How a legendary New York hotel became a battleground

The Chelsea remains stuck in endless construction as its owners struggle to spin it into an upscale boutique hotel

Published Tue, Apr 20, 2021 · 05:50 AM

New York

YOU cannot exactly roam carefree through the Chelsea Hotel these days, re-enacting its bohemian past, open wine bottle in hand, say, while taking a break from writing your generation-defining novel, song, or Netflix script. Even if you found the drilling and hammering, dust and debris, and exposed cables and pipes inspirational, the Chelsea has not booked a guest room since 2011.

For the past decade, the residence hotel on West 23rd Street, a New York character unto itself, has been suspended in a dreary state of endless construction, with a rotating cast of developers struggling to spin this oddity into an upscale boutique hotel.

Even as the pandemic decimates the city's economy, closing scores of hotels, restaurants and stores, and leaving tens of thousands of New Yorkers unable to pay their rent, the 12-storey Chelsea continues to exist in a world unto itself - one that seems to host a seemingly endless cage match where the building's roughly 50 remaining tenants spar with one another or with the landlord who, in turn, battles with the city.

The story of the renovation of this 19th-century Victorian Gothic landmark (and the former home of Mark Twain, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and countless other writers and musicians) is one of developers with lofty ambitions that ran headlong into a classic New York predicament: When scorned tenants organise, they can grind a multi-million-dollar project to a halt. And the tenants of the Chelsea Hotel, most of whom have lived there for decades, know how to put up a good fight.

But not all the tenants are opposed to the current plan - at this point, most of them would like to see this over and done with. "This is emblematic of the Chelsea," said Samuel J Himmelstein, a Manhattan lawyer who represents the Chelsea Hotel tenants association, a faction of residents who would like to see the work completed and the hotel open. "Everything with the Chelsea is major drama."

Tuesday, 12 pm
Property Insights

Get an exclusive analysis of real estate and property news in Singapore and beyond.

The latest plot twist came in January, when the city dropped a lengthy investigation of tenant harassment that had halted construction for two-and-a-half years. With that obstacle removed, the Chelsea's owners - Ira Drukier, Richard Born and Sean MacPherson, known for their trendy boutique hotels such as the Ludlow, the Maritime and the Bowery - resumed work. They plan to open the Chelsea to guests by the end of the year.

This news, however, has not deterred a handful of tenants who say that living conditions have deteriorated since the construction restarted, and they are willing to keep pushing back as long as necessary. "Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we'll persist," said Debbie Martin, 61, a longtime tenant.

The past few years of the Chelsea Hotel saga have been particularly baffling. In 2018, after receiving a tenant inquiry, the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development determined that the hotel needed what is known as a Certification of No Harassment, an approval that developers must get to renovate some types of tenant-occupied buildings. The demand set construction back for more than two years - delays the developer said cost as much as US$30 million, and left tenants living in a work site frozen in time.

A stop-work order was issued, and an investigation found evidence of tenant harassment, prompting a hearing that dragged on until the end of December. That is when the developers unexpectedly revealed a document they had found in city archives that exempted the hotel from needing the certification at all.

Days later, the department dropped the case.

Tenants like Ms Martin who supported the investigation were stunned. "An agency that is supposed to protect us from harassment dropped the case right at the end of the trial," she said. "This could happen to anybody in the city if it happened to us."

The tenants association (which is in favour of the renovation) was angry that work had stopped in the first place, blaming the city and their vocal neighbours for pursuing what they saw as a frivolous case. "It was a disgrace," said Zoe Pappas, 68, the president of the tenants association, which represents 30 residents living in 20 apartments.

The developers see the abrupt end of the case as evidence that this was all just a delay tactic. "What was the point?" said Mr Drukier, an owner of BD Hotels, which bought the Chelsea in 2016 for US$250 million. "We were trying to finish a building that had already been under construction for quite a few years."

The housing department did find evidence of harassment, but it declined to disclose any more information. Now that the workers are back, so too are the complaints from the tenants who supported the harassment case. Water has been running only cold again. Sometimes, it runs brown too. Susan and Jonathan Berg, who live on the 10th floor, have been disturbed by incessant noise from ventilation fans on the roof. And construction dust keeps blowing into Ms Martin's apartment. "It's a different level of awfulness," she said.

Life at the Chelsea was not always a tedious grind set to the sound of hammers and drills. It used to be fun.

Ms Martin and her husband, Ed Hamilton, 60, arrived at the hotel in 1995 from Washington, DC, subletting a musician's 100 square foot (sq ft) room. It had no kitchen, and the bathroom was down the hall. They were thrilled to get to live at an iconic address and quickly settled into the community of artists where everyone was invited to everyone else's party.

