The new 22-story Joie de Vivre Hotel taking shape at 50 Bowery is hard to miss. According to developers, it’s the biggest building to rise in the historic heart of Chinatown since Confucius Plaza was built 40 years ago. Earlier this week, key members of the development team offered The Lo-Down a tour behind the construction fencing and spoke for the first time about their vision for the hotel.
50 Bowery is not being developed by outsiders, but by a family with deep Chinatown roots. Joseph Chu bought the property, located just south of Canal Street, in the 1970s. On Monday afternoon, we met his grandson, Jonathan Chu, and development manager David Ho outside the project site.
Up until now, the Chu family has been tight-lipped about its plans. In 2013, controversy swirled around the site after preservationist Adam Woodward uncovered tantalizing clues about possible Revolutionary War-era ruins on this parcel. An archaeological consultant was brought in to help determine whether anything remained of the Bull’s Head Tavern, one of the most historically significant landmarks from 18th Century New York City. But Alex Chu, one of Chinatown’s most influential landlords, declined requests to speak about the excavation or the larger hotel project. Now, however, about a year before the hotel is complete, his son is reaching out across the community. Our visit was part of an outreach campaign that’s unusual for Chinatown’s old guard.
Construction crews were expecting to finish enclosing the tower this week before starting on the interior. Our first stop was on the second floor, which is being devoted to an exhibition and public gathering space curated by the Museum of Chinese in America (Jonathan Chu sits on the MOCA board).
During its 2014 survey, Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants did not find any artifacts or structures that could be definitively traced to the Bull’s Head Tavern. But it did uncover a basement from the Atlantic Garden, a German beer hall and events space that opened in the 1860s. There was also a large cistern and more than 700 artifacts, including plates, beer bottles and even oyster shells. Many of these artifacts will be displayed on the second floor along with exhibits focused on the history of Chinatown.
The Joie de Vivre Hotel will have 225 rooms. The San Francisco-based boutique chain is a division of Commune Hotels & Resorts. According to its website, the brand develops “properties grounded in local culture and actively engaged in the communit(ies) around them.” A restaurant/lounge will take up the main floor and cellar level. There will be a bar with indoor and outdoor spaces on the 19th floor. The top three floors of the hotel won’t be publicly accessible. Chu and Ho said negotiations are in the final stages with a Brooklyn-based celebrity chef who will introduce a modern take on Chinese cuisine. An appearance before Community Board 3’s liquor licensing committee is likely in the not too distant future.
Preservationists may never learn to love the hotel, and the glassy design is unlikely to win over many locals. But the panoramic views of Manhattan from the top of the Joie de Vivre are undeniably impressive. Here’s a sampling:
David Ho, who’s overseeing construction, said the cistern and possibly some of the old bricks from the Atlantic Garden could be incorporated into the interiors. A time capsule was buried on site, including papers from MOCA, a pin from the nearby 5th Precinct and other items. The idea behind the project, Chu added, is to draw from both the old and the new to create a modern-day hub in Chinatown.
“There is so much history on this site.,” said Chu. “It’s an iconic location. (This project) puts Chinatown on the map in a way that it hasn’t been in a long time.” Noting that his grandfather always dreamed of building a hotel at 50 Bowery, Chu explained, “This is the realization of a multi-generational vision.” The hotel is meant to reflect today’s Chinatown, but also to draw in other cultures that make Lower Manhattan a vibrant place, he said. Chu is part of a small group of second and third generation Chinese Americans who believe the time has come for Chinatown to become less insular — and more receptive to outsiders. In our conversation, he acknowledged neighborhood concerns about gentrification, but said the community needs to evolve and embrace new ways of thinking. The hotel, Chu hopes, will become a welcoming entry point — a gateway to experience Chinatown.
The hotel will employ about 160 people. The operators will work through the Lower East Side Employment Network to hire local residents. A fall of 2016 opening is projected.
If you would like to have a look at the 50 Bowery archaeological report, here it is: