Empty Times Square rooms signal reckoning for Manhattan hotels

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The Hilton Times Square occupies a normally busy stretch of 42nd Street, where tourists jostle for space in front of the Madame Tussauds wax museum and a popular Dave & Buster's. Now, the sidewalks are empty and the hotel's owner is warning investors it may surrender the property.

The global hospitality industry is facing the worst downturn in its history, and New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., is poised for a painful recovery. Even when travel resumes, the Manhattan hotel market's reliance on international travel and large conferences will make it hard for owners to cover debt payments and labor costs.

"There's too many rooms, the hotels are too dependent on group business, and the union negotiated a wonderful contract for itself," said Jonathan Falik, chief executive officer at JF Capital Advisors. "It's tough to think how they can all survive."

Already, the pandemic has forced Sunstone Hotel Investors Inc. to write down the value of the Hilton to less than the $77 million mortgage on the property, according to a May 11 filing. The loan matures in November, and Sunstone is exploring options, including handing the hotel over to the lender.

Sunstone didn't respond to requests for comment. The company's chief financial officer said in February that the 478-room property was minimally profitable, with a ground rent increase and higher property taxes squeezing the bottom line.

Payments were late on about $1 billion in commercial mortgage-backed securities used to finance New York hotels in April, according to data firm Trepp. China's Cindat Capital Management was late making a payment on a $300 million CMBS loan backed by seven Manhattan hotels, including Times Square outposts for Holiday Inn Express and Hampton Inn, according to loan information compiled by Bloomberg.

A representative for Cindat declined to comment.

Even before the pandemic, Manhattan hotel owners complained that new development and competition from Airbnb made it difficult to boost prices. Revenue per available room, which measures pricing and occupancy, fell 4% in 2019, according to lodging data firm STR, the worst performance since 2009.

Soft results had pushed owners to consider other uses for their properties prior to the current crisis. Hyatt Hotels Corp. struck a deal in February 2019 to transfer control of the Grand Hyatt New York to an investor group that planned to demolish the property and replace it with a mixed-use tower that would include a smaller hotel.

Also last year, Cushman & Wakefield marketed the Maxwell, a boutique hotel on Lexington Avenue, as an office conversion on behalf of its owners, according to people familiar with the effort who asked not to be named discussing a private matter.

A representative for Cushman & Wakefield declined to comment.

The pandemic has only bolstered the case for converting hotel properties. Roughly 60% of New York's 700 hotels have suspended operations, said Vijay Dandapani, CEO of the Hotel Association of New York City. And while medical personnel and government relief workers are filling beds in hotels that remain open, they're paying discounted prices and won't stick around for long.

Owning a shuttered hotel costs money, even with patient lenders. Host Hotels & Resorts Inc. CEO James Risoleo said recently that expenses on his company's 80 hotels, including the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, would approach $80 million a month in a worst-case scenario where all the hotels were effectively closed. That works out to more than $1,600 a room before accounting for debt payments, according to Patrick Scholes, an analyst at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey.

Restarting a shuttered hotel will require owners to invest in marketing and sanitation. Dandapani predicts one in five New York properties will never reopen, a group that Vornado Realty Trust CEO Steve Roth has said could include the Hotel Pennsylvania.

Apartment investors are also exploring the idea of adapting lodging properties, though the prospect is complicated by construction costs and severance deals for hotel workers.

Norman Radow, CEO at the Radco Companies, an Atlanta-based apartment operator that has considered such conversions, said hotel owners aren't ready to sell assets at prices low enough to make the strategy work. Still, prices are likely come down as looming debt payments increase the pressure to sell.

Apartment owners could also make the numbers work by converting hotels into affordable housing or senior housing units that qualify for tax credits, said Lawrence Wolfe, vice chairman and co-head of lodging capital markets at Newmark Knight Frank. The alternative, he said, is empty hotels on prime Manhattan street corners, standing in the way of a faster recovery.

"We need tax incentives and cooperation between owners, lenders and the unions to facilitate the repurposing of older hotels for residential uses," said Wolfe. "Otherwise a significant number of our NYC hotels may still be sitting vacant a year from now."

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