|Checking In, Checking Out|
|Written by Erik Bojnansky -- BT Senior Writer, Photos by Silvia Ros|
After two stays at Boulevard motels, we can report the following: Pretty nice rooms. Very decent rates. No bedbugs. Good restaurants. Reality TV can actually be a good thing.
Walter and Shirley Figueroa were on the verge of losing their livelihood before Anthony Melchiorri came along.
The couple had invested their savings, retirement fund, and daughters’ college money -- about one million dollars -- renovating the New Yorker Motel at 6500 Biscayne Blvd. They succeeded in upgrading the 1950s-era lodging from a rundown fleabag to a comfortable historical boutique motel that offered its guests complimentary Wi-Fi, a clean pool, and a free breakfast.
To save money, and stay on top of the motel’s operations, the couple even moved onto the property. They worked more than 12 hours a day, every day, to the detriment of Shirley’s health, she being a cancer survivor now afflicted with symptoms that resembled multiple sclerosis.
In spite of their sacrifices, they were still losing money.
Enter Melchiorri, a luxury-hotel consultant and the fast-talking, fastidious host of the Travel Channel’s Hotel Impossible, a reality show that seeks to turn struggling hotels into efficient and profitable businesses. The New Yorker Hotel was one of three South Florida properties picked for the show’s first season, which broadcast nationally in April 2012.
In the course of that episode, Melchiorri taught the Figueroas the importance of organization, delegation, and cross-marketing with other local businesses. Melchiorri turned Walter’s black van, which he used to pick up guests arriving at the airport, into a mint-green traveling billboard for the New Yorker. He brought in a decorator who transformed a modest courtyard into a tropical oasis. And he purchased a large illuminated “H” to replace the “M” on the main signage. The New Yorker Motel became the New Yorker Hotel.
“Today motels have a bad connotation,” Melchiorri reasoned. “Just the name motel alone can drag a rate down by more than 70 percent.”
In his analysis, Melchiorri never mentioned the words “Biscayne Boulevard,” nor the negative image motels along this thoroughfare still have among many local residents, as well as tourists.
Since the 1970s, the stretch of Biscayne Boulevard passing through Miami’s Upper Eastside has had a reputation as a haven for prostitutes and drug dealers. Today the street is in transition, thanks in part to the affluent neighborhoods east of the Boulevard and gentrification of the Palm Grove community on the west side. Restaurants and boutique stores have been opening here since the late 1990s, but the dealers and hookers remain, albeit in far smaller numbers. Receiving much of the blame to this day are the Boulevard’s shabby motels.
A band of preservationists enamored of post-World War II architecture, which they called Miami Modern or MiMo, sought to preserve the motels that sprang into existence along the Boulevard in the late 1940s and 1950s, as well as apartments, houses, and motels constructed prior to the war.
In 2003 these preservationists persuaded the City of Miami to designate the 1953-era Vagabond Motel at 7301 Biscayne Blvd. -- designed by Delano Hotel architect B. Robert Swartburg -- as an historic structure. Three years later the city created the Biscayne Boulevard Miami Modern (MiMo) Historic District from 50th Street to 77th Street. The ideas was to enhance the area’s future by protecting and celebrating its past.
Among the first to try his hand at preservation was Eric Silverman, a former fashion executive who bought the Vagabond in 2005, intent on returning it to its former glory. After four years, he abandoned the partially gutted property.
Since then the situation has changed. Several motels in the MiMo District are either being renovated, soon will be, or are being purchased by investors.
One of those investors is Avra Jain, who purchased the Vagabond from the mortgage holder for $1.9 million and is under contract to buy the Royal Motel, located just north of the Vagabond, for an undisclosed sum. Her plan is to restore both properties -- adding a restaurant, gym, and spa -- and run them as a single operation. She’s also scouting out additional properties.
Nancy Liebman, president of the MiMo Biscayne Association, which aims to improve business within the district, is already calling Jain the “Tony Goldman of Biscayne Boulevard,” a comparison to the late developer who helped rejuvenate Manhattan’s SoHo, South Beach, and Wynwood.
Jain, a developer from New York who has invested in properties around the Adrienne Arsht Center and near Midtown Miami, modestly shrugs off such comparisons. Instead she credits the New Yorker Hotel for sparking her interest. “Some of my friends wanted to stay on the Miami side and I recommended the New Yorker,” she recalls, “but they couldn’t get a room.” They tried on three different occasions. Each time, all rooms were booked. “There was clearly more demand for this product than I thought.”
In the case of the New Yorker, that demand resulted from the investment of lots of money, labor, advice from Melchiorri, and with assistance from the Travel Channel. Jain also has a team to help realize her vision, including Dupoux Design, which created the interiors for several successful South Beach nightspots, and food-and-beverage consultants Stoli Hotel & Resorts.
