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New York City Hotel Rooftops Surge in Popularity
 with their Bars, Pools, Bird's Eye Views
By Elizabeth Sanger, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Aug. 2, 2005 - College-bound Morgan Curtis and a friend checked into the Meatpacking District's Hotel Gansevoort last Monday to sunbathe by the rooftop pool by day and be within shouting distance of some of the hippest restaurants and clubs at night. The bronzed, bikini-clad 18-year-olds hadn't jetted in from Miami or L.A. -- they jaunted down from the Upper East Side, less than 100 blocks away.

"It's better to be downtown," Curtis explained. "It's perfect, it's amazing," her friend Ellie, who asked that her last name not be used, said of the 45-foot pool and 14th-floor expansive views of the Hudson River and beyond.

New York City hotel rooftops, with their bars, pools, potted plants, bird's eye views, lounge chairs and even beds, are becoming so popular and desirable that they've gone beyond attracting the requisite tourists to hosting A-list celebrities and locals willing to pay hefty sums to soak up the sun and ambience.

"Rooftops are the most underdeveloped real estate in the city," said Stephen B. Jacobs, a Manhattan architect who claims to have invented the hotel rooftop as gathering place when he put one atop the Gotham Hotel, now the Peninsula, about 25 years ago. In the past five years, he has designed several others, including those at the Gansevoort, Library Hotel and Hotel Giraffe.

Business has been brisk at the Library Hotel's rooftop, 14 floors above bustling Madison Avenue, since it welcomed the public three weeks ago, said co-owner Guy Heksch. He and his partner, Steven Greenberg, have two more penthouse bars planned and are scouting for more. The next ones will sit atop office buildings in Union Square and on lower Fifth Avenue and are expected to open next summer after major renovation.

Following the success of the 16-month-old Gansevoort and its roof with 360-degree views -- which director of guest services Michael Lindenbaum calls its "signature feature" -- other hotels are looking to cash in on an elevated place in the sun. The Gansevoort's owners want to turn the New York outpost into a national brand. They plan to open Gansevoort hotels -- with similar rooftop amenities -- in Miami's South Beach, Los Angeles and other trendy locales, Jacobs said.

Jacobs said he is talking with several other hotel owners about redesigning their unused roofs to make them a revenue source. He believes every hotel being designed is looking to get pennies from heaven. "Everyone wants a piece of the action," he said.

Up in the sky, drink prices can go through the roof. Add a view of other rooftops, and a $5 beer can climb to $12 or more -- served in plastic, no less. Down a martini at the Peninsula's 23rd-floor Pen-Top Bar & Terrace, and you'll be $20 poorer. "People don't mind paying the prices if they have a beautiful setting," Heksch said.

The expensive drinks translate into juicy profits. On a few occasions, the Gansevoort generated more revenue from the Plunge bar and rooftop events in one day than from its 187 rooms, including once when the hotel was sold out, Lindenbaum said.

Rare View, the bar on the 16th floor of the Shelburne Murray Hill, with vistas of the Chrysler, MetLife and Empire State buildings, is more profitable than Rare restaurant in the lobby, even though it is open from 3:30 to 11 p.m. five months a year and the restaurant serves three meals a day 12 months a year, said owner Ross Lombardo, who leases the space.

Some rooftop watering holes are year-round, all-weather operations, including the Library terrace and Gansevoort, thanks to indoor areas, retractable awnings and Plexiglas roofs, removable panels and heaters.

Even in winter, gazing through Plexiglas walls high above the hubbub below can give the feeling of being outside. The Gansevoort's swimming hole, one of the few outdoor hotel pools in the city, is kept at 75 degrees, and when the mercury drops, the area is covered and heated.

Rooftop bars have proved popular because smoking is allowed there. They also have a leg up on sidewalk cafes because there's less noise and pollution from cars and trucks, and more privacy. Moreover, people can stand and gather in groups, rather than having to sit at tables, Heksch noted.

The last time a rooftop craze occurred was a century ago when people congregated in restaurant and hotel roof gardens to escape the heat, because air conditioning was but a dream, said Curt Gathje, New York City editor of Zagat Survey.

Today people flock to rooftops to have a "transporting experience," he said. "It's a claustrophobic city all day long." By scaling new heights and seeing the sky spread out you get a "more exhilarating" experience, "something a garden doesn't do," Gathje said.

More sky-level bars are opening, and existing ones are making improvements. The Ritz-Carlton at Battery Park, which offers sunset views of the Statue of Liberty at its 14th-floor Rise bar, added a raw bar and new furniture this year, its third. Rare View plans to add more beds next year to the seven it has now. The Kitano New York Hotel rents the wraparound terrace of its penthouse for private events. This summer it launched barbecue menus starting at $75 a head for chicken and burgers, climbing to $155 a person for steak and lamb chops.

Because the number of rooftop bars is small -- Zagat Survey lists 18, including restaurants and the Metropolitan Museum of Art's roof garden -- they have a sense of exclusivity, particularly because demand on the street often outstrips the available room upstairs. At Rare View, customers are asked for identification before gaining admittance, and several members of a security detail man the roof and lobby, primarily for the sake of the hotel's guests.

The bars have largely grown by buzz and word of mouth. "We're like a hidden secret," Rare View's Lombardo said. "We don't market ourselves to everybody."

Like others, Lombardo has his head in the clouds; he's on the prowl for more over-the-rooftop locations.

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To see more of Newsday, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.newsday.com

Copyright (c) 2005, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

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