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New York Avenue corridor sees hotel revival

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Nicki Neumeister awoke on a recent Tuesday morning and emerged on the sidewalk in front of his hotel, the Comfort Inn & Suites Near Union Station on New York Avenue NE, for a morning run.

First, though, the 21-year-old had to hop across six lanes of traffic and pass a vacant warehouse, a lot surrounded by barbed wire and a man sleeping under an overhang.

Neumeister, vacationing from Germany, is one of thousands of visitors to Washington this year to rent a room in one of a string of newly built or renovated hotels on New York Avenue NE.

One of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, at 87,000 vehicles per day, New York Avenue has long had hotels. Until recently, however, they weren’t the sort one would find featured in most travel guides.

Now the corridor is capturing more of the tourist trade — with promises of proximity to some of Washington’s main attractions and with rates that can be cheaper than what’s available downtown, even if nearby amenities are few.

It’s a stretch of the District better known for its traffic jams and seedy history than its hospitality.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, some of the hotels rented by the hour or were the scenes of large-scale drug deals. The Capitol City Motor Inn, which housed hundreds of homeless families near where the Comfort Inn now sits, was once referred to as “a hellhole” by a D.C. Superior Court judge after several children died there.

In recent years, however, real estate developers looking to capitalize on the city’s resurgence have invested millions to renovate or build hotels along the stretch, creating new options for penny-conscious travelers who want to be close to downtown.

Today’s hotels aren’t the Ritz-Carlton or the Four Seasons, but they are upgrades from their predecessors.

The Comfort Inn, pinched between New York Avenue and the train tracks at the intersection with Montana Avenue, opened in 2008. Before that, the same building was an EconoLodge, a Ramada and also a President Inn.

Neumeister, sporting a sleek black top and running shorts, said he chose to stay in the area to be close to Washington’s museums and memorials. (The U.S. Capitol is about three miles away.)

He and several friends stayed five nights as part of a three-month tour of North America.

“We looked on the Internet and see it’s not so far out, and so it’s been quite good,” he said.

Limited amenities, low cost

Walking far along New York Avenue is still something no hotel desk attendant would advise. One part is expected to be under construction until the end of next year. Some stretches have no sidewalks. Others remain popular with prostitutes and the homeless.

The amenities nearby are limited to gas stations, fast-food restaurants and an animal shelter. And according to the District Department of Transportation, an average of two pedestrians per year are hit by cars along the street.

The hotel owners are still eager to advertise their physical proximity to Washington’s top attractions, though, which may contribute to the occasional sight of a hotel guest struggling to hail a cab or pulling a roller-bag along a sliver of median with cars, dump trucks and buses zipping by.

John MacPherson, 45, a government worker from Toronto, stood on the curb in front of the Comfort Inn one recent morning and tried to flag down a taxi to take him to the Capitol (he’s a history buff). He planned to stay two nights and then go to Virginia to play golf.

“With a hotel like this, I don’t expect much. And I’m really happy with it,” he said. It took him about 10 minutes to get a taxi.

Along with some of the lowest rates in the city — rooms vary from less than $100 to about $275 if there’s a large convention around — many of the hotels offer to guests free parking and shuttle bus service to Union Station.

Raliegh Dawson came to town from Philadelphia and stayed at the Holiday Inn Express at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road after finding it on the Internet. He had dinner downtown the night before.

Next door, at the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott, Guy Torger­sen, a visitor from New Hampshire, checked in with his family on a recent Friday afternoon and waited for the shuttle to the Mall. During past visits to Washington, the family stayed at hotels in Alexandria.

“This time, we decided to stay right in the city,” he said.

Growth and improvements

Travel data show that hotel customers are spending much more in the New York Avenue corridor than they have in the past.

As of June, hotels in the Zip code had an occupancy rate of 63 percent, which is below the region-wide rate of 68 percent, according to Smith Travel Research. But they were taking in $83.91 per available room each night (counting empty rooms), compared with $54.95 for the same period in 2005.

Some of the growth comes from two new hotels William Conway built three years ago. Conway began managing the former Master Hosts Inn, at the intersection with Bladensburg Road, in 1993. The hotel was in such disrepair at the time that only 75 of 150 rooms were available for rent.

In 1994, Conway and his partners renovated the hotel, attracted the Travelodge brand and began renting to tour bus groups, vendors at the city’s new convention center and tourists.

Conway then bought into the ownership group, and he and his partners decided to tear down the Travelodge and build two hotels that would be more upscale than anything else on the corridor, opening the 126-room Fairfield Inn and 125-room Holiday Inn Express next door in 2008. Today, both offer room rates averaging 20 percent to 30 percent less than downtown hotels, Conway said, and average about 70 percent occupancy.

Conway said that New York Avenue hotels in previous years failed in part because the city government and police department had not supported them adequately but that the situation has changed in recent years.

“We saw that corridor come alive and at the same time, the support we got from the city and from the Ward 5 police department was phenomenal,” he said.

A ‘natural evolution’

Other investors have begun to take interest in the corridor, as well. A Wal-Mart-anchored shopping center with new restaurants is planned across the street from Conway’s hotels.

Local developer Douglas Jemal recently bought the long-vacant former Hecht’s distribution warehouse out of foreclosure.

“It’s the natural evolution of what’s going on now that NoMa has established itself,” said Doug Firstenberg, a developer whose firm built the Hilton Garden Inn, a higher-end hotel in the North of Massachusetts Avenue (NoMa) neighborhood.

“It really seems to be a price -point choice for the budget-conscious traveler or out-of-town traveler who wants to be near to the Capitol and near to downtown and maybe can’t afford a truly Metro-accessible location,” he said.

Firstenberg remembers that in 1986 his aunt booked a room at a New York Avenue hotel for a visit, and he had to persuade her to reconsider. “This was an 80-year-old Jewish woman; she would have been dead. But this was 25 years ago, you know,” he said. “There was a lot more roughness around D.C. then.”

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