BY Rob Wolfe
In the courtyard in front of the High Line Hotel on 10th Avenue, indie music floats over manicured shrubs and guests sipping coffee in tight jeans and cardigans. Both the music and the drinks come from Intelligentsia, the upscale coffee chain, whose trilby-clad baristas serve customers from a vintage delivery van on the north side of the courtyard. At this trendy hotel, where rooms start at $275 per night, even the middle aged have avant-garde haircuts. Chinese chestnut trees and a wrought-iron fence separate the hotel from the sidewalk, which is lined with commercial trucks after 7 p.m.
The trucks force guests arriving in taxis to unload in the street. So on a Wednesday night last month, Russell Shattan, a vice president at MCR Development, which co-owns the hotel, stood before the members of Community Board 4 to ask for a loading area at the hotel entrance between 20th and 21st Streets. It was a routine request, but the Department of Transportation (DOT) requires hotels with fewer than 100 rooms to get their local community board’s approval for loading and unloading areas.
Shattan began warily, almost as if he were expecting trouble. In a neighborhood where gentrification has made some residents feel like outsiders, the High Line Hotel’s behavior has been closely watched, and not all of it appreciated. Last October, the hotel laid off 12 local resident employees after damage from Hurricane Sandy forced it to close. After the storm, Tyler Morse, CEO of MCR, went before the community board to ask for a liquor license. The board gave its permission, provided that Morse promise to bring back the workers. Morse agreed, but his promise wasn’t legally binding, and he didn’t keep it. By May 2013, the hotel had re-opened, renovated and upscaled, and with all-new staff. Though all the laid-off workers were interviewed, none have been rehired.
At the meeting on September 18, Shattan waited two hours to speak. When it was finally his turn, he stood up at the back of the room. “We’re just asking for what essentially every other hotel in the city has, which is a designated hotel loading and unloading zone,” Shattan said.
Community members pushed back. “They fired all these people that worked so hard during Hurricane Sandy because they didn’t fit the image,” Carla Fine, a writer who lives near the hotel, said. She turned back in her chair to glare down her spectacles at Shattan. “They have thumbed their nose at the community and they keep coming back and asking for more.”
Co-chair Christine Berthet reined in the meeting, which had become completely derailed as not only Fine but members of the board grilled Shattan. “Speak only to me,” Berthet directed Shattan in an effort to control the heckling. Finally, she outlined the committee’s options. “Either we’re consistent with the approval we’ve given [to other hotels]…or not, because we don’t think [the hotel] deserve[s] anything,” she said.
Another committee member, Elizabeth Zechella, suggested the denial was “a punitive action,” directly connected to the hotel’s unwillingness to make good on past promises. Confusion reigned. A small minority of the committee wanted to consider the request on its merits; members of the committee and the public shouted over each other from just a few feet away in the cramped meeting room.
The board offered Shattan a compromise. Because the hotel building is a landmark, New York City law requires that the courtyard be open to the public, board members said. But on most days a hotel employee stands with an earpiece and an iPad at the gate leading to the street, and residents and members of the committee expressed confusion over whether they were allowed to sit inside the fenced off area. The board agreed to approve Shattan’s request for a loading zone if the hotel would put up a sign indicating that the courtyard in front is a public space. Shattan equivocated. There were no signs at the gate already, so he would have to ask management first, he said.
The board took this as a no. All but one member voted to deny the hotel’s request.
Later, Morse, who is Shattan’s boss, said in a phone interview that he was unaware of the committee’s request for signage and “would love to consider it” if brought up again. Morse declined to comment on the hotel’s choice of its new staff, or on future plans for the loading area.
The board’s letter to the Department of Transportation did not mention “punitive action.” Instead the letter, written by co-chairs Jay Marcus and Berthet, cited a shortage of parking spaces for local residents, as well as concerns that the department would be setting a “bad precedent” in allowing hotel loading areas on busy 10th Avenue.
For his part, Morse says the hotel wants to be a good neighbor. To prove it, management has offered to hire back some of the employees laid off after working through Sandy to repair the facility. On October 4, the day the community board sent its rejection letter to the DOT, hotel job listings that pledge to hire local residents appeared on the board’s website.
Some of the laid-off hotel staff are finally getting back to work elsewhere, according to Miguel Acevedo, president of the nearby Fulton Houses Tenants’ Association. Two of the eight former employees who live in the affordable housing project have found jobs, including one who started work as a painter for the New York City Housing Authority in September. More Fulton Houses residents may be rehired after hotel representatives meet with Acevedo, which could happen by the end of this week, he said.
The High Line Hotel is housed in a landmark Episcopal seminary built in 1895 and formerly run by the Desmond Tutu Center. MCR Development, a New York hospitality company, and The Brodsky Organization, a developer mainly known for residential properties, bought the hotel in September 2012.
While MCR is new to the neighborhood, the Brodsky Organization employs 11 people in the area, including six local residents, according to Thomas Brodsky, who runs the company with his family. A Brodsky condo at 455 W. 20th St. will fill five or six positions in 2014. So far at least one employee, the super, is a local resident.