Brooklyn comeback makes it a place to stay
Rochester has more hotel rooms than Brooklyn, N.Y.
Bizarre as that sounds, it's true. Rochester, with a population of 106,000, has more rooms — and not just a few more — than the nearly 400-year-old New York City borough with a population that's 26 times larger.
We have 5,000 rooms ; Brooklyn has about 4,000.
The reason Rochester has so many hotels is obvious — and it's not our balmy winters or the vibrant nightlife. But why does Brooklyn have so few?
Take a look across the East River. Manhattan is Reason No. 1, and actually Reasons 1-1,000. Then look around Brooklyn , which for all its one-time charm, the miles of waterfront, the epic bridges and the million-dollar views is a residential and industrial area, sketchy in some parts and not an extended-stay tourist destination.
That's changing. Brooklyn is now the borough on the make , with the hottest housing market in the city, more young people and disposable income moving in, a few glammy new attractions such as the billion-dollar Barclays Center , and revitalized old attractions such as Coney Island and the Brooklyn Museum.
As a result, the borough that time forgot also has become a reasonable place to find a hotel when you're visiting New York. Even if your goal is the Christmas tree and skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza, or the Christmas show at Radio City, it's not crazy to stay in Brooklyn.
Jon Eckhoff, the top dog at the Rochester Downtown Alliance , was in the city a few months ago and got a close-up look at what's happening in Brooklyn. He says what a lot of people are saying: "It's become this cool, trendy place for young people. It's got a vibe."
Eckhoff and his wife, Dawn, were in New York for the International Downtown Association 's annual conference, with sessions held all over the city, including Coney Island. "We were at the Pratt Institute and walked all the way down to Dumbo ," the neighborhood down and around the Manhattan Bridge approach. "We wouldn't have done that 10 years ago."
"I've probably gone to New York every year for 25 years and we just wouldn't go to Brooklyn," he said. "Now, the next time we go, we'll probably stay there or in Jersey."
More than convention hotels
The new hotels on the Brooklyn side of the river aren't just the predictable chains, with the Sheraton downtown and the occasional Hampton Inn or Ramada along the hundreds of miles of highways. They include pricier, one-of-a-kind boutique options as well. The Williamsburg district, on the waterfront near the bridge with the same name, rebounded more than a decade ago and has two new boutique hotels, the Wythe and the King & Grove.
The Wythe, which opened in May 2012, has 72 rooms in a century-old textile factory near the river, and its brand is local, local, local — materials inside and out are all about Brooklyn, from the wallpaper to the shampoo. The rooftop bar has a classic view but so do many of the rooms, which have the feeling of a very, very successful New York artist's loft.
Also helpful is that it's only a block from the Brooklyn Brewery , whose lager has gone national and is on tap in Rochester .
Barely two blocks away on McCarren Park is the King & Grove Williamsburg , which is a little more corporate but has even fewer rooms, 64, overlooking the river and park. Depending on how hard you work for a deal, rates start at more like $395, compared with about $195 at the Wythe.
Another is Hotel Indigo , with 128 rooms and nine blocks from Barclays. It's another step closer to the corporate hotel world (Intercontinental Hotel Group), but it's red-velvet luxurious, relatively quiet and intimate, and it's surprisingly affordable, with midweek rates starting at about $120.
'Music and lifestyle hotel'
Further off the beaten track is Hotel BPM , a 72-room hotel opened last year by a young New York DJ and entrepreneur. There's no reason to visit the Sunset Park area if you're not looking for the BPM, and if you're arriving by car on the Gowanus Expressway, it feels as if you're making a big mistake.
But once you're there, it's a strikingly original hotel with a distinctive vibe. BPM is "beat per minute" in the DJ's world, and the name, look and amenities of this "music and lifestyle hotel" all work. The guest rooms are bright, minimalist in color and style but not comfort, and riddled with 30-year-old "founder and visionary" DJ Bijal's own music mix.
"I spend a lot of time in hotels and know what I like" in terms of comfort, service and style, said Bijal, who describes himself on his website as "DJ, hotelier and Mr. Everywhere." He's known for DJ'ing "A-list, star-studded events," according to the website. He has syndicated radio "mix-shows" of Urban/Top 40 for Sirius and other radio stations, and last year he launched the hotel, hoping to catch a wave with the opening of the Barclays Center.
"I'm really trying to build a brand here," he said during a walk-through in October. It's also about "extending my brand, who I am" in the music business.
Bijal, who lives on the Jersey side of the metro area, has his finger on the pulse of everything at the hotel, above all the music, which is available for download and gets amped up through the day. The only place where there isn't Bijal-curated music? In the elevators, he said without a trace of a smile. "Elevator music is typically terrible," so he doesn't even go there.
There's a lot of hype and hustle going on at Hotel BPM, but with rates starting at about $200 and with all the extra touches, it's worth being a few extra subway stops away from Manhattan.
Renaissance under way
Brooklyn does have attractions for visitors. The Brooklyn Academy of Music is one of the key contemporary, multi-disciplinary art centers in the country — think Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The Brooklyn Museum is one of the country's great art museums, and the museum is adjacent to Prospect Park, a grand 600-acre park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who gets credit for Manhattan's Central Park. There's also a zoo and botanical gardens.
And then there's the Barclays Center and the rest of the Atlantic Yards development that promises to transform center city Brooklyn. The 17,000-seat arena, home to the newly refashioned Brooklyn Nets, opened a year ago with eight sold-out concerts by rapper Jay Z and was followed up by concerts by Barbra Streisand that just aired a few weeks ago on PBS.
Another major development attracting interest from people nationally, including those such as Eckhoff who are in the urban revitalization business, is the $1 billion Brooklyn Navy Yard industrial park , which has redeveloped a ruined shipbuilding area and turned it into a thriving industrial site with about 400 companies that employ about 7,000 people.
There's no doubt about the renaissance under way, in job creation as well as real estate and quality of life. Brooklyn has added manufacturing jobs in recent years at a time when most cities are craving them. A story in Crain's New York Business recently said the borough's turnaround has been strong, though obviously with a long way to go.
"There's no question that the progress in Brooklyn has been remarkable," said the CEO of a New York investment firm at a recent conference. "It's a very important lesson for the country, as well as the region."
There's a long way to go in some neighborhoods that have been bombed out and crime-ridden for decades. Next up for a makeover is the Bushwick area, one of the grittier areas of the city, and block by block, you can see new investment and redevelopment rolling in.
Long way to go
Eckhoff says Brooklyn's challenge is, "They're going to have a hard time making sure they maintain some cheap space," for residential and commercial/industrial development. "It's going to be a problem for young people who aren't rich."
He says Rochester will have the same type of challenge in the years ahead, with Destination Medical Center growth.
And New York has a new mayor, Bill de Blasio , whose political priorities are far different from those of outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg . Bloomberg pushed for hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure investment that has spurred private development. What has happened in Brooklyn likely wouldn't have happened "without government and vision," Eckoff says, the kind of "public-private partnerships that are revitalizing Brooklyn."
Among the projects that can make a difference: Rebuilding and expansion of the Coney Island New York Aquarium , which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy. The Coney Island area was a legendarily popular beach and boardwalk area for generations, but like many areas in Brooklyn, it fell on hard times.
Now it's rebounding, and aside from major projects such as the aquarium, what's at the top of their wish list?
They could really use a hotel.
Jay Furst is the Post-Bulletin's managing editor.