Philadelphia’s New Boom
Trend #5: The Hotels Cometh
The city’s long-missing hospitality element is finally here. By James Jennings
This month marks the 15th anniversary of the first time we didn’t get a W Hotel. As you may recall, Will Smith purchased a swath of land in Society Hill with plans to bring a glowy W Hotel to his hometown. The project was dead a year later, and Smith sold the site and fled way past West Philly to his adopted SoCal home.
Despite that episode, 2000 was actually a hallmark year for the local hospitality industry — the Republican National Convention came to town, and the Loews, Ritz-Carlton and Sofitel all opened.
But since then? Meh. A few projects have debuted over the decades, most notably the Kimptons in Rittenhouse and Old City, which, while not trendsetting, brought some panache to our rather staid hotel scene. Now, all of that appears to be changing. A total of seven hotel projects have been announced in Center City (plus one in University City), and some of them are pretty captivating.
“Hotels define a city,” says developer Carl Dranoff, who is set to bring the most significant new one to town: a 47-story glam SLS International Hotel on the corner of Broad and Spruce streets. “When people visit a city, they know it by their hotels. Philadelphia is emerging as a global city. It’s our time to shine.” The operators of the SLS were actively looking to open up a Philly branch — they didn’t need to be lured in. Currently there are only three SLS hotels in the world (in Beverly Hills, South Beach and Vegas), while a few others are planned for cities like Beijing and Manhattan.
The SLS is set to be joined by another Kimpton, a Hudson Hotel, a new Four Seasons at the top of the new Comcast building, a luxury replacement for the old Four Seasons, and, wait for it … a W Hotel (although the brand doesn’t quite have the swank factor it did a decade ago). Developer Brook Lenfest will pair the W up with the more budget-friendly Element Hotel brand that — with a proposed plan for a combined 755 rooms — will sit on 15th and Chestnut streets, towering over its new neighbor, the Ritz.
The turnaround can be attributed to our growing global status (thanks, Barnes!), a booming economy, and banks that are lending again. Plus, according to Jack Ferguson, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, the dynamic management changes at the Convention Center helped to make 2014 the strongest year for future bookings in a decade, with a 47 percent increase in new business from 2013 to 2014. And with that comes a demand for rooms — the city’s hotel occupancy rate was 76 percent in 2014, the highest it has been since 1949.
However, this is still Philadelphia, so we shouldn’t quite forget all the projects that never were. The W Hotel’s tax subsidy was approved in 2013, and we are finally, just last month, seeing some construction vehicles on the property grounds — but no timeline confirmations. “It’s not a sexy project without a hotel component included,” says Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association. “I don’t consider them real until I see a shovel in the ground.” So let’s just agree to be cautiously optimistic. We’ve waited 15 years; what’s a few more?