The new owners of the the 123-year-old Hotel Duncan promised to preserve many of its historic architectural elements, from its manual-operated elevator to its neon-lit marquee, as it converts the building into an upscale establishment.
On the inside, they aim to reimagine the design of the rooms and lobbies to reflect New Haven history and culture and to create a communal space that is welcoming to both visiting hotel guests and members of the community.
Such was the pitch that Graduate Hotels president Tim Franzen made to the Downtown-Wooster Square Community Management Team on Tuesday night during its monthly meeting on the second floor of City Hall.
Built in 1894, the Duncan is a 92-room part-hotel, part-Single Room Occupancy (SRO) boarding house at 1151 Chapel St. that currently rents out most of its rooms by the night, but also rents out some of its rooms by the week to longer-term tenants.
Last week AJ Capital Partners, a Chicago-based investment and development firm that specializes in independent and boutique hotels, formally completed its purchase of the hotel from its current owner Stirling Shapiro for a price tag of $8 million. (Click here for a previous article about the history and changing fate of the Duncan.)
Through its university-focused division Graduate Hotels, AJ Capital Partners plans on scrapping the SRO business model, converting the entire hotel to traditional, nightly rentals, and reducing the total number of rooms to around 70 or 72. Each room is to have its own bathroom, as opposed to the current layout, in which some rooms share a single bathroom.
The new owners plan on closing the hotel for renovations in December 2017 and plan on reopening for business by January 2019.
SRO rooms at the Duncan currently rent for between $170 to $240 per week, while traditional hotel rooms at the Duncan rent for around $130 per night, according to Tripadvisor. Franzen did not say how much nightly rates will be at the newly renovated hotel. He did say that they would likely be comparable to nightly rates at the nearby boutique hotel The Study at Yale, which charges around $250 per night for hotel guests.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Franzen assured neighbors that AJ Capital plans on renovating the Hotel Duncan in the same way that it approached renovating other historic properties like the Hotel Durant in Berkeley, California and the Chicago Athletic Association in Chicago, Illinois: by focusing on historical continuity and community specificity, and not on the monolithic, anonymous experience typically provided by major national hotel brands like Marriott and Hyatt.
“The idea is to bring interesting, independent, unique, fun hotels to communities that have universities as their anchor,” Franzen said as he described the mission of Graduate Hotels, which has opened hotels in such cities as Ann Arbor, Michigan; Athens, Georgia’ and Madison, Wisconsin.
He said that although his firm seeks out cities with a strong university presence, the hotels themselves are rarely university-themed. Instead, their custom designs focus on relating to the communities in which they exist.
“You don’t see school colors and banners and mascots [at our hotels],” he said. “We wanted something a little more unique. We wanted to research the story, the history, people who went to school there, who grew up in the community. Our team spends a lot of time and effort coming into particular communities, talking with people, going to thrift shops, going to restaurants, walking through campus, and getting to understand the history and culture and figuring out what stories we want to tell.”
Franzen offered no details on what specific elements from Yale and/or New Haven history may make it into the final design of the new Hotel Duncan. He did say that Graduate Hotels plans on maintaining the Duncan’s century-old, manual-operated elevator, while also installing a new elevator. They also plan on preserving the current flooring, molding, and woodworking of the lobby, and will open up a 1,500 square-foot ballroom on the ground floor that has served as a storage space and workshop for decades.
“We also want to be a bit of a community living room,” he told the group. “Our hotel lobbies are not staid or cold or quiet. We have a lot of soft seating, a lot of communal tables.”
He said that, as an example, the Ann Arbor hotel has a publicly accessible, 40-foot communal table with 60 seats around it that gets used all day long by hotel guests, students, family visiting students, and unaffiliated community members. Similarly, his firm envisions creating a community space in the lobby of the Hotel Duncan that will have a coffee shop, and that will be open to anyone and everyone.
“We want to create these living rooms,” he said. “Active spaces where anyone in the community can come, congregate, have a cup of coffee at the end of the day, have a glass of wine or a beer. Active spaces morning, noon, and night where people can congregate and collect.”
Franzen said that AJ Capital has assured the 15 or so current employees at the Hotel Duncan that they are welcome to keep their jobs at the new hotel after renovations are complete in early 2019.
AJ Capital has also been working with the Glendower Group, the not-for-profit relocation arm of the New Haven Housing Authority, to help the Hotel Duncan’s current SRO tenants find new homes by the firm’s mandated early-November move out date.
AJ is paying Glendower $50,000 to assess renters’ finances and needs, make appointments, and drive them to visit new properties. AJ Capital has promised to pay for security deposits and moving expenses, and has told renters that they are welcome to bring with them the furniture in their current Duncan rooms, if they would like.
Shenae Draughn, senior vice president of Real Estate Development at Glendower Group, said that there were 39 longer-term tenants at the Hotel Duncan when AJ Capitals purchased the building. So far, Glendower has successfully relocated 10 of those tenants to new permanent residences, and is in the process of moving another 15 tenants who have already found new homes. Glendower is still working with the remaining 14 tenants on finding new homes.
“At the end of the day, we’re trying to do whatever we can to lessen this burden and this disruption” to the Duncan’s tenants’ lives, Franzen said. “At the end of the day, we’re committed to do whatever we can.”