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Boom in Downtown Rooms
Combination of new plus renovated historic hotels expected to nearly triple Downtown’s capacity
By Lisa Kay Tate
Hotel growth spurred by downtown progress
Over the past 25 years, Downtown El Paso has enjoyed a rebirth that began with the new El Paso Museum of Art, Convention Center renovations and the restoration of the Plaza Theatre, then continued with the new Cleveland Square with the Museum of History and expanded Main Library. Iin just the last few years downtown’s improvements have accelerated with the addition of a baseball stadium and the redesigned San Jacinto Plaza and coming soon, the El Paso Streetcars.
Alongside all these improvements and additions has come a downtown hotel renaissance, with historic hotels undergoing major renovations and additions of upscale accommodations that make Downtown a place not only to visit for a few hours but to stay for a few days and nights.
Chain hotels such as Holiday Inn Express and Double Tree have become visible parts of the skyline replacing formerly run-down hotel buildings, and upscale hotels such as Hotel Indigo and Aloft Hotels can be found right around the main plaza area. A new Marriott Courtyard should be joining the group this month.
In addition, the historic Plaza Hotel and Paso del Norte, will soon welcome guests once more, joining Downtown’s historic Gardner Hotel as a means of attracting history-loving visitors to the area, and there are plans to see the historic Gateway Hotel return to life.
Hotel accommodations will nearly triple once all the new hotels are in place, said Joe Gudenrath, Executive Director of El Paso’s Downtown Management District. “Before the Aloft opened last month, we had about 430 rooms Downtown,” he said. “Once the others are completed, we should have 1,200 modern hotel rooms.”
He said this number doesn’t include the hotel or historic rooms of the Garner, which maintains both historic rooms with modern upgrades and hostel spaces. This revival of historic hotel spaces comes at a perfect time, with the return of the streetcars to Downtown’s streets later this year.
“There’s a lot of activity right now,” he said. “We’re really moving forward.”
In particular, Gudenrath said, restoration of the hotels is really a “transformative aspect to Downtown for several reasons.
“It’s bringing a lot of old buildings back to life in Downtown. It’s also bringing people into the Downtown area to enjoy it, and that’s changing the Downtown population.
“The presence of hotels helps to bring people out and about in the evening. When people are staying and visiting a city, they don’t just want to hang out in their hotel room all night. They want to get out and see the city around it. They want to see a ballgame or concert, eat at a local restaurant, or they want to see what is going on in the plaza.”
Downtown’s growing appeal
Gudenrath noted that hotel guests are just one part of the growing mix of downtown patrons, which includes people who live and work downtown, families attending baseball games or festivals, and couples out on a date for a show or to visit a museum. More and more people see Downtown El Paso as multi-site destination, he said, and among its top sites is San Jacinto Plaza.
The downtown plaza, which reopened in spring of 2016 after a three-year renovation project, has given Downtown an attractive focal point, which is within either full view or short walking distance from all of Downtown’s hotels.
“The redesigned plaza is meant for activity,” Gudenrath said. “There’s the café, the chess tables and horseshoes,” Gudenrath said. “Every weekend, you will see some kind of photo shoot like weddings or quinceañeras, and in the summer there’s the concert series going on.”
Other key sites for hotel guests and other downtown visitors are the new Southwest University Park stadium, performing arts venues and museums.
For their inaugural season in 2014, the El Paso Chihuahuas AAA baseball team partnered with downtown hotels such as the Double Tree and Holiday Inn to host room specials and even special menu offerings for those coming from out of town to watch some games.
Big name concerts and the Broadway in El Paso series, whose season was highlighted this year with “The Lion King,” also draw hotel guests who want to stay within a short walk of the Plaza or Abraham Chavez Theatres. The Judson F. Williams Convention Center is another major reason visitors choose to stay downtown.
Adding to the attractions soon will be the El Paso’ Streetcar system, which will run from Downtown to Glory Road on the UTEP campus. The streetcars are now in their testing phase and expected to be operational by the end of the year.
With the increase in both attractions and accommodations, there is a need for more parking. Gudenrath said construction is currently underway to turn the open air parking area between the Paso del Norte and Plaza Hotel (across from the Plaza Theatre) into a full parking garage with 500 spaces.
Gudenrath believes El Paso’s Downtown offerings will continue to grow, and a good choice of hotels is not just an important influence to the Downtown area, but to the entire community. “Hotels bring out-of-town money into a community,” he said. “It is a huge boost in the economy in the Downtown area and throughout the city when those hotel rooms fill up.”
Gabriel Ayub, current president of the El Paso Hotel and Lodging Association, said the presence of sufficient and diverse hotel space is one of the factors that draw larger groups, such as conventions to the area, and this is important in the Downtown area.
