RECESSION-PROOF PORTLAND: Harlow hotel
When he bought the former Harlow Hotel building at Park and Northwest Glisan Street in 2008, Ganesh Sonpatki didn't mean to open a boutique hotel in the Pearl District.
The owner of Portland Value Inns especially didn't think the opening would come as late as August 2019, long after nearby spots like the Canopy and the Hampton Inn, the Hoxton and The Society.
He was thinking of a nice budget hotel on the North Park Blocks, which are just the right side of Broadway from the sketchier Old Town/Chinatown. Through his main business, Portland Value Inns, Sonpatki runs several economy hotels in the Portland area. It's his thing. He grew up in an SRO (single room occupancy) hotel in San Francisco.
"My uncle managed the hotel by the gates of Chinatown in San Francisco," Sonpatki told the Business Tribune recently. "It wasn't run down, and there were a lot of opportunities for people on fixed incomes. Ours was a lot cleaner than most."
His building at 722 N.W. Glisan St. was built in 1883 but has been mostly empty since the 1970s. The outside was periodically tagged, and broken windows let in the weather. Nearby, upscale markers flourished: the highly rated restaurant Park Kitchen (now Casa Toheca) to the south, and the Pacific Northwest College of Art across the street to the north, which took over the old 511 Federal Building in 2015.
The new version of the Harlow Hotel opened quietly on August 17, 2019. Operations Manager Taylor Estrada, 25, gave a tour of the place recently. It's just a few steps off the street and into the lobby, where a glass-fronted fireplace and modernist furniture invite guests to hang out in the lobby. So far, they don't, particularly, says desk clerk Emma Huen. The Harlow has officially designated a "Basic" hotel, since it doesn't have beverage machines in the rooms, and there is no food service yet. A corner queen goes for $150 a night, but off-season and with discounts, rooms are available for as little as $79. (Sites such as Expedia and Bookings.com take 3%.)
The first floor awaits amenities. Empty storefront spaces sit dusty, holding building materials, showing off their unfinished ceilings and drywall. By spring, there will be a coffee shop, run by Deadstock Coffee, and fast-casual food, in the room just west of the lobby. The room to the east will be a meeting room, which might play well with millennial travelers, who often sit at long, Last Supper-type tables in their offices and can do some laptop work in a location other than their room. The next space to the west is also unready, but the owner has it earmarked for a hostel, with three rooms of four bunk beds and a shared bathroom area. He stays true to his dream that there is a market for a $40 room in Portland.
Estrada, the manager, has already visited KEX, which opened on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a fresh Norwegian rival to the Hostel Internationals on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and Northwest 18th Avenue. Cheap chic is hot right now, but Harlow is going upmarket.
"At the Downtown Value Inn by PSU, we always offered one room with hostel beds," Sonpatki says of the bunk bed rooms beloved of backpackers.
"It won't bring in much money (to the Harlow), but it might bring in a different price point crowd. Like in January, when it's quieter. You want people moving around. It's good for the atmosphere."
All the feels
The feel of the hotel is unique. On the one hand, there are the narrow hallways and cramped rooms of the 1880s, a time of humble travelers with basic needs, and servants who toted everything by hand. On the other hand, the Art Deco style conforms to 2019 standards: lots of grey and black, with silver and copper
accents. Spaces are uncluttered with books or art. Instead, there are 55-inch screens in each room and a photo mural of rain in the lobby. The occasional hot pink bench stands out, the signature of the design team at WCI with input from Ganesh's wife Pinky Sonpatki. They met at U.C. Davis, and shortly after graduating, they moved to Portland to work on their first venture — the Downtown Value Inn — and concurrently did their master's degrees in taxation at Portland State University.
In the basement, there are plans for a speakeasy type bar — maybe a year or two down the road. For now, the space is filled with spare windows, historical artifacts (old beer bottles wrapped in a scrap of The Oregonian newspaper from 1922), the washer dryer and the server rack, which runs the most important utility: Wi-Fi.
The neighborhood itself has lagged the rest of the Pearl in terms of gentrification, but it is moving up slowly.
The local hotels are not considered competition yet, says Estrada.
"We don't really have any direct competition right now because we fall into a gray space of so many different categories. We're not a luxury property quite yet. Our feeling is luxury, but what we can offer amenity-wise makes us more basic. What sells us is our low rates and our location currently. So that's really what we're emphasizing right now: affordable understated elegance."
As for the corner of Park and Glisan and its mixture of threat and boredom:
"It's an excellent location," says Estrada on her tour. She points out that if the North Park Blocks basketball game is getting a bit too loud, guests can use the provided earplugs. "People find that some of the older guests struggle with the concept of being safe because I see some homeless around. But a lot of our younger guests are more adventurous. They are willing to enter Chinatown."
The first renovation work began in 2009. Sonpatki hired a demo crew and supervised the demolition of the walls and removal of the dirt.
"It was important for the architect to see what's behind the walls, so we didn't leave anything to chance. But every step required special approval. You can't just patch it up and try to get the fire ratings you need."
He says dealing with the city of Portland was fine, but because it is a historic building, every cosmetic change had to be approved by the National Parks Service and the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).
For example, the tall, solid doors to each hotel room are custom made and cost four figures each, while the sash windows could be reglazed but had to retain their original shape and mechanism if replaced. (How far they open has to be limited too, since a student jumped from a similar window at PNCA.)
In hindsight, he made a mistake by going for a historic renovation.
"Preserving a historic property seemed like a worthwhile idea, but the reality was that there were just too many hoops to jump through, which ultimately prolonged the project beyond what we could have ever imagined."
"We started in 2009, and back then, there were no hipster hotels (in the area) that were affordable and clean. But I got a lot of push back from the city because of the seismic upgrades which were not originally required but became necessary once I spent a certain amount per square foot on upgrades. By the time I decided to do the elevator, we had to switch gears and start the design again. And that is when the recession hit, and the project had to be put on hold."
Sonpatki suggested a rooftop bar, but it would require two forms of egress, and so they had to redraw the plans.
Each change would go to an architect, then to the historic preservation offices, then to the city.
Once they got approval for the rooftop penthouse, the rules changed, and they had to certify the soil 50 feet deep below the building. Sonpatki couldn't afford it and went back to the old plans.
The dream of the 1890s is alive
When it was first a hotel in 1883, guests came from the train at Union Station and walked up the main staircase to where the original lobby was. There was no elevator. Nor was there when it was converted into apartments.
Adding an elevator meant doing a lot
of steel reinforcement to the building. It shows, as some of the rooms have large cross braces running through them, sometimes penetrating the interior walls.
All this delayed the work by years.
"I'm four years behind. I wish I hadn't gone back with the penthouse design. We could have enjoyed the good times." Now, he cautions, "We're getting overbuilt with hotels."
However, he is glad he stuck at it.
"A lot of times, I wanted to give up, but my wife (Pinky) made sure I didn't. It cost $850,000 to buy.
But we had already spent so much time and effort on the project that we wanted to see it through."
In the end, he got a crash course in construction management, Portland-style. They used Arciform and Versatile for the historical components and Mega Pacific as the general contractor.
"Pete Stofiel, the site superintendent, and the rest of Mega Pacific were very accommodating. They understood that Harlow is a unique project, so they waited for me during the delays when they didn't need to."
"I'm going to hold on to it, absolutely. This is a valuable piece of Portland's history," says Sonpatki. "With some of our earlier properties, we used to always be there, at the front desk and cleaning the rooms. But at Harlow, we have a property management company, CoHo, so we are able to do less of the daily operations in order to focus on completing the rest of the project."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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