As KCSD officials ponder the possible future of the Cioni Building, the district’s administrative headquarters on Crown Street, a Mexican-based upscale chain of boutique hotels is hoping to bring what it does to Uptown Kingston.
Among the 15 properties designed and operated by Grupo Habita is Hôtel Americano, a chic 56-room hotel next to the High Line in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. There are also two Chicago boutique hotels, with others planned for big American cities. The first dozen Grupo Habita hotels were in Mexico, some in urban locations and others in resort towns.
And then there’s the proposed hotel in Kingston.
Hôtel Americano general manager Osama Aduib and consultant and project lead for the Kingston project Adriana Kertzer provided a tour of the Manhattan boutique hotel. On the first day of New York Fashion Week, Hôtel Americano was very much in the center of it all. It rises, shimmering, from West 27th Street like a solid gold beacon in the middle of an increasingly chic neighborhood. Its lobby is small, with chairs and a long sofa that are comfortable in spite of their precise design. Leaning against a wall is an oversized collection of black and white proofs of Lisa Jack’s study of Barack Obama, college student, from 1980. The check-in area, quirky but familiar with wood paneling and a row of numbered boxes along its back wall, looks like it might have been arranged by Wes Anderson. Stylish people step on and off the elevators, through the front doors or into the bar and restaurant; if a lobby is meant to convey a hotel’s entire aesthetic, Hôtel Americano delivers on its promise throughout. It is exclusive and inviting.
Another cocktail party in Kingston is already in the works, one that Kertzer said would only be solidified if Cioni is put on the market again. This one would be held at Hôtel Americano, with an eye on showing school officials and other local dignitaries what Grupo Habita is capable of.
Earlier this year, Grupo Habita offered Kingston’s school district a million dollars for the Cioni building. That offer was met by two significant obstacles: Cioni was no longer officially on the market, and in spite of Kingston City School District Superintendent Paul Padalino’s oft-stated desire to move the administrative offices out of the building plans for a new home in the former Frank L. Meagher Elementary were in an early stage.
Late last month, that plan was coming into clearer focus. During a meeting of the school board on August 31, Padalino updated preliminary plans for a move into Meagher, which was shuttered in 2012 as part of a comprehensive “rightsizing” plan to address a dwindling student population that reduced the number of elementary schools in the district from eleven to seven.
According to Padalino’s consulting architects, it would cost around $6 million to renovate Meagher for use solely as an administrative center, with the price tag rising to roughly $7.1 million if the renovations included preparation for a pre-K hub. Padalino added that the former option wouldn’t mean they couldn’t add pre-K or anything else to the facility later. Administrative facilities would only use about half the space in the existing Meagher building, leaving space for pre-kindergarten classrooms.
Moving with the market
During the Aug. 31 meeting, some trustees expressed what they had at a previous meeting a month earlier. They felt the district should operate with a sense of urgency in discussing the possibility of putting the Cioni Building on the market. “I think it’s very important that we understand there is right now a market out there for this building,” said the Rev. James Childs. “For us to sit on that and lose that opportunity, I think would be wrong.”
Suzanne Jordan agreed, noting that Kingston’s recent status as a hip destination for urbanites weary of New York City might not be permanent. “I would be afraid that if we just keep postponing it because we’re discussing the UPK [universal pre-kindergarten], then we’re going to move that 24 months to 36 months,” she said. “And that would make me uncomfortable, because this might not be the new Brooklyn at that time.”
The Cioni Building was officially on the market two years ago, receiving two bids it ultimately rejected. A bid of $658,000 was received by Kingston-based Trends Research Institute owner Gerald Celente, while commercial real-estate developer Paul Hakim bid $660,000. Both bids included provisions that the district could opt to lease the property back for between two and four years while renovations are completed at Meagher or elsewhere.
By the time Grupo Habita came into the picture, Cioni was no longer officially for sale. With school officials looking more closely at a move to Meagher, the Grupo Habita side made it clear they still have their eye specifically on the Cioni Building.
