Graduate Hotels development takes over New York’s Roosevelt Island

Graduate Hotels, a curated hotel collection with properties in university-anchored locations across the U.S., has a new property in the works for New York City’s Roosevelt Island. AJ Capital Partners is partnering with Cornell University to make the Graduate Roosevelt Island into a reality, planning for a 196-room, ground-up development to open in 2019 alongside the school's new campus.

According to David Rochefort, VP of investments and asset management at AJ Capital Partners, Cornell University began a national search for partnerships at the tail end of 2015, with AJ Capital making the cut. Roosevelt Island is significant because, apart from Cornell Tech’s Bloomberg Center, every other building on the island is privately developed. On top of that, Cornell will retain ownership of the hotel once it opens, as well as its 135,000 square feet of meeting and event space.

“What drew us to the project location-wise is that on the 18th-story rooftop you get these amazing views that will never be obstructed,” Rochefort said. “There aren’t too many occupants there aside from Cornell, so you’ll get a great look at the skyline from anywhere.”

In 2010, Michael Bloomberg, at the time the city's mayor, designated the southern tip of Roosevelt Island as a research destination. At that time, Graduate Hotels had yet to be formed, and when the brand was launched in 2013 the site still wasn’t on AJ Capital’s radar. However, after winning Cornell’s attention Rochefort is confident in what will eventually form the finished product.

“The story behind this property made a ton of sense to us,” Rochefort said. “Through his partnership we’re looking to build a product that will differentiate itself and appeal to the midtown east market that is just within reach, and when we open in 2019 we think we will have the best product out there for our base.”

All told, once opened the campus will stretch across 12 acres of the island and house roughly 2,000 students. The Graduate Hotel Roosevelt Island will include a full-service restaurant and rooftop bar. But Cornell students and visitors to Roosevelt Island won’t have to wait that long to get a glimpse at what is planned for the area; the first phase of Cornell Tech’s development on the island is opening September 2017 with the Bloomberg Center, the campus’ first academic building; The Bridge, a building for outside companies to set up shop near the campus; and The House, a residence for students, faculty and staff.

Wandering Eye 

If there are any challenges facing the development, Rochefort said the property suffered from an obscure location not often considered by visitors to New York.

“Most New York natives don’t even know it’s on a subway line,” he said. “Once the campus opens we’ll also be on the ferry line, but people don’t realize how accessible Roosevelt Island really is. We are easily accessed from the east side of Manhattan, and if you are coming from LaGuardia or JFK Airport, your commute to a hotel is cut in half, making it a great destination for those coming in for day meetings.”

According to Rochefort, it's important to understand Graduate Hotel’s mission. The company is “university anchored,” but it isn’t looking for college towns. With this mindset, Rochefort said Graduate Hotels is the only company out there offering this specific product.

“When people visit these towns, they often do so with specific goals in mind,” he said. “They want to visit their alma mater, go to football games or scout out locations for their children. We were looking for a specific product and couldn’t find it, so when we set out to do this in 2013 we knew what our goal was to create.”

One of a Kind 

Despite the New York hotel market’s precarious supply situation and the home-sharing industry’s ability to add rooms at the drop of the hat, Rochefort said AJ Capital is optimistic about the new hotel’s positioning.

“A lot of people are saying the New York market has turned, and there is new supply certainly hitting the city, but looking at permits being issued for 2019 and 2020 we’ve seen them to be almost nonexistent,” he said. “The good news is that New York continues to grow as a lodging market, and is still the best market in the world as it relates to rates and occupancy on a given day.”

Aside from the upcoming Roosevelt Island development, Graduate Hotels has locations in destinations such as Ann Arbor, Mich.; Athens, Ga.; Charlottesville, Va.; Madison, Wis.; and Oxford, Miss. Rochefort pointed out that the brand’s ability to lean on the unique attributes of each university allows each property to stand out in ways others can’t, such as its Oxford, Miss., hotel featuring a pink floor.

“We would never do that in another city in the country,” he said. “It just fits the town!”