“Hotels downtown will help to bring in bigger conventions, and when the hotels fill up Downtown, the entire city will feel the convergence.”
Having plenty of nearby restaurants and other attractions in an area are vital to the hotels as well, and he feels optimistic about improvements like the coming streetcars helping to draw more people to the area.
“Hotels alone don’t bring in tourists,” Ayub said, “but when people come to an area for another attraction, they want to be able to stay in a good place.”
Not just for visitors
Out-of-towners aren’t the only ones taking advantage of downtown hotels’ proximity to these attractions. They’re increasingly a “staycation” option for local residents.
“These hotels provide the opportunity where El Pasoans can get away and experience that urban Downtown environment for a weekend,” Gudenrath said.
Ayub said El Paso’s hotels throughout the city already work to encourage use by area residents, and many offer “staycation” packages.
“People do want to travel, but when you can’t getaway during a summer or you can’t afford it, this is a way to get away without having the extra costs of traveling,” he said.
People like to “staycation” in a different part of the city they they live in, Ayub said, so they have an excuse to explore and discover places they might not have otherwise heard about. People have a tendency to overlook their attractions and offerings in their own city, but making an overnight destination out of it encourages them to discover what there is in their hometown.
“By creating that diversity in hotels, we’re giving people more reasons to stay in the city,” he said.
“Staycation” tourism is also a win-win for the city, as it not only gives area residents more things to enjoy, it boosts the local economy so that even more can be offered in the future.
“We want El Pasoans to take advantage of the local hotels for ‘staycations,’” Ayub said. “It not only gives them a close and affordable destination, but it puts dollars back into El Paso. That’s a good thing for everyone.”
Extreme makeovers part of hotel renaissance
El Paso’s downtown hotel renaissance has several facets. Those include the renovation of several of the city’s most historic hotels, such as the Paso del Norte and Plaza Hotel, as well as makeovers and upgrades of other long-time hotels that are now part of some of the best-known upscale hotel networks.
Hotel Paso del Norte
Two more historic hotels will once again be landmark accommodations for Downtown with Hotel Paso del Norte possibly opening at the end of this year, and the Plaza Hotel potentially opening in the spring of 2019.
The Henry Trost-designed Paso del Norte opened in 1912. The hotel’s rooftop was a popular place to watch fighting during the Mexican Revolution. Past guests have included former presidents, plus countless well-known actors, singers and musicians.
The hotel, most recently owned by Camino Real Hotels out of Mexico, was bought by a real estate development company out of Florida last October. The hotel is undergoing a $70 million renovation and will be part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. Once completed, it will join the collection’s 135 luxury “landmark” hotels worldwide.
Elements of the renovated hotel include restoration of its 10th floor rooftop, with a ballroom, expanded terrace and pool lounge. The Dome Bar, including its Tiffany-style stained glass dome ceiling, will also be restored.
Plaza Hotel, Stanton House
The 88-year-old art deco design Plaza Hotel, which stood vacant for several years, is undergoing a $78-million restoration effort led by local businessman Paul Foster. Plans are to bring the look and design of the 1930s back into the interior of the hotel, which is famed for being one of the first hotels built by Conrad Hilton. Hilton completed his skyscraper designed by Trost & Trost in 1930, on the site where the Sheldon Hotel burned down one year earlier. At the time it was built, it was the city’s tallest building.
Plans call for multiple uses of the historic building, including a “boutique hotel.” The restoration will include turning the hotel’s 17th floor penthouse suite, occupied for a brief time in 1950 by Elizabeth Taylor when she was married to Conrad “Nicky” Hilton Jr., into a terrace area.
Another “boutique hotel” — typically defined as an urban, upscale hotel with 10 to 100 rooms — is the Stanton House at 209 N. Stanton, in the former Rogers Furniture building. The 42-room independently owned hotel is scheduled to open within the next few months, and will include a bar, restaurant and spa.
Gardner Hotel & Hostel
Stephanie Nebhan is the fourth generation in her family to run the Gardner Hotel and Hostel, which has been in service ever since 1922, making it El Paso’s oldest continually operating hotel. The original owner, Preston Gardner, was a lawyer who ran for mayor of El Paso in 1923.
The hostel element has been part of the Gardner since 1984. Nebhan said the hotel gets a good mix of local guests as well as those from around the world. The Gardner received attention in 2016 when it was featured on the Travel Channel’s “Hotel Impossible.”
“On any day, you’ll see people from South Korea, Japan, Europe, Australia or someplace else here,” she said. “We also get a lot of medical tourism for people coming to visit Mexico for dental or medical needs.”
She said the Gardner is also a popular place for area residents, as some people come from Las Cruces to see a show at the Plaza and stay for night before heading back. Also, local people who want to enjoy a night out and about Downtown will stay a night at the Gardner.
