It’s Friday night and I’m reclining in a low leather chair, sipping a gin-and-lemon concoction and eyeing the well-dressed crowd gathered at Westlight, the rooftop bar at the brand-new Williamsburg hotel William Vale. I nibble my smoked salmon puff and watch a brunette in a white jumpsuit and floppy hat slink past the DJ spinning lounge music. For months, I’ve been watching the 23-story behemoth, on the summit of which I am now reclining, rise on Wythe Avenue. You can’t miss it: The building, by local architecture firm Albo Liberis, is by far the tallest in the neighborhood. It also houses ever-popular restaurateur Andrew Carmellini’s first Brooklyn venture. And though it seems out of scale now, it’s likely a premonition of what’s to come.
Among the cognoscenti, it’s common knowledge that Brooklyn rivals Manhattan as New York City’s hippest borough. According to a report by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, in the last seven years, the area’s population growth has outpaced not only that of Manhattan, but also that of the city, state and country. Between 2009 and 2014, tourism and entertainment employment in Brooklyn grew at more than twice the rate they did in New York state as a whole, and the restaurant and bar industry accounted for more than 81 percent of that growth. The scene may have started with scrappy, homegrown spots like Diner, by the Williamsburg Bridge, but today it’s flush with Michelin-starred eateries and award-winning cocktail lounges.
Now, finally, the borough’s hospitality offerings are catching up. Eight new hotels opened between January 2014 and August 2016, and 29 more are coming down the pipeline, according to NYC & Company, the city’s tourism authority.
“The idea used to be that you’d stay in Brooklyn when you couldn’t afford to stay in Manhattan, or you’d stay in Brooklyn when you were screwed and couldn’t get a room in Manhattan because they were all sold out,” says Peter Lawrence, co-owner of Williamsburg’s Wythe Hotel—the borough’s first prominent boutique property, which opened in 2012. “I think if our project proved anything, it’s that people want to stay in Brooklyn.” Indeed, demand for hotel rooms is so high that when the Wythe Hotel is booked, Lawrence’s team refers would-be guests to the William Vale. With 183 rooms and suites, it’s more than double the size of its neighbor, and luxe in a way I tend to associate with properties across the river. Its largest suite, the Vale Garden Residence, is an airy two-bedroom duplex with an oversize terrace, a living wall, a jacuzzi, a marble dining table and a rate of $6,000 a night. There’s marble everywhere. If it hadn’t been for the agro-urban herb garden near the pool, I’d have thought I was in Miami.
Unsurprisingly, hipster-chic Williamsburg will see the highest concentration of Brooklyn’s new hotels and its buzziest, most upscale offerings. A block south of the Wythe Hotel, the new Williamsburg Hotel boasts 150 rooms and suites, Harvey (a restaurant helmed by former Vetri chef de cuisine Adam Leonti), a rooftop pool deck, and a bar in a retrofitted water tower, because—Brooklyn. Owner Toby Moskovits, who traces her Williamsburg roots to an immigrant grandfather, assembled a powerhouse team, tapping Evan Altman and James Stuart—their collective rap sheet includes the Gramercy Park Hotel, the Standard Hotels, the Bowery Hotel and the Jane Hotel—as managing directors. Just down the street, trendy British group the Hoxton has broken ground on a 175-room property. And on Driggs and Metropolitan, Pod Hotels will open a modular tower that will harbor April Bloomfield’s first Brooklyn restaurant.
But Williamsburg is far from the only neighborhood getting a tourism facelift. Hotels are breaking ground from Greenpoint and Bushwick to Bed-Stuy and Downtown Brooklyn. A few blocks from the Barclays Center, InterContinental Hotels Group recently debuted an outpost of Even, its wellness-focused hotel brand. And the Bossert Hotel, a landmarked grande dame once known as the “Waldorf Astoria of Brooklyn” (the Brooklyn Dodgers celebrated their 1955 World Series win there) and operated since the 1980s as a free hotel by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, will be reborn next year as the Esplendor Bossert. Run by Argentine group Fën Hotels, the property will retain many of its original details, including its grand staircases and chandeliers. It will not retain the Witnesses’ pricing structure.
One of the most exciting openings of 2017 will be 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge, the third location of the eco-conscious mini-empire developed by Barry Sternlicht and Starwood Capital. The brand’s first two properties, on Miami’s South Beach and near Manhattan’s Central Park, received widespread acclaim for their thoughtful design, use of natural materials like stone, reclaimed wood and living plants, and efforts to reduce waste and energy consumption. 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge will be equally green, with a spa, a rooftop bar and a restaurant by acclaimed chef Seamus Mullen—all right in Brooklyn Bridge Park, one of the borough’s most beloved public spaces. While the park may be strikingly egalitarian, the hotel will attract the kind of traveler who can pay $500 a night for a suite with organic cotton sheets and views of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Even up-and-coming Gowanus, full of warehouses and artist studios, will get a boutique hotel next year: the Gowanus Inn & Yard, a 78-room property from Matt Abramcyk, the hospitality guru behind SoHo’s Navy restaurant and the industrial-chic Tiny’s & the Bar Upstairs, in Tribeca.
Carlo Scissura, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, is optimistic about the influx of upscale hotels and confident there’s enough demand to fill them. “Hotels don’t open if tourists aren’t coming; it’s that simple,” he says. Fair-— but who are these tourists?
According to James Stuart, managing director of the Williamsburg Hotel, “Our [typical] guest has been to New York many times and is looking to explore the rich neighborhoods [beyond Manhattan].” And according to Peter Lawrence, the Wythe Hotel tends to attract niche travelers from cities like Paris, Copenhagen and Tokyo, who look to Manhattan’s hipster cousin for everything edgy. (Cases in point: Le Bon Marché, in Paris, hosted a Brooklyn-themed pop-up shop last year, and tour companies like New York Off Road offer street art tours of Bushwick conducted in French.) The Brooklyn brand is so hot that Lawrence has been approached about creating a little Wythe Hotel in Tokyo.
To the eye of this Brooklynite, stylish European tourists don’t stand out much, but as the night progresses at Westlight, I notice more of the short-skirted, stilettoed bridge-and-tunnel types that have always flocked to “hot” nightlife spots (read: Meatpacking District hotels that have bouncers instead of doormen). For the time being, they’re still in the minority. My friend takes a sip of her mezcal cocktail and murmurs, “I hope it stays this chill.” We go out onto the terrace to take in the sweeping views; it’s partially sectioned off for a private event attended by women in floor-length gowns. I wonder if they represent the logical conclusion of Brooklyn’s continued gentrification. For now, at least, it’s too soon to tell.