South Bronx becomes city’s newest hotel hub

The soon-to-open Umbrella Hotel in Melrose is one of several recently built or newly planned hotels in the area.

The soon-to-open Umbrella Hotel in Melrose is one of several recently built or newly planned hotels in the area.

Lower rates lure more of the Big Apple’s guests

A number of hotel chains are betting that travelers who have already come thousands of miles to visit New York City won’t mind traveling a few extra miles to sleep in the outer boroughs for a fraction of the cost.

With two hotels already operating in Mott Haven and Melrose and two more under construction, the South Bronx hospitality business is now booming. Until recently, that business has consisted primarily of “hot sheet” motels, where illicit encounters drive the industry. 

“The Bronx has everything people could ever want in Manhattan, for half the price,”said Lenny Caro, president of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce, adding that tourism in the borough is up twenty percent so far this year over 2014.

Guests who checked in to The Opera House Hotel on 149th Street near the Hub in June came from Germany, The Netherlands and Japan, among other places. Boosters say easy access to Manhattan’s tourist attractions via the nearby subway is one draw, while accommodations much more spacious than their counterparts across the river are another. And paying less than $200 per night for a big room a handful of subway stops from Manhattan doesn’t hurt.

“Would you rather stay in a 400 square-foot room or a shoebox?” said Carlos Quiz, a front desk clerk at The Opera House. The hotel, which is located in the century-old building that once housed the legendary Bronx Opera House, stands out among the eateries and dollar stores that have long dominated the Hub.

“When we pass these fancy hotels on runs, we just think –what is that doing here?” said Alexander Santiago, a police officer at the 41st Precinct in Hunts Point.

Quiz, who lives in Hunts Point, said guests are often pleasantly surprised during their stays, but they sometimes need reassurances before settling in. One woman arrived at the front desk sobbing, he recalled, after her taxi driver told her she was crazy to stay in the Bronx, warning her she could get robbed or murdered. When Quiz saw she was distraught, he urged her to give the neighborhood a chance and stay for at least one night. She ended up staying the whole week.

“By the end of her vacation, she loved the Bronx,” he said.

Like the Opera House, the Umbrella Hotel, which plans to open in the next few weeks, on Elton Avenue between 153rd and 154th streets in Melrose, is labelled a “boutique hotel” on its Facebook page.

“We wouldn’t be here if the banks didn’t think it was a good idea,” said Paras Chadha, the Umbrella’s general manager.

In addition, a four-story Comfort Inn is coming up at 2477 Third Avenue between East 135th and 136th streets in Port Morris, and a 152-room Hampton Inn nears its groundbreaking at 149th Street between Gerard Avenue and Exterior Street near the Grand Concourse. The group behind the Hampton project, Signature Urban Properties, will also construct two buildings of 157 and 136 apartments for low-income to market rate tenants.

At a meeting of Community Board 1 on June 10, Gifford Miller, who heads Signature Urban Properties, the real estate firm behind the Hampton Inn project, said the hotel boomlet is not as unlikely a venture as some are portraying it.

“I believe there’s a strong Bronx demand,” said Miller. “It’s hard to get flag hotels to come to the Bronx because nobody wants to be the first. Everybody wants to be the second.”

But although the new hotels may be changing the landscape and erasing negative stereotypes of the area, it remains a challenge getting guests to spend time and money in the borough. Proximity to Manhattan remains their major selling point.

“Sometimes we’ll suggest that a guest check out the area. But most of the time we just inform them of places in Manhattan,” said Quiz. The tourist literature available for guests at the Opera House touts only Manhattan sights.

An employee at The Medicine Cabinet II Pharmacy next door to the hotel said she had not noticed additional business at her store since the hotel’s opening, but a clerk at an electronics store down the street, Cristal Gamez, said she has been much busier since the Opera House opened.

“We have tourists coming in everyday now,” she said.

Rafael Salamanca, district manager of Community Board 2 in Hunts Point, said he recently received a call from someone inquiring about opening a new Marriott on the former site of the notorious Bridges Juvenile Detention Center on Spofford Avenue.

“We’re talking about more lighting, more security, and over 100 new jobs,” Salamanca said.

Salamanca laughed at the irony of the former jail potentially being converted into a Marriott.

“Picture people getting married where Spofford used to be,”he said.

Chadha said that people now stop by the Umbrella every day to ask if they’re hiring.

“We plan to employ people in the area,” Chadha said.

Bronx-based “Help Identify Real Employment,” which aims at connecting Bronx residents with jobs that pay a living wage, says its has already put 22 people to work on jobs created by the new hotels.

“The Bronx is the new frontier,” Caro said. “This is where all of the growth is happening.”

Additional reporting by Joe Hirsch.

The story has been changed to note that the Signature Urban Properties project on East 149th Street includes buildings of 157 and 136 apartments, including an affordable housing component.