Without such professional guidance, how will other Boulevard motel owners fare? And just how well is the New Yorker doing after its Hotel Impossible makeover? To answer these questions, Biscayne Times decided to spend 48 hours on the Boulevard.
Our first night was spent at the Shalimar Motel, 6200 Biscayne Blvd., which is currently undergoing renovation. On the second night, we stayed at the New Yorker. We did not reveal our professional identities or intentions.
Part of the Shalimar, designed by architect Edward Reeder, was built in 1951, according to the city’s historic-designation report for the MiMo District. An addition was built in 1953, forming a U-shaped configuration. Both buildings were constructed during a time when Biscayne Boulevard was Miami’s main highway and millions of American families were buying cars and driving south for vacations.
The Boulevard’s motels thrived, as did nearby businesses, including large department stores, movie theaters, restaurants, and nightclubs. The boom years ended after the construction of I-95 in the early 1960s. As suburbs grew and the inner city declined, so did the Boulevard. The Shalimar fell into disrepair and disrepute along with the rest of the Boulevard’s motels.
By 1994 the City of Miami’s Nuisance Abatement Board shut down the Shalimar for six months after police recorded ten incidents of drug dealing and prostitution there. To reopen, a new owner had to install security cameras and a motorized security gate for the parking area.
My travel companion and I find the security cameras still there on arrival, but the motorized gate has been replaced by a low MiMo-style wall, palm trees, and shrubs. As we bring our luggage up to our second-floor room, a funny thing happens. We can’t get the door open. Alerted to our plight, the front-desk clerk tries to open it. A maid who witnesses us struggling lends a hand. Nothing. So the clerk upgrades us to a king-size bed in a room on the ground floor.
Room 102 is white with taupe-accented walls. The floor tiles, ceiling, and bedding are also white. To our pleasant surprise there is a bed-bug-resistant plastic cover on the mattress. A large round mirror hangs on the wall, while a flat-screen TV offers a handful of basic cable channels and local stations. There’s also a mini fridge with two complimentary bottles of water. Melchiorri would give the room high marks for cleanliness, especially if he’d seen it just four years ago (more on that later). Melchiorri would also love the free Wi-Fi.
However, a bedside note might cause him to raise an eyebrow. The message reads exactly as follows: “Strictly non-smoking rooms, please be advise there will be acharsge of $50.00b dollars for the fuming the room. Thank’s for your cooperation the Shalimar staff Smoking Outside is permitted!!”
In the bathroom is another message to guests, this one a framed admonition that reads like poetry:The Shalimar Built in 1950, It has Narrow Waste Pipes Please Do Not Throw things in the Toilet Bowel, It will back up, It Is Nasty. Do Not Throw Sanitary Napkins, Food or anything that can cause problems Thank you for your cooperation Have a pleasant stay. Tel. 305-751-0345
That is not the end of our fun with the bathroom. After hearing a bang! from behind the door, we open it to find not a human intruder but a very large palmetto bug, so large, in fact, it had been able to knock over our toothbrush cup. (Splattering the roach leaves a long black stain on an otherwise clean, tiled bathroom floor.)
The shower proves puzzling, emitting only freezing cold water. My travel companion explains that the spigot handles must have been reversed because she turns on “cold” and a satisfying stream of warm water flows out.
But aside from a few quirks, including the resident cat fighting with a stray feline over food at 4:00 a.m., our time at the Shalimar is relatively uneventful, even pleasant, as its location allows us the chance for an evening stroll a few blocks up the Boulevard to happy hour and dinner at Balans.
We are not alone. Many of the Shalimar’s rooms are occupied by foreign tourists -- most of whom booked their rooms through travel websites like Booking.com. In the morning, the staff is extremely helpful and courteous, bringing new guests’ luggage to their rooms and offering advice on where to shop.
My travel companion makes it up by the 9:00 a.m. cut-off time for a complimentary, though spare, continental breakfast of baked goods and coffee in the closet-size lobby.
Gluck’s jaded opinion of the real-estate industry stems from her experience with the Shalimar Motel. The couple initially invested $200,000 in the property in late 2006, as minority partners in a venture that envisioned demolishing the Shalimar and replacing it with a ten-story condo. By 2008 the couple was forced to satisfy the motel’s $3 million mortgage after their partners defaulted.
“We thought we would sell it, but nobody would buy it, not any longer,” she says. “The place was in horrible, horrible shape. The roof was falling apart, all the plumbing was leaking and breaking all over the place, water started coming out of the floors. The place was infested with termites, cockroaches, and human cockroaches: drug dealers and prostitutes. I used to come into the parking lot and cringe. I could not believe.”
