A Manhattan merry-go-round in hotels

New York City is enjoying its biggest hotel construction, renovation, and expansion boom since perhaps 1850-54, when 19 new hotels opened. With the opening of the new Vista International hotel next to the twin towers of the World Trade Center this spring, the city will have gained nearly 6,000 hotel rooms in just six months. This brings the city's total of first-class hotel rooms to about 106,000, or more than London and Paris combined.

And that's only for starters. From the sonorous swing of the wrecking ball to the lilt of live music in new flower-festooned restaurants, it seems that every area of Manhattan -- from Times Square to Wall Street -- is either anticipating a hotel or has just had one built or extensively renovated.

While concern is growing in some quarters that this boom will not be matched by an equal boom in hotel occupancy, Jack MacBean, vice-president of the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc., says emphatically: "We're going to need every room."

Mr. MacBean bases his forecast on the fact that "tourism is the No. 1 growth industry in the city." For example, he cites the increase in overseas visitors in the past decade: "In 1968, we had 1 million; in 1979, over 2 million -- or an increase of more than 100 percent."

Yet, the overall number of visitors to the city in 1980 was down by 400,000 from 1979, according to the bureau, which says reasons range from recession and inflation to the fuel crisis. And now, many hotels are reporting that occupancy slumped dramatically in January because of the economy and cold weather. But there is almost a universal assumption within the industry that as spring approaches, business will pick up as it does every year.

In the long range, too, hotel builders and operators are banking not only on a growth in tourism but also on conventions when the city's new convention center is completed in 1982 or early '83.

By then, said Harry B. Helmsley, the real estate broker and builder, in an interview, even proposed hotels, such as the 2,000-room-plus John Portman Hotel planned for Times Square, will be needed.

the lanky, urbane Mr. helmsley knows the hotel business as well as anyone -- although it constitutes a comparatively small segment of his real estate business. He owns 30 hotels, including the Park Lane, the Carlton House, and the St. moritz. His 51-story, 1,050-room Helmsley Palace Hotel and smaller 800 -room Harley Hotel have only opened in recent months.

Although the Harley's official opening day, Feb. 18, was marred by a fire that injured 36 people, including 12 firemen, New York Gov. Hugh Carey told a celebration party earlier in the day that the hotel was "more than an investment" for the city; rather, "a reaffirmation of the faith" in the future of New York. The Harley, which is short for Harry And Leona -- Leona M. Helmsley is president of Helmsley Hotels Inc. and its Harley Hotels division and also Mrs. Harry B. Helmsley -- is actually owned jointly by Helmsley hotels and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. The Harley, with its unusual -- for Manhattan -- private, semicircle driveway is also the flagship of the 26 -property harley Hotels subsidiary.

Just west down 42nd Street, or "the street of dreams," as Governor Carey called it at the Harley opening, stands the 30- story, 1,400-room Grand Hyatt Hotel, with its four-story plantfilled atrium and mirrorlike exterior. This $ 100 million addition ot the Big Apple is a total renovation of the old 2,000 -room Commodore hotel, a favorite of circus king John Ringling North as well as train travelers -- Grand Central Station is next door and partly under the hotel -- for more than half a century. But the Commodore deteriorated, along with yesterday's luxury train travel. It might have remained a rotting hulk had not New york developer Donald Trump and the Hyatt Hotels Corporation seen its promise as a site for a completely renovated hotel property.

A little farther to the west is a cultural landmark of a hotel with perhaps the highest occupancy rate in the city. The 79- year-old algonquin just never seems to worry about the so- called "bottom line," or profit picture, despite the fact it is one of the most reasonably priced first-class hotels in the city. The reason: It is owned by one man, the redoubtable Ben Bodne, a Texas oil millionaire. Its manager is Mr. Bodne's son-in-law, Andrew Anspach, whose recipe for running a hotel is to look after the hotel and its patrons first and foremost, and "the financial part just takes care of itself." Like other hotels of the highest quality, such as the Pierre and the Waldorf-Astoria, the Algonquin has continually and quietly upgraded its guest and function rooms without having to close to do it.

Several blocks north and a little east is the Helmsley Palace, which Mrs. Helmsley said over lunch would one day be "the best hotel in the world." The hotel's 51-story bronzed tower, topped by two triplex suites -- with working fireplaces -- adjoins the historic 100-year-old Villard Houses, a city landmark. The rooms in the historic part of the hotel were originally modeled after the Cancelleria in Rome, and its frescoes, mosaics, and marble-inlaid floors have received rave reviews from architecture critics as well as guests. The restoration work alone cost well in excess of $10 million.

Late last year, the Palace had to turn down a request from Prince Charles of England, who wanted to stay there. "We didn't have any suites at the time," said Mr. Helmsley, who added with a smile, "Now maybe we'll name a suite after him."

By May, the 825-room Vista International hotel will open next to the World Trade Center. Another hotel, the Milford Plaza, recently reopened in Times Square after extensive renovations.

Other hotels that have undergone or are undergoing major renovations include:

* The Barclay, now owned by International Hotels Corporation, which was a favorite of society and celebrities and now caters to the international businessman and, sometimes, royalty and diplomats.

* The Berkshire Place, whose total renovation is complete -- and sparkling with understated elegance.

* The St. Regis-Sheraton, completing total renovation. This "house that Jack built" -- Jack Astor, that is -- is an enormously high-ceilinged jewel of a property, and its marble function rooms are widely considered the most beautiful in the city.

* The Sheraton Center Hotel, formerly the Americana, which underwent extensive renovation work, including the addition of an atrium in the lobby,

It's almost as if all this building and renovation were some kind of real-life domino game, for in the last year it seems that as soon as one builder or operator announces plans, someone else does the same.

In addition to the John Portman Hotel, there are proposals for a 1,200 -addition to the New York Hilton Hotel, already the city's largest, and a 445 -room Marriott Hotel at La Guardia Airport.

"They are not being built or renovated on speculation," maintains Mr. MacBean of the Convention & Visitors Bureau, "but because of the growth in the visitor industry."

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