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Controversial Grand Zero Hotel Hopes to Lure Tourists

Tue March 23, 2010 - Northeast Edition

NEW YORK (AP) Looking down into the construction site covering the 16 acres where the World Trade Center once stood, some might see a place shadowed by death.

But Cheryl Palmer sees a rebirth — and a business opportunity. She’s vice president of Club Quarters Inc., the company opening the World Center Hotel — and as far as she’s concerned, the property’s location on the edge of the site of the Sept. 11 attacks is a selling point.

“People choose to be here because they want to be close to it. They want to feel it, they want to celebrate. They want to remember,” she said, standing by an open-air patio overlooking the site. “We have a very accessible view on it.”

The hotel, which began taking reservations in February, offers some rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows that open directly onto the construction. Guests and members will have access to the restaurant patio with views of giant cranes, jackhammers and metal scaffolding.

It seems to be the first area hotel to use its proximity to the site as a marketing strategy. The carefully chosen name telegraphs the hotel’s location to prospective guests. And visitors to the hotel Web site are greeted by construction photographs and memorial images.

The Millennium Hilton nearby offers similar views from most of its rooms — which were devastated in the collapse of the twin towers and then rebuilt in the following years. With 85 percent of the hotel’s current employees carrying with them memories of working there at the time of the attacks, it still feels too soon to incorporate ground zero into its marketing plan, said Jan Larsen, general manager of the hotel.

“People are sensitive to maybe being perceived as taking advantage of a tragedy by utilizing that in any kind of promotional information,” Larsen said. “We still get customers here who didn’t realize we were across the street from ground zero, and they get emotional about it.”

Some, Larsen said, say that had they realized the location of the hotel, they would not have chosen to stay there.

But Club Quarters is making a bet that, for many, the site of the attacks is already becoming more what it will be — and less a shadow of what it was. The scar of metal and concrete gated off from the rest of the city will soon be brightened by trees to be planted before the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Palmer is quick to note. And the public memorial is set to open in 2011.

“They will have all those mixed emotions. But I think at the end of the day what people leave here with is the rebuilding,” Palmer said.

Driving up to the hotel, Greg McKinless was excited to see how close to the construction he would be, he said as he checked in.

“I thought, ’Gee, wouldn’t it be neat to be up on the sixth or seventh floor and really see the work in progress?”’ the Baltimore salesman said. “You could say it’s depressing, but you also could say it’s been nine years, the Freedom Tower is going up and there’s going to be a memorial. We’re looking toward the future.”

For guests with the right view, the construction can be a 24-hour spectacle. The yellow bulldozers and workers in hardhats continue their work all day and night. The hotel has installed special soundproof windows that keep out much (though not all) of the noise. And dark curtains block the light from the work.

For now, the restaurant and patio are still a construction site. Most floors in the hotel have yet to be completed. The lower part of the building’s shell is all that remains of the office building that was destroyed in the terrorist attack.

With 169 planned rooms and corporate apartments, the hotel’s planners would need to attract only a fraction of the nearly 4,000 people who visit the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site each day. Once the official memorial is open, officials estimate 7.1 million people will visit it in the first year.

Meanwhile, the view the new hotel affords of the site is an unusual one. With the fencing around much of the site blocking sightlines of the construction, camera-wielding tourists can be seen throughout the neighborhood craning their necks and trying to get a better look. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum directs frustrated visitors indoors, where they’ve set up a live-camera view of the site for those who want to see the rebuilding.

After climbing some steps in a fruitless effort to see inside the pit, Josh Rowlands said he would be glad to have a view over the site from his hotel room.

“You want to be able to see what’s going on after you’ve traveled all this way,” said the visitor from Adelaide, Australia.

But not all are convinced they would want their vacation vista to include this particular construction site.

“I wouldn’t stay there,” Michael Meindorfer said on his visit to ground zero from Frankfurt, Germany. “To go everyday and come home and see something like this. … It’s sad.”

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