At a boutique hotel near the exclusive shops and hangouts of New York’s meatpacking district, a bellman, polite and formal in the classic uniform of burgundy trimmed in gold, pushed open a rich wood door for a guest the other day. Beyond it was a carefully designed space with luxury touches: high-thread-count cotton sheets, large flat-screen television, bathrobe and spa sandals.
“Your presidential suite,” the bellman announced.
Except that this was the Jane, a restored residential hotel rising over the West Side Highway, and the “presidential suite” was one of its standard single rooms. Reminiscent of a high-class train cabin, it was tiny: all of 4.6 square meters, just big enough for a custom-made twin bed and a shelf.
And at $89 a night, no one was complaining. “It’s like having a virtual Manhattan apartment,” said Peter Griesar, 41, a regular guest, noting that the rough cost of a month’s stay — $2,670 — was not a bad deal for a West Village address. “The price is right, the neighbourhood’s great, and who spends time in a hotel room in New York anyway?”
In a city where space is at such a premium that bragging rights are measured in square feet, small is getting big. An expanding clutch of hotels like the Jane offer cramped sleeping quarters on the cheap, often with shared bathrooms and bunk beds, to budget-minded travellers seeking a dash of style along with their savings.
There is the Pod, which opened three years ago with 345 rooms averaging 9.3 square meters. The hotel, on East 51st Street, has been such a success, said Richard Born, one of the owners who is also a partner in the Jane, that he is planning a second Pod in Manhattan.
The British chain Yotel, known for sleek capsules that travellers rent by the hour at European airports, is opening its first centre-city hotel on West 42nd Street next year. In a nod to the American love of large, executives said, its 669 rooms will be bigger than usual, though still tight: 16 square meters rather than 10.
“In the old days, the bigger the space in a hotel, the more luxury you had,” said Simon Woodroffe, the chain’s founder. “But very, very rich people stay in reasonably small spaces on luxury yachts, and very, very rich people travel in extremely small spaces on Learjets.”
Pocket lodgings have long been a staple in Asia and Europe. And boutique hotels in New York have been luring guests to good-looking but less-than-spacious rooms since 1984, when the Morgans hotel opened, promising affordable luxury, contemporary design and a lobby that doubled as a social destination.
“Why would Cher stay on 37th and Madison in a 200-square-foot hotel room with bad plumbing?” Born said of the hotel, which was started by the club impresarios Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell. “Because she was Steve’s friend and Steve created a cool environment.”
But these new hotels are even smaller, almost like chic youth hostels, said Lalia Rach, dean of the Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University. The emphasis on style over space,one way to make the economics work for a budget hotel in an expensive urban centre, Rach said, appeals to out-of-towners who want to feel like New Yorkers, right down to fleeing a shoebox to experience the city’s culture and nightlife.
“This is attractive to a very large market,” she said, referring to travelers ages 16 to 30. “They want to live the destination, not live the hotel.”
At the same time, the theory goes; these hotels need to be destinations for the locals — or at least to feel as if they could be — for guests to sense that they are tapping into the real New York. So Yotel officials, whose futuristic rooms feature purple mood lighting and private monsoon showers, plan to turn part of its fourth floor over to a restaurant, bar and 1,860-square-meter outdoor patio.
Room Mate Grace, on West 45th Street, originally the QT, has a swimming pool with a bar in the lobby. The Ace, on West 29th Street, attracts such an artsy throng that its lobby can resemble a nightlife mini-mall, with list-toting men guarding entrances to the hotel and the various eating and drinking spaces inside.
Alex Calderwood, who opened the Ace last year, said he conceived the lobby as a living room for the neighbourhood where guests and New Yorkers could mingle.
Perhaps no place embodies that spirit more than the Jane, where guests can, by design, overhear a long-term tenant placing bets over a pay phone in the hallway, brush their teeth with others in the communal bathrooms, or drink and dine with West Village locals downstairs at Cafe Gitane or the lobby bar. The hotel, which plans to expand its hangout spaces with an outdoor patio and a rooftop bar, is designed with an artfully distressed, Old World Eastern opulence; a stuffed monkey in a fez hovers over each end of the bar.
A lounge known as the Ballroom is temporarily closed, but in its heyday, the waiting line stretched down the block, annoying the real New Yorkers living nearby. At busy times, some people would take a room for the night just to gain entry, said Sean MacPherson, a co-owner.
On a recent weeknight, the lobby bar played host to a small crowd of mostly New Yorkers as Laurence Passera, a photographer from London who declined to give his age, took advantage of the lull. A regular guest, he said he loved the single berths.
Uptown, the Pod has created a world of its own. Decorated with a cheerful minimalism — think Ikea meets Devo — the emphasis is on DIY: there is no restaurant or bar, but guests can bring in their own refreshments and congregate in the lobby, patio or rooftop garden.
They can also use the hotel’s free WiFi and blog to connect for shared rides from the airport and drinks, meals and shopping in town.The entry-level rooms include stainless steel sinks similar to those on Amtrak trains and lights over the door, like those on an airplane, indicating when the bathrooms down the hall are free. The hotel attracts an eclectic mix of tourists, many from Europe, ranging from high school groups to middle-aged couples on shopping vacations.