Since 2006, Gluck and her family have sunk $4 million into the Shalimar, a property she admits was never inspected in the first place. During that time, Gluck recounts that she’s been frustrated by a convoluted city bureaucracy and ripped off by at least two contractors who took her money but failed to pay their own workers. “It has been three years of hell,” she says.
Yet Gluck remains determined to turn around the Shalimar. “I am doing it myself, from New York, which is difficult,” she says. “I wish somebody would give me guidance. I do everything as I go along. I was never in this business, but I have no choice.”
After explaining to Gluck that we spent a night at the Shalimar, I tell her it seems like she’s making progress, though I do mention the roach, stuck doors, and plumbing confusion.
Gluck, who says she’s obsessed with the motel’s cleanliness, promises that such problems will be fixed. “Our main objective is to clean the place up and put it in order,” she says. She’s trying to get a café and restaurant on the property, too, and may add a garden.
Eventually Gluck wants to sell the Shalimar -- before her children inherit a property they don’t have time to run. “I don’t have the money,” she says. “Somebody has to take it over.”
We are greeted by aqua walls, a patterned floor, and a queen-size bed with white sheets. Hanging on the walls are a wide-screen television, a Whitney Houston poster, and a tear-drop mirror. We also have a remote-control ceiling fan, a glass table with three chairs, and a Bible. Our walk-in closet, located just outside the bathroom, is equipped with a mini fridge. The room also features free Wi-Fi, a feature that Anthony Melchiorri crowed about during about during Hotel Impossible’s New Yorker episode. “Love…free…Wi…Fi,” he proclaimed, emphasizing every word. “Being charged for Internet access is the number-one complaint I get from corporate travelers around the country.”
We also remember that Melchiorri’s generally cheerful tone changed when he walked into a New Yorker bathroom and lifted the toilet lid to find feces floating in the bowel. “That’s the one thing I didn’t expect, a crapo in the toilet,” he muttered as dramatic music played in the background. “I was going to give this room high marks, but what I saw in that toilet, I have to fail the room.”
With that scene replaying in our heads, we lift the toilet lid and find…nothing. Actually, the bathroom is not only clean, it’s luxurious compared to the Shalimar. There’s even a bathtub in the New Yorker’s bathroom. The Shalimar only had a curtain separating the shower area from the rest of the compact lavatory.
Melchiorri, however, might shake his head at the strange orange stain on wall of the walk-in closet. My travel companion also spots a black hair and a faded red make-up stain on the mattress. There’s no bed-bug-resistant plastic wrapping, something my travel companion frets about. But overall, the bedroom is nice and comfy.
The New Yorker began its existence as two separate operations. The Motel New Yorker, designed by Norman Giller in 1953, is described in the city’s MiMo report as “the quintessential example of motel design in the modern age.” With only 18-units, the Motel New Yorker cost $53,000 to build -- about $474,238 in 2012 money. Built immediately north of it, in 1954, was the Motel Champlain, which included a swimming pool.
By the time Shirley Figueroa’s parents, Victor and Elisa Diaz, bought the motel for $615,000 in 1986, the two buildings were united under the name Davis Motel. According to a May 1990 Miami Herald article, the Miami Police Department’s “Motel Squad” named the Davis Motel among the top five motels where the most drug, prostitution, and burglary-related arrests were made in a one-month period.
Walter Figueroa later tells the BT, after we reveal we stayed at his hotel, that his in-laws always tried to keep the prostitutes and drug dealers out. At the same time, Walter admits they made no major effort to renovate the property.
Although Shirley managed the motel’s books, Walter’s involvement with the Davis Motel was sporadic until 2004. That’s when Shirley gave birth to triplets and, soon afterward, was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that afflicts the body’s soft tissue. After seven surgeries and chemotherapy, Shirley is now cancer-free. Unfortunately, Walter says, her short-term memory has been adversely affected.
With Elisa taking care of her three grandchildren, and Victor getting on (he’s now 89 years old), Walter helped his wife manage the motel. But by 2005, Walter wanted to approach things in a different way. He pushed his in-laws to allow him to do a complete renovation of the hotel. “I told them, ‘We got to do something different. This is no way to do business,’” Walter recalls.
His father-in-law resisted. “He didn’t want to do anything,” Walter says. “He was telling me that I was throwing money away.” Walter finally persuaded Victor Diaz to allow him to close one part of the motel first for renovations, while the other building continued to operate. Then, once the renovations are complete, he’d do the other side.
When all the renovations were completed in 2010, Walter ditched the old Davis Motel moniker and renamed it the New Yorker Motel as a nod to its past.
