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01.28.2009
Checking In
Despite a national downturn in hotel construction, California is still riding a catch-up wave of new projects.
Frames encircling fine art and fantastic views of the Hollywood Hills are trademark Philippe Starck moves for the rooftop pool of the SLS.
James Merrell

A slew of new hotels have debuted in California over the last year, riding what will likely be the last big wave of development for some time due to a slowing economy and dismal travel forecasts. They’re the lucky ones: The results from the November 2008 STR/TWR/Dodge Construction Pipeline show that 93,219 hotel rooms nationally have been abandoned in various stages of development, from preplanning to in-construction. That’s a 75 percent increase in such abandonments since 2007. Other data from the Pipeline also point to a slowdown: Through November 2008, 1,565 hotels nationally were in construction, down from November 2007, when there were 1,609 hotels in construction.

In California, most new properties were a long-time-coming response to hotel room deficits in many tourist-heavy areas. In Beverly Hills, for example, a luxury hotel had not been built from the ground up since the early 1990s, while in San Francisco, the 32-story InterContinental is the largest hotel to open in the city in two decades. Two major California cities saw massive and much-needed room additions adjacent to their convention centers: the 420-room Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, and the aforementioned 550-room InterContinental San Francisco, located near the Moscone Center in SOMA. (Los Angeles will have to wait until 2010 for its 54-story Ritz Carlton, part of the downtown development LA Live.) Across the U.S., this seems to be the case as well: The country has seen an exceptionally slow growth of only five percent in new rooms since 2001, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association.

This cautious expansion led to an age of conservative design for California hotels. Even the most anxiously anticipated debut in the state, the SLS Hotel—the first venture into the hotel niche from nightlife wunderkinds SBE Entertainment (famous for their Philippe Starck-designed LA bars and restaurants like Katsuya, S Bar, and XIV)—went for wit and whimsy rather than over-the-top, cutting-edge design. It’s a huge departure from the sleek, cold modernism of the recent past—think the Standard or Mondrian of the late 1990s.
 


A baroque moderne white-on-white palette at the SLS private lobby (top) and the hotel's rooftop pool (above), designed by philippe starck.
James Merrell
 

“Instead of a very sparse, modern design, the approach we took is multi-layered in color and texture and decor and accessories,” said Theresa Fatino, chief creative officer for SBE. “Guests can come back over and over and feel that same sense of discovery, these feelings of rejuvenation and delight and wonderment and surprise.” This sensation—that they’ll discover another Starck design pun, or find a new favorite dish on José Andrés’ menu—aims at bestowing upon guests a feeling of belonging to some perpetual in-crowd.

Hotel palomar by gensler with cheryl rowley
David Phelps

Starwood's aloft by rockwell group
courtesy starwood

London west hollywood by collins design
courtesy lxr

montage beverly hills by HKS Hill Glazier Design Studio
courtesy montage
 
 

While the boutique concept is alive and well—Thompson Beverly Hills and London West Hollywood both nod aesthetically to their New York predecessors—these properties have seen the same style evolution, towards warm, sumptuous luxury and a sprinkling of nostalgia.“In the LA area, there’s a trend of capturing the glamour of old Hollywood and incorporating it into a design relevant to today’s lifestyle,” said Bryan Oakes of Gensler, project architect for the Hotel Palomar in the Westwood neighborhood of LA. The Montage Beverly Hills is modeled after the Mediterranean-influenced estates that sprang up in the city during the Golden Age of Hollywood, while Hotel Palomar and the London West Hollywood reference the same period with dramatic, sparkly interiors and Hollywood-referencing art. The Thompson Beverly Hills indulges a noire-ish theme, with deep, dark interiors that are signature of the designer Dodd Mitchell. Here, black leather upholstery, black lacquered wall panels, and glossy black wood floors convey Chinatown chic.

California continues to capitalize on the renovation of its older hotels by elevating former discount motel-like properties to luxury status, said Oakes. “One of the successes of Palomar is that we took a dated 1970s building, originally built as a Holiday Inn, and elevated it to a chic four-star hotel.” This seemed to work best for new boutique operations like the Thompson Beverly Hills, which inhabits a crisp white modernist box that was once a 1960s Best Western, and the London West Hollywood, a revitalization of a tired, nondescript Wyndham Bel-Age. For the green-aspirational, a renovation could also be spun as a huge sustainable selling point: The Good Hotel in San Francisco combined two aging hotels into one eco-friendly property, complete with room appointments made from reclaimed materials and the option to contribute to a carbon offset program upon check-in.

While the hotel pool has traditionally been the place for designers to show off, a growing emphasis is focused on creative public spaces that are twists on the hotel bar. Whether these are seamlessly melded indoor/outdoor lounges or multi-functional lobbies, designers are giving guests more reasons to come out of their rooms and hang out. “Trends ebb and flow, but I think that one area that should always be emphasized is that of the social gathering space,” said David Rockwell of the Rockwell Group, who calls for public spaces that are “open, transformable, and comfortable.” He outfitted the first W’s for the Starwood chain and designed the Aloft (scheduled to roll out 500 locations worldwide over the next five years) with three major areas that encourage congregation and socialization: a communal lobby area with gaming and pool tables, the wxyz bar, and a 24-hour snack bar. The Bazaar at the SLS Hotel is broaching yet another approach: a warren of spaces blending bar, lounge, restaurant, and boutique for design retailer Moss, allowing guests to nibble and sip (and shop) in a variety of environments throughout an evening.
 


The Carrier Johnson-designed Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter provides a transition to the city's fun-loving entertainment district.
Courtesy Hard Rock 
 

One trend perfectly timed with the sagging economy is that of the discount design chain, which has swept into Southern California with the opening of two new ventures: Andaz is Hyatt’s first design hotel, and Starwood’s Aloft designed to deliver W-level accommodations at Holiday Inn prices. “One major trend in the last few years has been the recognition that the everyday traveler also appreciates a high level of design,” said Rockwell. (Aloft’s first California location is in Rancho Cucamonga). “We transformed this type of otherwise nondescript hotel into a chic oasis by using materials and amenities that are state-of-the-art, but simple and affordable.” The 257-room Andaz was designed by New York–based Janson Goldstein to give personality to the former “Riot House” Hyatt on the Sunset Strip in LA, with a variety of colorful appointments from local retailers that add high-end flavor to simple, modern rooms. (Of note to music fans: The hotel’s famous balconies, once launching pads for televisions and other after-party detritus during the hard rocking years, have been replaced with glassed-in sunrooms.)

According to trend-tracking site HotelNewsNow.com, 2009 national occupancy is only predicted to dip slightly, down 3.9 percent, but that’s where the discount design trend might win over guests: In a December 2008 survey of business travelers by Orbitz for Business and Business Traveler, only half of the respondents expected to travel less in 2009, but 79 percent of travelers said they have been pressured to cut costs. For those hitting the road, there still might be a few new places to write home about.

Alissa Walker