Ah, yes. Young and excited. The coin of the realm in the meatpacking district, where Achenbaum launched himself into nightlife-neighborhood ignominy; he and the Gansevoort became a symbol for all that is troubling about the slick, Vegas-y turn that this once charmingly rough-hewn corner of the city has taken. “We have been a hot-button hotel,” he says, “blamed for a lot of things that I really don’t think we did. People still claim they can hear our rooftop, and I know it’s just not possible.”
At one point, as Achenbaum describes the exterior of the new building—30-foot-high glass-curtain wall here, black granite stonework there—he points to a big gash of red that will run down the length of the façade. It represents a sixteen-story light column that will change colors like the light columns at all Gansevoort product, as Achenbaum likes to say. “Light is a big element of what we do.” Suddenly a Lurch-like fellow who is sitting just inches away from us at Starbucks sputters to life. “You want my opinion?” he says. We both stare at him. He points to the red light column on the drawing. “That looks ugly. I wouldn’t keep that.”
“O-kay,” says Achenbaum.
“That’s just my opinion,” says Lurch.
“If you are a 19-year-old runaway,” says Sean MacPherson, “we want to be your hotel.”
As Achenbaum and I pick through the construction site on 29th and Park, he quietly stews over Lurch’s comments. “The fact is that most of our customers love the light columns. The fact is that it’s dramatic. The fact is that it’s talked about all over the world. So there has to be a light column.” On the roof, he shows me a small detail that he seems particularly proud of: He has instructed the crew to curve the top of the railing that surrounds the outdoor lounge so that hotel visitors won’t be able to set their drinks down on them like they do at the meatpacking-meets-Miami pool parties. Passersby on the street below can at least take some small measure of comfort in that.
“You know, the role of café society—the society that takes place in public—has always been integral to the development of a city like New York,” says André Balazs. We are sitting at the Standard Grill, the restaurant on the ground floor of his hotel that has been packed from the minute it opened. Balazs is a triumph of good grooming in his bespoke navy suit and crisp white shirt. The fact that he is carrying a cane due to a broken ankle only adds to the sense that he has stepped right out of a Bond film. “If it’s true that somehow people are embracing hotel culture more than they were six or seven years ago, it could be because it allows friends to gather in a situation that’s a little easier, more homey, than a straight-up restaurant,” he says. “People are gravitating toward hotels because it’s a way to kind of feel you are well off even if you may not be.”
Stylish hotels, of course, have always been about escapism, places where one gets to live on borrowed luxury. “All good hotels have common characteristics,” says Balazs. “They make you feel safe. And after they make you feel safe they allow you to let down your inhibitions. And very few people can afford the level of service that you have in a good hotel. For example, we don’t put towel bars in our rooms because part of the joy of living in a hotel is the abandon that lets you throw the towel on the floor.”
Just then, a woman from the neighborhood comes up to say hello to Balazs and tells him she eats breakfast here every day. “It certainly was our goal to make it a New Yorkers’ place,” he says as she leaves. “Our people who sleep here come from other parts of the world, but at the end of the day, all of the public facilities are local businesses.” He ticks off the venues: the restaurant, the beer garden, the two nightclubs at the top of the building. “We have more operations, more bars, under one license, than anyone else in the city.”
Indeed, part of the reason for the hotel-as-nightlife-complex boom is that it is easier to open a hotel than a nightclub in Manhattan these days. No one wants a big throbbing disco in their backyard, but hotels are sold as something that enhances a neighborhood and increases property values. But once a hotel has its liquor license, it only makes sense to maximize its potential.
Not that Balazs wants to be associated with other nightlife hotels. When I ask him about the Gansevoort, he chooses his words carefully at first. “We have as our neighbor the Gansevoort Hotel,” he says. “The Bowery Hotel has as its neighbor the Cooper Square Hotel.” And then he starts to laugh. “I would say that the relationship between the two hotels on each side of town is similar. The Cooper Square is such a travesty of architecture. It’s really sad. The rooms are awful. Not that they haven’t spent a lot of money, but the concept …” His face wrinkles up like he’s smelling ten-day-old leftovers.