Several hours earlier, we had attended an Art Basel-related forum on art and the media at the 6400 Biscayne Blvd. building, where the La Comunidad advertising agency is based (clients include Sony, Corona, Disney, Volvo, Citibank, and Best Buy), then enjoyed free drinks at the rooftop lounge, which gave us a fantastic view of the Boulevard’s neon signs. When I dashed back to our room to grab my camera, I had a brief conversation with a drug dealer.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hey, how you doin’?” replied the tall, slender black man as we passed each other on the sidewalk. “If you need anything, let me know.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Cocaine, marijuana, whatever.”
“Hmmmm, maybe another time.”
We later dined in the outdoor seating area of Blue Collar, a popular restaurant located in the Biscayne Inn at 6730 Biscayne Blvd. that serves gourmet comfort food.
The Biscayne Inn is in the midst of its own renovation, although it still has rooms available for guests. And on this night, one of those guests, a skinny white guy with a neck brace and cane, mistook the Blue Collar staff for the Biscayne Inn staff, which he accused of stealing his credit card. It took several minutes for Blue Collar’s employees, Blue Collar chef/owner Daniel Serfer, Biscayne Inn management, and the police to calm him down.
We also wandered from motel to motel, inquiring about room rates. A clerk at the neon-lit Saturn Motel (6995 Biscayne Blvd., built in 1952) tells us through thick, bullet-proof glass that a room will cost us $75 for the night, but he might be able to arrange something for us at $25 for the first hour, then $10 an hour after that.
We declined the hourly offer and returned to the New Yorker. But I was feeling restless. I wanted to venture out and experience the Boulevard alone. So I leave our cozy room to take my walk on the wild side.
The sidewalks are empty at this late hour, except for a few wandering adults in search of scraps and customers. The loud click-clack sound of a homeless man dragging his walker along the sidewalk echoes off buildings as he makes his way from garbage can to garbage can.
Less than a block away from the New Yorker, two blonde white women wait at a bus shelter. The younger of the two sits on the bench, slumped over, her face covered with red blotches. The older, wearing a night gown, is standing.
“You want some company?” she asks.
“Not tonight,” I reply. “Thanks.”
“You sure you don’t want the company of two beautiful women?”
“Maybe another time.”
I cross the street and keep walking. High-end stores, critically acclaimed restaurants, unique office buildings, and popular bars are all closed and locked. The only lights are neon motel signs, car headlights, and traffic signals. I can see men and women standing at corners some distance away. Feeling skittish, I turn back toward the New Yorker, the ever-present click-clacking of the homeless man’s walker ringing in my ears.
Less than five hours later, I’m dragging myself to the courtyard to enjoy a free breakfast with my travel companion. Chatting at a table nearby are members of a Norwegian heavy-metal band on their way to a gig on a cruise ship heading for the Bahamas. The pale, tattooed musicians are amused by the white lanterns that hang from the avocado, lemon, and sour orange trees -- lanterns that Hotel Impossible designer Blanche Garcia had to frantically find at local stores prior to a special event after the original Jacksonville supplier failed them.
The band members say they’re thrilled to be in the subtropics. The temperature in Norway, they say, is 11 degrees.
Many things have changed since Hotel Impossible aired. Shirley Figueroa now works just once a week -- if that -- as she concentrates on her health and family, husband Walter says. The family also moved out of the hotel four months ago and into a home nearby. Staying at their place of work 24/7, Walter Figueroa explains, was just too much mental strain.
Business is on the upswing, Walter adds, thanks in large part to Melchiorri teaching him how to delegate responsibility to staffers and form cross-marketing alliances with other businesses.
At the same time, Walter admits, the hotel can do a better job cleaning the rooms. “We’ve been very busy and there’s little time to catch up with the rooms,” he says.
The biggest boost to business, he contends, was changing the name of the place from the New Yorker Motel to the New Yorker Hotel. “In Latin America,” he says, “a motel is where you go with your girlfriend for a couple of hours, not a place where you take your family. That was a big issue.”
But in spite of the improvements, the New Yorker is not quite in the black financially. “We’re still struggling a little bit,” Walter concedes. “We’re getting a little behind in property taxes.” Banks are still unwilling to give the hotel a loan: “They want to see another year of us doing good.”
Still, Walter is confident that by the end of the new year, “we’ll be doing great.” He’s also bullish on the neighborhood. In fact, he says if he had access to millions of dollars like Avra Jain, he too would be buying motels on the Boulevard.
“There are always going to be tourists who, instead of spending $300 a night for a hotel in South Beach, would rather have a place where they can go to bed, have breakfast, and then go see the city,” he says. “The location we have is perfect. It’s ten minutes to downtown. Ten minutes to South Beach. We don’t have the beach, but we’re full almost every day.”
Unlike Tikva Gluck, Walter has no desire to sell the New Yorker. “Unless,” he amends, “someone comes in with a crazy offer.”
Travel companion Robin Shear contributed to this story.
Volume 13, Issue 2, April 2015
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