Standout U.S. Hotels Signpost Urban Renewal in Neglected Neighbourhoods

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A brief tour through a random sample of renowned U.S. cities reveals some gaping cracks in the American Dream. The idea that the spoils of capitalism will be evenly distributed is frequently challenged, with visible reminders even in the most prosperous cities. Space and its attachment to economic interests has formed a key part of this narrative, with debates about ownership involving topics of race, homelessness, poverty and the surge of the digitalisation. More recently, new approaches consider how the entire population can benefit from growth, with hotels acting as forerunners.

In just two generations since the end of World War Two, urbanism has taken a variety of forms in the U.S.. The growth of car ownership during the 1950s introduced a kind of suburban sprawl never seen before in modern cities, once thought to encompass the best of city and rural life in one convenient weekly cycle. De-industrialisation since the 1970s prompted another chain of events in towns that heavily depended on manufacturing, slowly hollowing out city centres. In the most recent chapter since the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, centres of technology like San Francisco and Austin have grown at an extraordinary speed, while legacy cities like Detroit have languished in urban decay. Despite this macro trend, entrepreneurial hotel owners have stepped forward, putting private money into neglected areas, turning dwindling neighbourhoods into sought after investments for otherwise reluctant homebuyers.

When four friends expressed an interest in renovating 19th-century Mariner's Building in Portland, Oregon, a new seed was planted in the Pacific Northwest and, the now flourishing, The Society Hotel. Originally used to house itinerant boatsmen on their stopovers along the Willamette River, the building had become a relic from another era. The group of friends comprising of Matt Siegel, Jessie Burke, Jonathan Cohen, and Gabe Genauer, the quartet covers a suite of professional credentials, from property acquisition, renovation of historic builds, to the everyday mechanics of operating a hospitality business. Their investment on the corner of NW 3rd Avenue and Davis Street in Portland's Chinatown district has been a success, bringing life back to the 16-block area south of Union Station.

Since opening in 2013, The Society Hotel has become a lynchpin for Chinatown, revitalising the neighbourhood's prospects. "Our opening has created activity on a corner that was formerly dead, increased business for the tea shop and Lansu Chinese Gardens, and tourism in this area overall with over 20,000 guests coming through our doors annually. This type of foot traffic did not exist here before. We also employ 27 full- and part-time staff, and offer full health benefits, discounted public transit passes, and a living wage," notes Jessie Burke, responsible for building a community around the hotel. "We also already work very closely and will continue to work with the City of Portland and Prosper Portland to help activate storefronts and assist existing businesses with resources for economic development," she adds.

 Suite at The Society Hotel

Suite at The Society Hotel

The Society Hotel's formula for inclusivity is no secret. Its broad entrance area and reception is open to non-guests at any hour, with large glass windows acting as welcome signposts for passers-by. Occupy a spot in the reception from 7am and watch locals routing their morning commute via the hotel's coffee bar. The hotel seems to be a favourite among the local police force, who also share a passion for specialty coffee. 

Looking for a place to spend the night? The Society Hotel's custom 24-bed unisex bunk must be one of the great marvels of 21st century hospitality. Each unit allows guests their own sense of privacy with a curtain that actually draws across the full length of the bed, a closure which might offer a welcome break for coupled travellers, and certainly an adventure for children. A robust ventilation system offers a reassuring background noise, while taking care of the odours of its many lodgers. Private bathrooms provide further space for privacy within the bunk room, completing an aesthetic that is matched by the 28 private rooms and suites on the second, third and fourth floors of the building. None of this feels over pampered, but rather a conscientious accommodation for the type of guests that might also be interested in the neighbourhood and its ongoing recovery.

Swing south-east to Texas and find another hospitality success story in Austin under the guidance of a native from the Lone Star State, Liz Lambert. At the turn of the century, Austin's Hotel San José was a rundown motel, hosting a range of characters including musicians and weary travellers with no onward destination. Its location in the  South Congress Avenue had been a haven for crime, drugs and poverty. Though the former lawyer purchased the hotel in 1994, it took her several years to raise funds to take the motel-style building through a full renovation. With some modest investment and a demonstrated empathy for the ways of an energetic and challenged community, Lambert has turned the San José into a sought after property in hospitality. Added to this, the hotel and its more precious younger sibling, Hotel Saint Cecilia, has served as a foundation for Lambert's real estate company, Bunkhouse Group, acquired in 2015 by Standard International, optimism that has helped South Congress become one of the most sought after residential neighbourhoods in town.

If The Society Hotel and Hotel San José are two examples of how flourishing cities can improve from within their city limits while maintaining a social cohesion, examples also exist elsewhere within America's legacy cities. In Cleveland, Ohio, Ohio City joins the Tremont Downtown and University Circle as one of three areas demarcated for redevelopment after a long period of stagnation. The meeting point of Ohio City, West Side Market and Gordon Square is undergoing its own sub-branding, under the name of "Hingetown", a title which pays tribute to the Cleveland's industrial past and the meeting point of three distinctive neighbourhoods.

It's at this confluence that hotelier Mark Raymond started Cleveland’s first hostel and is now building a boutique property, Hulett Hotel. The site overlooks a planned park, so preserving the views across the city's downtown area to the north. Beyond the urban regeneration expected through the hotel, Hulett Hotel shall also be part of an innovative waste management story, with demolished material repurposed for the use in other buildings in the city. Architects Redhouse Studio will be using their proprietary biocycling technology to convert demolition material into a new structure using mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus . Once Hulett Hotel is completed, the hope is that a mycohouse can be built across the street at Ohio City Farm to aid the refugee response in the area.

 Hullett Hotel rendering, courtesy of  Redhousestudio.net  

Hullett Hotel rendering, courtesy of Redhousestudio.net 

100 miles across Lake Eerie, The Siren Hotel has been welcoming visitors to a neglected Detroit neighbourhood since opening its doors in March 2018. The Wurlitzer building, once the site of the country's largest music store, has been converted into a 106-bedroom hotel using local craftsmen, artists and salvaged furnishings from the city. In responding to the decline of Detroit's prospects since the departure of the motor industry, the hotel's name is a direct reference to Greek mythology and the "calling back" of locals to the neighbourhood. A further connection to the mid-century, the photography of Bill Rauhauser has been placed throughout the hotel as a reminder of a glowing past. Born in Detroit in 1918, Rauhauser became known for his images of everyday life in the city, tributes that each guest can enjoy in their room. Through the effect of The Siren Hotel's historicising, they at least put in place a guardrail for standards of Detroit's renaissance.

Even so, the success of hotels in popular U.S. cities is perhaps no surprise, but rather a question of timing. And it's true - sought after neighbourhoods exist adjacent or a few blocks from The Society Hotel and San Jose, each in cities that rank among the most desirable in the country. Yet the genuine interest of hoteliers to engage is compelling, a far cry from the standardisation of rooms, furnishings and service from the Marriotts and Hiltons of this world (who of course are now cobbling together their own boutique attempts).

What is more, this sensitivity towards local needs has given Bunkhouse and The Society Hotel platforms to find new projects. Bunkhouse already has numerous properties across Austin and even in the contentious Tenderloin neighbourhood in San Francisco with the ownership of Phoenix Hotel. Earlier in their hospitality journey, The Society Hotel is set to open a fantastic new location in a tiny town of Bingen in Washington, across the Columbia River from the enviable enclave of Hood River, Oregon. With authentic contributions and relevant investments, hoteliers show that it makes sense to coalesce rather than contradict the fringe neighbourhoods that welcome them.

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