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Plaza: Suite Deal?

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page P01

We're in the final reel -- have they saved the Plaza yet?

Well, just maybe they have. With only days to go before Manhattan's most famous and beloved hotel was due to be shuttered for what most New Yorkers considered a blasphemous conversion to condominiums, word came down of a late reprieve. Stop the sledgehammers! Cue the happy-ending music! Cartwheels, Eloise, cartwheels! The new owner's heart must have grown two sizes that day as even he saw, just in time, that the Plaza is simply too darned swell to ruin for mere profits. And maybe the huge public outcry and the $2 million union-funded PR campaign to save the hotel and its jobs helped too.

Remember how it was: NYC's famed Plaza Hotel is closing for a major rehaul. (Chris Hondros/getty Images)

But is it really saved? Next week, just two years shy of its 100th birthday, the Plaza's new owners will shoo out the guests, cashier a few hundred employees and drape the place in plywood to be turned into . . . what? It's still hard to predict what will remain of the Plaza's storied appeal when they unlock the doors in late 2006 or early 2007.

On paper at least, the fate negotiated last week between the hotel workers and Elad Properties is considerably better than what the Israeli investment company had in mind when it bought the hotel last fall for $675 million.

Its first plan was for 12 floors of luxury condos, two additional floors of ritzy retail, a paltry 150-room hotel and no promise that such hallowed public rooms as the Oak Room, the Grand Ballroom and the Palm Court would survive the makeover. The building's famous exterior at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Central Park South may enjoy preservation protection, but Elad's original blueprints would clearly have left a Plaza in facade only.

It was a sad season for everyone who loves the place where children's book hellion Eloise sported to the delight of little girls, where Truman Capote threw his Black and White Ball to the delirium of the jet set, and where bartenders in bow ties have dispensed martinis to more natty bar flies than you can shake a swizzle stick at. It looked as if rats hadn't just infested the Plaza . . . they'd bought it.

With that bleak scheme as a starting point, the round-the-clock talks brokered by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg produced what could be a genuine breakthrough. According to a buoyant Bloomberg speaking before jubilant members of the Hotel and Motel Trades Council Local 6 last week, Elad has now agreed to double the size of the post-rehab hotel and preserve the iconic public rooms and restaurants "for use by all New Yorkers and visitors to our city."

That seems much more likely to give future pilgrims a reasonable Plaza experience. Tea at the Palm Court will appease a few more generations of young girls and their nostalgic moms; a few stiff ones at the Oak Bar will do the same for their dads.

To most folks, walk-through access to the inside haunts is more important than being able to get a room. Thanks largely to Kay Thompson, Neil Simon, F. Scott Fitzgerald and all the other writers who made art imitate Plaza life, the place is known and adored by thousands of visitors each year who wouldn't dream of actually laying out 500 bucks a night to sleep there.

At best, the current plan raises the happiest prospect of all -- that the $350 million Elad promises to pump into the old pile will restore a much-needed measure of Golden Age spiffiness to, let's face it, an increasingly frumpy dowager. Anyone who's actually stayed at the Plaza in recent years is in on the open secret: The place is a bit of a dump. If not for the pageantry of arriving (the Plaza's doormen are the Beefeaters of New York), the razzle-dazzle of the white marble lobby and the enchanting echoes of Eloise in every corner, you would hear a lot more about the blemishes at every turn -- the dirty windows, the exhausted carpets, the leaky fixtures. Who cares? It's the Plaza. You forgive.

But the question remains: Even with undrippy faucets and dirt-free windows, will a considerably smaller Plaza be enough Plaza? The eternal appeal of the 800-room landmark is in its bustle, the great glittering churn of guests and gawkers alike through gleaming brass doors that never stand still, the mob of admirers -- some in furs, many in shorts -- that mills through the hard elegance of its Beaux-Arts lobby. The eternal hubbub under the Plaza's port-cochere is a permanent -- or so we thought -- fixture of Fifth Avenue theater, like the never-ending loop of Central Park carriages across the street.

The danger now is that the enforced hush of an apartment building lobby or the constrained traffic of a small hotel will bear as much resemblance to the spectacle of the Plaza as a well-made eclair to a 12-tier wedding cake. Delightful, no doubt. But to far, far fewer people. The first Elad plan would almost certainly have resulted in a Plaza lockdown, a private haven for the wellest-to-do. Will a 348-room hotel -- about a hundred rooms above boutique status -- be enough to maintain the Plaza as a center of Manhattan gravity?

A lot of people think not, which is one reason the place has been considered off-limits by many real estate developers who are otherwise lustily engaged in New York's condo conversion craze.

"It's a historic site, it should be left alone," says Orin Wilf, president of Garden Homes Development, a real estate firm a few blocks away on Fifth Avenue. "I've been very upset about it. I got married there five years ago."

Elad was attracted to the Plaza by four obvious assets: its celebrated name and its location, location, location. A world-famous landmark on a corner of Central Park is a plum of the purplest kind, of course. And for years, particularly when Donald Trump owned the Plaza in the 1980s, real estate observers have assumed one or two of the top floors of the hotel would go condo. But the howl of outrage that greeted Elad's sweeping conversion play was no surprise to locals who know that the Miracle of Midtown is that this luxury hotel long ago became the People's Plaza.

"A couple of developers I've talked to think they didn't do their homework," Wilf says of Elad. "There's so much personal feeling there, so much history."

Wilf applauds the scaled-down plan announced last week, but he still fears that much of the interior will be absorbed for the pleasure of those clutching deeds to the condos (most of which, he predicts, will end up as second homes to wealthy Europeans).

"When you're talking about having to sell condominiums for $3,000 a square foot, people will buy," Wilf says, "but you have to give them something."

In this case, that may mean giving them a great deal of the Plaza.

Let's just hope, as we wait for the epilogue, that there will be enough left for the rest of us.

Steve Hendrix will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat at www.washingtonpost.com.

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