Where Kingston’s going
“We love Kingston,” said Aduib, who has been involved in scouting trips and meetings with local business and community leaders. He waxed eloquent. “There’s a desire to kind of get back in touch with this notion of Americana, this notion of upstate living. Access to forests and trees, the American flag, fireworks, Fourth of July, summer. And then the winter activities that go along with it …. And there’s a reason why people go to Kingston. There’s a great history there. Kingston was central to New York’s history, to the country’s history. It was awesome getting a chance to see that and also to see where Kingston is today. And hopefully where Kingston will be going in the near future.”
In May, the Grupo Habita team, which included the company’s articulate co-owner, Carlos Couturier, paid calls on local politicos and hosted a cocktail party at broker Hayes Clemnt’s house on West Chestnut Street for local business owners and other members of the community, where general renderings of Cioni as a Grupo Habita property were shown. District administrators were invited to the party, Kertzer said, but none attended. School board member Jim Shaughnessy did.
At the time, Padalino said the visit felt inappropriate to him. “It was a cocktail party for something they don’t own that’s not for sale,” he said. “To do something like that, it seems to me that they’re trying to apply pressure on the school district that we’re not prepared to do right now. And it’s not particularly well received.”
Kertzer and Aduib stressed that what worked for Chelsea might not necessarily work for Kingston. Grupo Habita, they said, is not a cookie-cutter hotel chain.
“I’ve been tracking for years designers and artists in the region,” said Kertzer during the tour. “There are a lot of makers in the area I think we could draw into the space in really interesting ways. What’s interesting is to not have an answer to that question right now: Here’s our intention, our eyes and ears are open. What you see here should not be what you see in Kingston.”
In Chelsea, the rooms are meant to evoke a contemporary urban ryokan, a Japanese inn, with sliding doors and an open, communal feel. In an “Uptown Studio” on Hôtel Americano’s eighth floor, the sleeping area is a mattress close to the floor in a space encased in larch wood. The room features modern lighting, a soaking tub and shower, and a bean bag chair that resembles a gigantic fig.
“This is not in Kingston,” said Aduib. “If we were lucky enough to get the [Cioni] building, there would definitely be the consultation of and the respect of the community so that whatever happens in those rooms, we’re not going to do platform beds.”
If Grupo Habita’s success rests on knowing its audiences, it would be difficult to argue that they’d missed the mark in Chelsea, with the clean lines flowing through the Americano restaurant and bar on the hotel’s first floor and back patio with clean lines appropriate for the fashionable clientele in the lobby or at the bar. La Piscine, a rooftop Mediterranean grill, is a wide-open space where the hotel hosts parties by its pool and hosts curated summertime movie events.
Bar Americano, a private bar that wasn’t on the tour but can be seen on the hotel’s website, is not dissimilar to Tiger Tanaka’s underground headquarters in the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice.
Kertzer and Aduib said they see the quality and commitment of Grupo Habita’s work on Hôtel Americano as an integral piece of the Cioni puzzle. This will be important to remember, they said, if and when the district puts its current headquarters up for sale. Because when that happens, Grupo Habita may not be the only player in the game.
“Anyone who knows New York real estate knows that once a great idea comes up, you always run the risk of others who are less sensitive … just pouncing,” said Kertzer, who is an owner of Chestnut Hill Advisory Partners and is working for, but is not an employee of, Grupo Habita. “Once all the bids are put side by side, the school district and the city and the people will have a choice to make. I know that, from our perspective, the idea of investing the numbers that we’ve already considered investing could only be seen as a development. This is still a high-risk investment. Be careful not to put it in the hands of someone who’ll flip it, or let it sit idle, or give it a future that’s less of what it has the potential to be.”
Aduib agreed. “We want to do this the right way,” he said. “We want to make sure that the school board understands that it’s not us obtusely coming up and making sure that our intentions known. But we want to make sure that our intentions are known. [Cioni] is a great building. We’re the right partner.”