotel Group, said that opening a hotel in New York after successful launches in Portland, Ore., and Palm Springs, Calif., was “more of a challenge, but not that much more difficult than in other cities. The process is still pretty much the same.”
He sees the typical Ace customer as being a “cultural enthusiast,” and explained that the New York location has “exceeded expectations” since opening in May.
“People really love the location,” Calderwood said. “It’s great if you have business in Midtown or Downtown.”
Regarding the holdout tenants not being allowed through the Ace lobby, he said it’s “not exactly true” that the permanent residents have been told to use a separate entrance. “I’ve certainly seen them in the lobby,” Calderwood added, noting that the tenants had their own “newly renovated” entrance—the same dusty, under-construction space
just off the main lobby.
However, Ace manager Jan Rozenveld explained that tenants have indeed been asked to stay out of the main lobby.
“What we’ve been saying is that if you don’t consume anything in the lobby,” like a drink from the bar or a cup of coffee from Stumptown, “we ask you to not be in the lobby,” he said. Rozenveld added, though, that “relations with tenants have really improved over the last couple months. We want to make them part of our guests, just like
Listening to the Ace hype, the building’s SRO past is simply part of its charm. “The occasional appearance of one of the old hotel’s residents (it used to be an SRO, and some people refused to move) gives the room a down-to-earth, communal vibe,” read a recent online piece in The New York Times.
“I have personally caught Ace staff bullying the quiet, elderly gentleman referred to in that blog,” Vu said. On at least two occasions, she noted, the staff insisted that the tenant, who is in his 80s, leave the lobby where he was sitting. “We are personae non gratae,” she added.
In 2005, GFI Real Estate Partners bought the Breslin’s lease from landlord Edward Haddad for $40 million. Haddad was smart, said Lenora: “He sold the lease at the height of the market—it’s not even worth that now. Before he sold it, he didn’t do any work or put money into the building.”
Taking over at a fully occupied, 344-unit building, GFI busied itself with emptying the Breslin of its rent-stabilized residents. A former GFI employee, working under company CEO Allan Gross, was in charge of this process, receiving a bonus for every resident he convinced to move out. The first tenant to take a buyout left with $3,000, and eventually GFI raised that amount to anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 per buyout.
But removing the residents wasn’t easy, as SRO tenants can’t be evicted without a court order. SRO building owners are prohibited from harassing their residents into moving out and from doing “substantial work” on the building without getting a certificate of non-harassment.
The Breslin Tenants Association, led by Lenora, went to court in 2007 to testify that harassment had occurred, including intimidation of the building’s many non-English-speaking tenants regarding their citizenship. (The hotel is close to Koreatown and was advertised in the Korean press for those in need of a cheap room.)
The Tenants Association ultimately lost—members said much of the evidence they’d gathered to support their case never made it to the judge—and the conversion moved forward.
The case is now being appealed and will be argued sometime in October. The tenants’ attorney, Susan Cohen of Legal Services of New York, isn’t clear what the results would be if tenants win the appeal, since the conversion has already happened. “Certainly one possibility is a remand, saying [they] made a mistake,” she said.
As for the lobby situation, “I’ve been dealing with conversions for 30-some years, and I have never had a conversion that has tried to do a separate entrance for the tenants,” Cohen added. “They certainly don’t have permission to do that.”
Hotels with holdover tenants are common in New York City—the Upper East Side’s Carlyle has them, as does Chelsea’s Gem Hotel (formerly the Allerton), Tribeca’s Bond Hotel (formerly the Cosmopolitan) and the upscale Gramercy Park Hotel.
“[Gramercy Park hotelier] Ian Schrager doesn’t have a problem with tenants using the lobby,” Vu noted.
The new operators have also put in a request to the Division of Housing and Community Renewal to eliminate certain common bathrooms—some tenants no longer have a bathroom on their floor and have to go to other floors—and relegate permanent tenants to a single elevator. “DHCR has not approved such a request yet,” Cohen said. “The landlord had gone ahead and done them anyway, without permission.”
Buyout ‘doesn’t make sense’
With all the drama and inconvenience, why do the remaining holdouts stay?
“[The buyout] isn’t worth it,” explained Lenora, who has lived at the Breslin for 18 years. “$150,000 is only $100,000 after taxes. With that I wouldn’t be able to afford living in NYC. A market-rate one-bedroom in this neighborhood is $3,200 a month. In two or three years I’d be homeless.”
“We’re not leaving,” she added. And why would they? Some residents pay as little as about $500 a month, with a shared bathroom down the hall.
“The security of living here is worth way more than $150,000,” said Craig Prower, a cheerful man who has lived at the hotel for 13 years. “Here, you can live in the heart of the city for a small amount of money. If you want to stay in New York, [taking the buyout] doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Some of the remaining tenants also benefit from public assistance. For them, taking a buyout would force them to lose their eligibility. Others are elderly, on Supplementary Security Income or sick with HIV, and aren’t well enough to move.
For GFI’s part, the company released a statement earlier this year in response to tenants’ allegations. “GFI has worked very closely with the Tenant Association in the building to address any tenant concerns.” the statement read, in part. “There are a small handful of tenants in the building that are spreading false information in order to get large buyout payments.”
Behind the black doors
Most of the doors in the hallways of the hotel are painted gunmetal gray to match the consciously spare decor, but a few—the permanent residents’—are painted black. Others have signs reading “WE WILL NOT MOVE!” One black door’s “KEEP OUT” sign is lightened by a hanging ceramic heart inscripted with the phrase, “A heart that loves is always young!” Behind the black doors, you’ll find not a stylish hotel room, but someone’s home.
Hotel management has pressured the remaining residents to move up to higher floors—which most haven’t done for fear of losing tenancy rights—or to the shabby 13th floor, where rent is deregulated. As a result, the residents’ rooms are scattered throughout the hotel.
Permanent residents and hotel guests and staff carefully step around each other, but sometimes the dance veers towards the absurd. A woman living on the eighth floor who cooks often received complaints from guests about the scents permeating the hallway, so the hotel gave them a discount.
Behind one of the black doors sits Craig Prower’s room, a fairly large space containing a bathroom and stove. The cozy, humble apartments of the permanent residents look surreal interspersed among the sleek hotel rooms, but Prower contended that what’s really bizarre is “walking through the lobby and being glared at by the staff.”
Why hasn’t he taken the buyout? For starters, “there’s the whole business of me being sued,” he said.
Prower claimed he was taking a shower one day when his bathroom ceiling collapsed. He jumped out, escaping harm, but his apartment flooded with brown water. “I called HPD [the Department of Housing Preservation and Development] immediately and filed violations against building,” he said. The Breslin was being renovated all around him, and he’d already spent a winter without heat.
According to Prower, the ceiling collapse stemmed from a leak in the bathroom above him where a GFI employee was staying during the renovation. After that incident, he received a notice in mail from GFI, “saying they are terminating my lease because I was creating a public nuisance,” he said. “I went to court, and they showed up and said, ‘Hey, we weren’t really serious about this, we just wanted you to keep the place a little cleaner.’” Eventually, the case was dropped.
“So not only did GFI basically cause my ceiling to collapse,” Prower exclaimed, “but they sued me for it afterwards!”
Then there was the winter a couple years back with no heat. All the tenants interviewed talked of bundling up in multiple layers, with icicles and cold water in the bathrooms. Eventually, they were offered space heaters, which are legal only under an approved plan with Department of Buildings. However, Prower said that GFI had “no plan, no approval.”
“They’ve basically made it a job to live here,” he concluded. “It’s a very powerful corporation hell-bent on getting you to leave. That’s the condition under which we’re all living—with the Sword of Damocles over our heads.”
Back outside the hotel, a new batch of young people stand smoking. “You got to live your life,” a blonde girl says to a male companion, blowing smoke into the night.
If only it weren’t so difficult for the people living inside to do the same.