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No room at the inn as hotel projects mount.

With New York's hotels running a steady 80 percent-plus capacity and room rates running into $200 a night, the city is being scoured by investors seeking new hotel sites or the transfer of old ones.

"From a market demand standpoint, it very clearly is a boom time and we can justify a lot of new hotel rooms," said John A. Fox senior vice president of PKF Consulting.

But he counseled, in spite of these strong occupancies and rates, it is still very difficult to bring in financing for a new project.

"I've counted upward of 25 projects that range from raw rumor to actually being under construction. But I would be very surprised to see 10 happen," he said.

Attorney Joshua Stein, a partner with Latham & Watkins who works on development projects, agrees with that assessment because many ground-up deals end up falling by the wayside for one reason or another, whether or not financing is available.

"I tell my clients that my job is to also protect them so they aren't hurt if the deal falls apart," he said.

Among those hotels actually under construction are the Brooklyn Marriott at Renaissance Plaza, which was topped out at the end of September; the Marriott Courtyard on 40th Street; and the Fitzpatrick Grand Central. A construction shed is already up at 866 Third Avenue for the Steve Witkoff-partnered Marriott; and Sofitel should break ground soon, now that the company has weathered an internal dispute.

Others on the drawing board include: the Heron site on East 55th Street, where a Homestead village is expected; the long-delayed Carl Marks Tribeca project, Hudson West; Apple Core's Tulip at 136 West 46th Street; Embassy Suites at Battery Park City, where yet an additional RFP has been issued for a hotel/condo; Joseph Neumann's site at 76 William; Donald Trump's desire for a hotel in the banking hall and base of 40 Wall; a change of use by the new ownership group for 55 Wall to a hotel; the opening to the public of rooms at the Downtown Athletic Club as the Heisman Hotel; a RitzCarlton hotel for 17 Battery Place South; a proposed convention hotel for the Coliseum site, which has yet to be awarded; and a possible hotel for the Chrysler Building, where bids are still under consideration.

Even the Tishman E Walk Hotel for 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue is rumored to have found its financing, but a spokesperson says it is still being pursued.

There are also hotels expanding, such as the Shorham, which Bernard Goldberg is grouping with the building next door, and the Millennium Broadway, which is doing the same with the Newspaper Guild building.

Stein agrees there are a significant number of projects on the drawing board, "But when you look at it in proportion to what's already there, the sheer volume of rooms already in the city makes the proposed rooms merely a small expansion. The key is whether New York will remain a tourist destination."

The city overall has between 60,000 and 65,000 hotel rooms, says Fox, so even if the construction of rooms come to 5,000, it's merely a morsel to quench the ever-increasing flow of tourists and business people coming into New York City.

"It will soften the numbers slightly for existing hotels, but now those who need rooms are going out to the suburbs - and not because or the price - but because they can't get a room," said Fox.

Daniel H. Lesser, senior director of Hospitality at Cushman & Wakefield, agrees that New York is under-served.

"With the citywide occupancy over 80 percent on an annual basis, there are no rooms available when people want them," he said. "Eighty percent is equivalent to a sell-out situation, and that's why we're seeing an increase in development plans."

The meeting and convention markets are a growing segment, Lesser said, and even at $200 and up, city rooms are still cheap compared to those internationally available.

Although people will be holding their breath until the October calendar page is turned, the experts say the underlying economic climate of the country is buoyant on ballast, not bubbles.

Some people may listen to head of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan's warnings that the stock market can't keep rising so fast, so Lesser doesn't discount the possible effects of his speeches or a Mideastern crisis.

Fox agree, "There is still a lot of demand for additional rooms barring some unforeseen event - a Gulf War or a major national recession."

The availability of funds is also fueling the renovation and development of more rooms. Stein, who works on development deals and represents lenders around the country, says lenders are now seriously looking at making construction loans in New York City because "we're pretty close" to costs meeting replacement value. Previously, particularly for luxury hotels, it was cheaper to buy new than to build. The construction cost graph line is now starting to meet the one with strong daily room rates and occupancy, stoking the interest.

While the financiers are starting with the smaller and easier projects, Stein says, "you can expect to see more ground up construction as lenders look for more projects."

In fact, Stein says, lenders can't find enough good loans to make, so when they discover what they perceive to be a superior project, they will fight to provide the construction loan and then also come in with permanent financing.

There are now, he says, even "reverse" bidding wars from lenders eager to get the assignments. "There is always this dilemma of finding the good deals and making sure they are sound, and you are working on them even when you don't know if you even have the deal," he said.
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Author:Weiss, Lois
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Oct 22, 1997
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