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In Hotel Design, He’s Mr. Prolific

In Hotel Design, He’s Mr. Prolific

New York Times 2/17/2008

By Fred Bernstein

IN his SoHo office, the architect Gene Kaufman is presenting drawings of his latest buildings.

“This one is for Marriott in Chelsea,” he said, pointing to a rendering of a slender, gray tower. “This is a Sheraton on Canal Street. This one’s a Doubletree in the financial district …”

Mr. Kaufman is just getting warmed up.

Many architects would be happy to design a single hotel in Manhattan; his firm, Gene Kaufman Architect, is designing 36 of them. Nearly all are for national brands that are trying to establish beachheads in the city.

On one block near Times Square — 39th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues — Mr. Kaufman, 50, has five hotels under construction.

Three of the hotels will share a single, 36-story building on the north side of the street. When it is completed, it will contain a Holiday Inn Express, a Candlewood Suites and a Hampton Inn. Each will have its own signs and lobby, and guest rooms that are outfitted in its signature style.

“But,” Mr. Kaufman said, “we have found there are huge economies in building it, structurally, as one building.”

The Holiday Inn Express will be covered in red and black brick (alternating in three-story stripes); the Hampton Inn, in white and black brick; and the Candlewood Suites, in silvery metal. The effect of putting three different facades on a building just 110 feet wide may be jarring. But it is economics, not aesthetics, that is driving the projects.

As Mr. Kaufman explained it, the three-in-one approach will help the eventual owner — in this case, Gemini Real Estate Advisors — improve the building’s occupancy rate. That’s because three reservation systems, not just one, will be helping to fill the building’s 600 or so rooms.

Mr. Kaufman has designed another trio of hotels just a block away, on 40th Street. “It’s becoming a hotel district,” he said, while showing off designs for adjacent Four Points by Sheraton, Fairfield Inn and Staybridge Suites hotels, each more than 30 stories tall.

The chains, which are striving to maintain customer loyalty, want to be able to offer hotels in as many locations as possible. Building several small hotels in different neighborhoods, instead of a single large hotel, helps them achieve that.

The developer of most of Mr. Kaufman’s projects is the McSam Hotel Group, which is based in Great Neck, N.Y. Its chief operating officer, Gary Wisinski, said Mr. Kaufman “has a wonderful and deep knowledge of Manhattan, and is well respected at the Buildings Department.”

McSam is developing some 30 hotels in Manhattan, Mr. Wisinski said, and Mr. Kaufman is the architect “for 90 percent of them.”

Bill Ryall, a partner in Ryall Porter Architects in Manhattan, said that in a city filled with talented architects, “it is a sadly missed opportunity that most of these new hotels are designed by just one architect.”

But Mr. Wisinski said he and his colleagues at McSam were pleased with Mr. Kaufman’s designs. “We look at all of them like our children,” he said. “I know some people would like us to build the Plaza. But we’re not. We’re building mid-price-point lodging facilities.” Rooms in the hotels, he said, will command $240 to $350 a night, depending on the time of year.

Mr. Kaufman’s first hotel, in 2003, was a Hampton Inn on West 24th Street in Chelsea. Until five years ago, the chain had more than 1,000 hotels nationwide, but not a single location in Manhattan. The 24th Street property is now one of the highest-performing Hampton Inns in the country, according to Charmaine Easie-Samuels, a spokeswoman for the chain, which is owned by Hilton Hotels. Since then, Mr. Kaufman has designed four more Hampton Inns in Manhattan.

What he brings to the table, he said, is the ability to maximize the number of hotel rooms on a given site. Recently, he said, a client showed him another architect’s plans for a hotel in Lower Manhattan; Mr. Kaufman was able to alter the plans to squeeze in 25 percent more rooms. In the current market, a mid-range Manhattan hotel room — typically 250 square feet — is worth $400,000 to $500,000 to the developer, he said.

“If you get one more room for floor, and you have 20 or 30 floors,” he said, you may be adding $10 million or $15 million in value.

But maximizing the number of rooms, he said, involves more than just making them smaller. He said buildings could be organized in ways that eliminate “uninhabitable space.”

For hoteliers, Mr. Kaufman provides entree into the sui generis Manhattan market. “The prototype hotel, for almost any chain, is a low-rise building with a parking lot and swimming pool,” he said. “We have to adapt that to Manhattan, but still meet all their standards.”

The chains control every detail, he said, “down to what kind of breakfast they serve.”

“If you don’t meet their standards,” he added, “you can’t put their name on the door.”

Mr. Kaufman found his niche in 1999, when Sam Chang, the founder of McSam, asked him to design a hotel for a narrow site on Pearl Street in the financial district. As Mr. Kaufman recalled it, “Sam said, ‘I’m doing you a big favor,’ and he was right” — by allowing Mr. Kaufman to get in on the ground floor of a hotel boom that almost no one was predicting.

“Until then,” Mr. Kaufman said, “the prevailing wisdom was New York City did not need more hotel rooms.”

Mr. Kaufman now has 35 employees, including architects from Russia, Argentina, Colombia, Lebanon, Turkey, Nigeria, Algeria, Albania and Sri Lanka. His wife, Terry Eder-Kaufman, a lawyer, helps run the business. The couple live with their 12-year-old daughter, Maya, in an 1861 brownstone in Greenwich Village, which Mr. Kaufman has renovated in stages. (When he bought it, in 1993, he said, “We had very, very little money.”)

A Queens native and a graduate of Cornell’s architecture school, he worked for Rafael Viñoly before starting his firm in 1986 at the age of 28 — which is young for an architect to go off on his own.

“Even though it may not have been the prudent thing to do from a business point of view, it was something that I felt I had to try,” he said. “And 22 years later, I’m still trying.”

Mr. Kaufman conceded that it’s hard to make compelling architecture out of a hotel containing hundreds of identical rooms. “You can end up with a facade that’s very repetitive,” he said. But he described his buildings as positive additions to the urban fabric. Many of the sites, including two-thirds of the 39th Street property, were previously parking lots, he pointed out.

Not all of his projects are chain hotels. The 45-room Duane Street Hotel, near City Hall, is being operated independently. And he is designing apartment buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

In the case of a six-story apartment building in Williamsburg, Mr. Kaufman chose a shape based on the Villa Savoye, the house outside Paris by Le Corbusier.

Part of the facade was going to be covered in a mint-colored tile. “But we didn’t get the tile we picked,” he said, citing cost overruns.

When it comes to getting things built the way he envisions them, he said, “people don’t know how difficult that is.”