Despite its reputation, the Chelsea "wasn't a hip, noisy drinking spot swarming with people", said Susan Berg, 65, who moved in with Jonathan Berg, 77, in 1988. (He had lived at the Chelsea since 1975.) "On Thanksgiving, there was often a dinner in the lobby for people who didn't have a place to go," she said. "It was a fantastic, happy time."

About a year and a half after they moved in, Ms Martin and Mr Hamilton upgraded to a 220 sq ft room on the eighth floor, where they still live. Packed with books, art and papers, it has no kitchen, only a sink, and the couple use the bathroom in the vacant apartment next door.

Despite all the drama, Ms Martin cannot imagine giving up her tiny space with a partial view of the Empire State Building and where her husband wrote Legends of the Chelsea Hotel, a 2007 book chronicling its history. "This is the only place Ed and I have ever lived in New York," she said. "I have a bathroom right outside my door; why would I want to have it any other way?"

For many residents, the war with the landlord ended in 2013, when the tenants association reached a settlement that delivered its members, representing about half of the building at the time, gut-renovated apartments and other concessions.

But roughly 40 tenants did not join the association, and so did not get the deal. Some did not want the group speaking on their behalf. Ms Martin said she did not want a renovated apartment if it meant squeezing a bathroom into an already tiny space, reducing her living area, or moving to a lower floor where she would lose her light and views.

Some tenants worried that moving or renovating their apartments would compromise their rent-stabilised status, although the developer and the tenants association insist those apartments are still protected by stabilisation laws.

And so, the battle rages on.

Tenant lawsuits and stop-work orders paint a picture of a property that has been an unpleasant place to live for years. Residents, who pay monthly rents of about US$1,000 to US$4,000, have reported mould, asbestos, dust and verbal harassment from the owners. Apartments and hallways have flooded. A tenant shared videos with a reporter from two years ago of water cascading from the ceilings, filling large trash cans and sloshing around in pools on the floor.

Many residents shrug off the dust, noise and water damage as inconveniences that are the cost of living through a renovation - they say that the landlord makes accommodations when necessary. In one case, a tenant was put up in the nearby Chelsea Savoy hotel for months and given a daily food allowance while her apartment was repaired after a pipe burst. These tenants say they would just like for the work to get done. But others see no reason to back down.

"Some of these people just seem to think that poor living conditions come with the territory of construction rather than holding people's feet to the fire," Mrs Berg said. The owners, she continued, "have to provide us protection from dust; they have to provide us with heat and hot water".

BD Hotels has offered the rent abatement, now at 35 per cent, to all residents, and even offered to renovate the apartments of those who did not accept the 2013 deal, Mr Drukier said. None of the tenants took him up on the renovation offer, he said, but nearly all have rent abatements now.

"Our plans call for no removal of tenants. Period," he said. "I don't know quite what they think we're trying to do, but we're certainly not trying to get anybody out." What the tenants really want is a buyout, he said, adding that lawyers representing clients in five apartments, including Mrs Berg and Ms Martin, made requests for payouts of up to US$48 million for the group.

In an e-mail, Leon Behar, a lawyer for those tenants, expressed dismay that confidential discussions were discussed publicly. "The question of buyouts seems to be a red herring drummed up by Mr Drukier to deflect on his systemic harassment" of tenants, he said.

A hotel that takes 10 years to renovate invites the question: Why keep doing this?

Mr Drukier, the third owner since the renovations began, said he wakes up most mornings pondering that very same thing. "It would have been easier in some ways to just walk away," he said. "Surprisingly, you get attached to the Chelsea."

The lobby has been restored, with an upright piano in the corner, lush sofas and a large chandelier. The plans include space for two restaurants, drawing rooms, event space, and a rooftop fitness centre and spa. Plans are also underway to reopen El Quijote, the old-school Spanish restaurant next door that closed in 2018 after 88 years of operation and is part of the hotel.

Room rates at the hotel will range from US$200 to upward of US$600 a night, Mr Drukier said. Paintings by previous tenants that once hung throughout the hotel will be taken out of storage and returned to the walls.

"Even those tenants that don't like us right now will eventually, I think, be happy that they're living where they are," Mr Drukier said.

But Mrs Berg is not so certain. "I think it will be much worse," she said. Hotels bring guests, and guests bring noise.

But the work is not done yet, its pace slowed by Covid-19 construction protocols. When the hotel does make its splashy reopening, it will do so in a city still recovering from the pandemic, and in a neighbourhood still lacking, perhaps, in tourists and general foot traffic.

"It's actually exactly what you would have expected of the Chelsea," Mr Drukier said. "Anything that can go wrong in the Chelsea just goes wrong." NYTIMES


BT is now on Telegram!

For daily updates on weekdays and specially selected content for the weekend. Subscribe to



Get the latest coverage and full access to all BT premium content.


Browse corporate subscription here