One major reason for its appeal is its feeling of traveling back in time to the early part of the 20th century.
“People come here for the experience,” Nebhan said. “We have all the original antique furniture in the rooms, and the original tile floor.”
The hotel was a stopover for notorious bank robber John Dillinger, who checked into the hotel with two of his gang members on Jan. 9, 1934 under the name John D. Bell. The room he stayed in, 221, is often requested by guests.
Dillinger’s actual death mask is part of the relics on display in the lobby, and guests can purchase t-shirts depicting Dillinger and the era.
“Some people have come in here and think we’re a museum,” she said. “They love the look of the lobby.”
She said even with the historic status, the hotel’s restored rooms and hostel dorms are some of the least expensive accommodations in the Downtown area, and they are continuing to add upgrades such as flat screen televisions, yet keeping the overall feel of the 1920s intact.
Nebhan said the location for the Gardner is also appealing, as the building it occupies is one of the only buildings in town with every space occupied by active businesses. The Speak Easy bar and Pot Au Feu eatery are both next door.
The Gardner’s success story of how persistence and dedication can keep a historic hotel running smoothly is an inspiration to building owner Howard Yun who has been working to bring back the Gateway Hotel. He hopes to see the renovations completed by the end of the year.
The Gateway Hotel on Stanton Street was closed four years ago after its involvement in an immigrant smuggling ring. Yun purchased the building in 2015 and hopes to see it once more be used as an affordable hotel, with rooms ranging from $30 to $58 per night.
The Gateway, one of the four oldest buildings in the Downtown area, was built as a bank in 1902. It was converted in 1927 to a hotel, welcoming guests such as Pancho Villa.
Holiday Inn Express, Doubletree
Many travelers seek out familiar and well-established names when looking for a place to stay, and two well-respected chains, Holiday Inn Express and Double Tree Hotel, have helped to turn older hotel buildings into welcoming sights on the edge of Downtown immediately visible from the interstate.
The Holiday Inn Express was purchased by Joe Frandina, who was then president of the El Paso Hotel and Lodging Association, giving the run-down Travelodge building a $2 million renovation. In 2008, the deteriorating International Hotel was given an extreme makeover by local hotelier Jim Scherr. It became El Paso’s first Doubletree Hotel.
Scherr later purchased land next to the Doubletree to build the 9-story $18-million Marriott Urban Courtyard, which is now near opening.
Hotel Indigo and the Aloft
Two of Downtown’s most recent additions include upscale hotels that are also part of popular chains. Hotel Indigo is part of InterContinental Hotels Group, whose brands include Holiday Inn, and Aloft Hotel belongs to Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, a subsidiary of Marriott. Both of these spaces make use of the readily available space of Downtown’s historic and vintage buildings.
Hotel Indigo occupies a 1963 building on Kansas Street formerly occupied by the Downtowner Motor Inn. The hotel’s rooftop bar is called Circa 1963 as a tribute. The hotel’s design also pays homage to the era of the Downtowner with a mid-century design as well as murals in the room and throughout the building.
The Aloft is part of the newly renovated O.T. Basset Tower, another Trost-designed building completed in 1930. The hotel features more than 80 guest rooms, the WXYZ Lounge, and will soon add the Basico Bistro Café to its bottom floor.
People are already taking advantage of these hotels, which are giving more people who haven’t spent time Downtown in a while a reason to return to the area.
Heidi Poole, general manager for the Aloft Hotel, said since its opening they have already been getting guests who are from El Paso enjoying the new property. She encourages more to do the same as a way to reconnect with what makes one’s hometown distinct and desirable.
“It’s important for the area residents to rediscover downtown El Paso and enjoy all it has to offer,” Pool said.
Quick guide to hotels
Want to getaway for an evening or weekend? Here are downtown’s currently open hotels, ready to welcome guests:
Aloft El Paso
Facebook: Aloft El Paso Downtown
Double Tree Downtown
600 N. El Paso
Facebook: DoubleTree by Hilton (El Paso, TX)
311 E. Franklin
Facebook: Gardner Hotel
Holiday Inn Express El Paso-Central
409 E. Missouri
Facebook: Holiday Inn Express
Facebook: Hotel Indigo El Paso Downtown (El Paso, TX)
• Stanton House
209 N. Stanton
Facebook: Stanton House
• Courtyard by Marriott
El Paso Downtown / Convention Center
610 N. Santa Fe
Opening in August
• Hotel Paso Del Norte
Marriott Autograph Collection
101 S. El Paso
Opening early 2019.
Mills & Oregon
Tentatively scheduled for 2019 opening
Copyright 2018 by Cristo Rey Communications