After years of dormancy and uncertainty, the Watergate may be about to launch its rebirth as an upscale hotel, completing the circle after its closure to convert to private residences. Developers of the hotel, which shuttered in 2007, are now close to announcing a plan to renovate and rebrand the luxury hotel.
Developer Euro Capital Properties, a European investment firm with dual headquarters in Paris and New York, has hired worldwide architectural firm Gensler to redesign the interior and refit the structure, a process that will begin once Euro Cap has had a chance to run its plans through a triad of regulatory agencies. Redevelopment of the "luxury hotel," considered to command a price point around $300 per night, will require an investment of around $50 million by Euro Cap subsidiary Euro Watergate Hotel and Residences LLC.
The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) will be the first to review the proposed design changes for the iconic curvilinear structure, a historic landmark, which it will do tomorrow, followed by the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), and finally the National Park Service.
Monument Realty purchased the famed hotel in 2004, with financing by the doomed Lehman Brothers, and after physical and legal work attempted its reincarnation as a co-operative residence. Sales began in 2006 for 96 units from $860,000 and up, but only a handful went under contract, and with legal problems besetting the conversion Monument stalled on construction and closed the hotel in 2007. After several attempts to work out the debt, the hotel was put up for auction in July of 2009 by New York-based lender PB Capital Corporation, still owed $40m for the property, an auction that induced no bidders. In May of 2010 PB Capital sold the project for $45m to Euro Capital.
Senior designer Cory Kessler of the architect's New York office and lead architect on the project, said the project is still "in the conceptual phase," with various exterior design elements up for review, but that outward appearances will change little. "The exterior renovations will be minimal and respectful," said Kessler, who would not delve into specifics.
Thomas Luebke, Secretary to the CFA, confirmed that the elements under review this week are minimal. "By and large these [changes] are relatively minor," said Luebke, "not particularly significant in the scheme of the whole complex." The Watergate's developers have declined to comment on the project during the review process, noting only that it will be a "lifestyle brand hotel." Sources at Euro Cap had also considered a blended use with at least a few floors of residential living.
"It's a hodge podge of upgrades," continued Luebke. "There are mechanical upgrades that involve some changes to the rooftop, [specifically the] elevator overrun ... and some proposed changes to the grand ballroom, pushing it out toward the water, and elevating the roof up to six feet." However, he added, these changes are "not too noticeable from the street." Monument's plans would have carved out the interior, converting some 250 hotel rooms into 96 residences, but those changes were never begun, leaving the hotel in its original configuration.
While there are limitations to the exterior redevelopment of the Watergate Hotel due to its historic landmark status, the long-neglected interior provides an opportunity for definitive, upper-crust design transformation. Euro Cap has experience in luxury hotel redevelopments both internationally - notably the Hilton Arc de Triomphe in Paris, its flagship property - and locally; the company first invested in D.C. in the late '90s through the restoration of the Hamilton Crowne Plaza Hotel at 14th and K Streets, NW.
Sources say the hotel operator has not been chosen, and that developers are waiting for progress on the design before choosing the best flag for the building. Sources at Euro Cap familiar with the process say the legal and physical challenges of the building, which inhibited bidders at the 2007 auction sale ("too many uncertainties"), have made development of the site complex, calling it "a consultant's dream."
Under local preservation law and regulations, projects reviewed by CFA under its Shipstead-Luce or Georgetown jurisdictions do not require review by HPRB. Nonetheless, HPRB staff is reviewing it because the owner is seeking federal historic preservation tax credits for rehabilitation. The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation apply to tax credit projects, and are more stringent than the standards under the historic preservation law, extending to the interior, unlike CFA review.
Time will tell if the property that brought down the Nixon administration, helped sink Lehman Brothers, and proved a millstone for Monument will prove more fruitful for its newest investor.
Washington D.C. real estate development news