W. Chelsea raps about Jay-Z hotel venture
The property at 511 W. 21 St., which runs through to 510 W. 22nd St., where hip-hop entertainer and new development entrepreneur Jay-Z and partners plan to build a 12-story hotel in the untapped West Chelsea area near the High Line
By Charlotte Cowles
March 07 - 13, 2008
The stretch of Tenth Ave. between 22nd and 21st Sts. in Chelsea lies in an area where avant-garde art galleries commingle with historic row houses, churches and auto-body shops on Manhattan’s low-rise West Side frontier.
But with the flurry of recent development after the rezoning of West Chelsea, the formidable orange brick warehouse at 511 W. 21st St. adjacent to the High Line is set for one of the area’s more ambitious high-rise projects—by one of the city’s more talked-about new developers.
This idyllic location is where hip-hop mogul and entrepreneur Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter will make his entree into the luxury development game by partnering with a pair of local developers on a planned five-star hotel set for the site.
The initial “J Hotels” project—an anticipated 12-story, 190-unit hotel that will feature a host of luxury amenities and attempt to tap into the area’s arts culture—got under way when Jay-Z and partners Abram Shnay and Charles Blaichman bought the Time Warner-owned site and accompanying air rights for $66 million in December.
The development team wanted to construct an “architecturally significant” hotel to complement what they saw as an under-serviced neighborhood, which Shnay said is quickly transitioning from a pure arts district to Manhattan’s hottest new nabe.
“There’s nothing like it in all the city,” Shnay told Chelsea Now of his venture, which enlisted world-class architect Rafael Vinoly to design the project, according filings with the city Department of Buildings. “This is pretty ambitious.”
Shnay cited the area’s reputation as the center of the art world as the main draw for J Hotels, and dismissed any notion that the group would try to play off the name recognition of its marquee partner.
“He’s obviously glamorous and an important person and well-known celebrity,” Shnay admitted of Jay-Z. “This is not being done as some sort of ego thing—this is basically a business investment.”
Plans for a hotel, which Shnay acknowledged could change depending in current market conditions, include a restaurant, spa and other retail uses, as well as a possible gallery component. The 12-story structure will be built as-of-right, and he said no variances to the zoning code will need to be sought at the site.
Describing the hotel as having a luxury “Four Seasons kind of atmosphere,” Shnay reiterated that any pomp surrounding the project—with red carpets, limos and flashbulbs—would not be self-generated. “We don’t want that whole kind of scene,” he said.
The current scene in the neighborhood is a classic mix of old and new Chelsea: 22nd St. is home to some of the area’s pioneering avant-garde art galleries, and an old Catholic church and school stand quietly on the corner of 21st St. and Tenth Avenue. A touristy hotel with any amount of glitz will definitely bring change to the neighborhood, said Karen Heaste, who works at Matthew Marks Gallery on 22nd St.
“At the same time, it’s so New York—the change in the neighborhood,” Heaste said. “I don’t want to sound curmudgeonly about it, but I remember when it was just the serious art pioneers who were coming here. I feel like I spend a lot of my time now telling people where they can eat lunch or park their cars instead of having conversations about, you know, the nuts and bolts of modern art.”
Heaste, however, seemed optimistic about the entertainer’s presence in the neighborhood. “I know Jay-Z is a collector and a supporter of the arts,” she said, adding she wasn’t so sure hotel patrons would follow his example. “I do hope there’s some concern for the preservation of the neighborhood.”
Father Fernando Hernandez, administrator of the Parish of the Guardian Angels on 21st St. and Tenth Ave., hadn’t heard much about the hotel but felt optimistic about the prospect. “Whatever can enhance the community is positive,” he said. “I’m positive about any change that brings people to this area. It used to be that all the nice restaurants were over on Eighth Avenue, and now they’ve spread over to Ninth and 10th, and I really like that.”
However, Father Fernando also hoped that the hotel would not drive up rent prices in the area. “I do like the mix in this neighborhood,” he said. “I don’t want this to move the galleries out or displace the old folks. I hope the Chelsea flavor is preserved—it’s artsy, kind of different.”
Maureen McElduff, the principal of the Catholic school affiliated with the parish, has lived a block away from the hotel site all her life. “I’ll be happy as long as it’s a well-run establishment and as long as they keep us in mind,” she said. “You know, we have children here.” McElduff commented that much of the change she has witnessed in the neighborhood during her lifetime has been positive. “There’s been a lot of revitalization,” she said, adding, “I think some of it is getting out of hand… I’m glad about the restrictions as far as buildings going up. They try to keep it residential, and that’s good.”
Some also expressed concern that an influx of hotels and nightclubs on the West Side would drive out the indigenous galleries. Indeed, some of them have already left. “From what I understand a lot of galleries are moving to the Lower East Side,” said Renate Gonzalez, co-owner of the Empire Diner on 22nd St. and Tenth Avenue. “The way the neighborhood is going, it doesn’t surprise me.”
The other co-owner of the Empire Diner, Mitchell Woo, struck a more optimistic note. “Some people could be coming to the hotel to see the galleries,” he said. Believing the hotel could benefit all the businesses in the area, he quoted an old Chinese saying: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
While the hotel will not require any zoning variances, former Community Board 4 chairperson Lee Compton said that neither Board 4 nor the committee he chairs, Chelsea Preservation and Planning, had been informed of the project. It’s a trend, Compton noted, he sees increasing in Chelsea.
If a new project is as-of-right, he said, such consultation by developers has been happening less and less—unlike in Clinton farther north, or in neighboring Community Board 5, where builders of massive as-of-right projects often stop by the board to let them know what’s going on.
“We would more than welcome such a visit about the 21st Street hotel,” Compton added. “We might even be able to help them sort out any vexing details.”
Last week, the area rang with hammering noises and teemed with construction workers, but not for the incoming hotel. Gerard Zimmerman, chief inspector for the High Line, said that they were there working on the elevated railway that passes just inches from the future hotel.
“They’re turning it into a park up there,” he said of the High Line. “When all this is done, all these buildings around it are going to be worth big bucks. That hotel they’re going to build? It’ll be park-front property.”
Zimmerman, who has overseen construction on the High Line for several months, said that the park plans have inspired many developers like Jay-Z and Co. to snatch up property along the old railway. The park will bring green space to the area as well as provide a pedestrian highway straight to the glitzy clubs, destination restaurants and high-end boutiques of the nearby Meatpacking District.
“All the meat guys are leaving,” said Zimmerman. “It’s getting too expensive. All the building owners are happy, but the residents and tenants aren’t.”
Regardless, the area has begun a natural transformation that will ultimately lead to a more “diverse ecosystem,” which includes hotels, office buildings, residential condos and galleries, said local architect and developer Peter Moore.
“It doesn’t benefit West Chelsea to be a gallery ghetto,” said Moore, who just finished construction of his own office building on 27th St. between 10th and 11th Aves. He championed innovative real estate projects like the new hotel as the best approach to take in the evolving “organic mix” of the West Chelsea landscape.
“From a neighborhood point of view, congestion is never welcome,” Moore said. “But I think the enthusiasm from creative developers and architects outweighs the problems of growth.”