At a time when travelers are drawn to explore new cities more than ever, the concept of an “urban resort” seems like a particularly strong draw for modern tourists. Architect Scott Lee, founder and lead architect at San Francisco-based SB Architects, which specializes in resort and hospitality design, believes that a new class of urban escapes captures our contemporary turn towards downtown living.
At a recent presentation at the Urban Land Institute’s Fall Meeting in Dallas, Lee and a group of architects and designers spoke about what they’re calling urban resorts, and why these properties are going to play an increasingly bigger role in the hospitality industry.
Lee defines urban resorts via the following shared features: They offer immersive experiences and a sense of retreat; despite the urban setting, they flaunt a connection to nature, with lots of indoor/outdoor spaces, natural light, and rooftop everything; extensive health and wellness options and sustainable features, as well as more daring and unique design, are commonplace. The Standard High Line in New York, with a massive pool and rooftop deck overlooking Manhattan, offers a prime example.
Sounds like a high-end hotel, right? Lee and others say there are significant similarities, but urban resorts offers a more elevated experience, an escape to, and not from, the city. The increased prevalence of these projects also reflects some of the less-laudable facets of contemporary life.
“People are blurring work and leisure more and more today, which explains why hotels that allow you to work and travel are so popular,” he says. “Work and leisure are forever collapsing, so we’re really trying to take a break from our 24/7 lifestyle by seeking adventure in cultural exploration. People aren’t working in the office, they’re much more casual, and always want to be connected.”
Nunzio DeSantis, Director at HKS Hospitality Group, which has worked with top brands such as Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons, believes the strength of these resorts is “eclectic engagement,” and the way they create a more enveloping experience.
“We can get lost in a singular statement as designers,” he says. “These urban resorts offer so much more activity and engagement, a collection of incredible vignettes.”
Lee says one of the original examples of this concept is the Delano in Miami, a South Beach resort that opened in 1995. While plenty of resorts line the Miami oceanfront, this was a modern incarnation of an older ideal, a lively take on grand city hotels that establish a connection to the street. It may be a bit outmoded and outdated now—the spa is aging, the rooftop amenities just aren’t there—but Lee feels it offered a blueprint that new hoteliers are still following.
Numerous flashy and trendy brands have excelled at creating these kinds of urban escapes, such as Hyatt Centric or Proper. Lee said the Chicago Athletic Association, a newly restored landmark building next to Millennium Park in the city’s Loop district, is a perfect recent example: great roof top overlooking the park, incredible dining, and spa and game room facilities that offer both an escape from and a connection to locals.
High-end chains such as the Mandarin Oriental have basically created the templates for these types of developments. At the same ULI event, Steven Upchurch, an architect at Gensler, spoke about his firm’s work on the soon-to-open Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Beverly Hills, a huge renovation featuring residential units set to debut in 2017. Sited on the intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica, the update to the iconic hotel will feature four acres of open space and “secret” gardens. Like similar projects, its sales pitch is offering a escape in the middle of it all.
“Being at an urban resort is like being in the infield of the Indy 500,” says Lee. “You’re in the center of something frantic, but you’re slightly elevated. You can go towards the action if you want, or you can escape, and have that sense of privacy. It’s like ‘alone together’; you don’t always want to be in the crowd, but you want to know that it’s there.”