W New York Downtown
123 Washington St.; 646-826-8600; wnewyorkdowntown.com; 217 guest rooms; from $339 (U.S.). No eco-rating.
When we enter our guest room at the W New York Downtown, the blinds spanning the wall-to-wall windows are drawn. When I raise the shades, we find ground zero before us. For a long moment, my companion and I are speechless. Fifteen storeys down is the skeleton of what was once the Deutsche Bank building, still in the process of being carefully dismantled. In the distance, two perfect squares mark the footprints where the World Trade Center once stood.
New York's financial district has seen a flurry of development in the past year - the W New York Downtown is one of a handful of new hotels to open within blocks of the former World Trade Center site - as it strives to rebuild and redefine itself around the 9/11 memorial and museum that are due to open on Sept. 11.
In spite of this growth spurt, the area feels off the radar. TriBeCa, Greenwich Village, SoHo and the like are within walking distance, and you'll find tourists milling around the 9/11 visitor centre around the corner from the hotel, but there's relatively little foot traffic (word of warning: taxis can be hard to come by, especially off hours). Still, the 58-storey glass tower is being billed as an "invigorating beacon," with a design concept built around ripples - intended to send a wave of energy through the downtown district.
Dramatic lighting fixtures in the hotel's entryway and lobby are a focal point. Designed by Berlin's GRAFT studios, the lobby installation, the Lamella, ripples across the ceiling and out onto the terrace. The overall effect is one of grand waves (in fact, thousands of tiny LED lights are recessed within the structure). Polished black flooring reflects and enhances the impact. Over all, lighting plays a key role in the hotel's design, both inside and to create maximum effect for passersby on the sidewalks below.
The hotel's Living Room Bar takes up most of the lobby, making it clear that the space is intended more for lounging than as a thoroughfare. A DJ spins tunes on Wednesday and Friday nights, the pewter-coloured couches are sleek and modern but still comfy; during the day, there's a flood of natural light. The mood is warmer and more inviting than the stark humourlessness of many boutique hotels. However, with few guests actually using the communal spaces, they're not as enticing as they could be.
Guests have access to a 24-hour business centre and gym. The hotel also offers complimentary Acura car service daily until 8 p.m., and has a pet program, which includes special treats, a pet bed and W tags.
Compact and functional, guest rooms have the same sleek, modern design that has become the W hotel chain's trademark. The space is put to good use, with tucked-away storage, a 37-inch flat-screen TV mounted on the wall and window bench seating - at 305 to 355 square feet for a standard, the size feels spacious for a Manhattan hotel room. All rooms have a mini-bar and snack box, CD/DVD player and iPod docking station.
Housekeeping is a bit spotty (toiletries weren't restocked, empty wrappers from the turndown chocolate were left on the night table), but, over all, the service is unexpectedly warm and genuine for a hotel with such a cool vibe. While waiting for a taxi at the front entrance one morning, I watched a doorman help a road-tripping family load up their car and then hug their young child goodbye as he wished them a safe trip home.
Menus are designed by the BLT restaurant group, with a nice emphasis on innovative flavours and ingredients - a fontina fondue on the room-service menu comes with toasted hazelnuts and savoury-sweet drizzle of truffled honey, and a vegetarian panini gets some extra zing from a tangy caper mayo. Room service borrows from the hotel's BLT Bar and Grill menu and is available round the clock. With a James Beard-cited mixologist crafting such cocktails as the signature Five Points - pisco muddled with fresh arugula and pineapple - the hotel takes its drinks just as seriously.
The hotel is a visceral, living tribute to Lower Manhattan - it manages to be edgy, raw and warm. If you're looking to be in the centre of the action, this might not be your place - yet. But if you need to be close to Wall Street or want downtown style and a powerful connection to 9/11, the W Downtown does a great job of bringing it all together.
Special to The Globe and Mail