February 24, 2015 by westsideneighborhoodalliance
The Branson at Fifth does not offer your typical hotel experience. There is no concierge, bellhop or front desk—just a doorman in a narrow lobby who hands out apartment keys after confirming visitors’ names on a list. Photo ID or proof of reservation is not required.
Tourists are sometimes surprised to find that they have in fact rented a room in an apartment building, in which 10 units are occupied by New Yorkers who have called the place home for decades.
“Nice neighborhood if you don’t mind the dirty looks from tenants who tell you that this is not a hotel,” wrote one guest who reserved a room on Hotels.com. “Not good.”
The Branson, it turns out, is actually two buildings, at 15 and 19 W. 55th St., that are joined by a common basement and a single owner: real estate developer Salim Assa, who has been giving the property a makeover since he bought it for $60 million in 2013. To tenants and city officials, the 65-unit complex has earned a notorious distinction, one that has put it in the crosshairs of New York’s beleaguered effort to identify and crack down on illegal hotels.
According to a Crain’s analysis of city data, the twin buildings together have been the subject of more illegal-hotel complaints than any other in the five boroughs, resulting in nearly $100,000 in unpaid violations. About two weeks ago, the de Blasio administration sued Mr. Assa for running what the city calls an illegal-hotel operation at the Branson along with two other residential buildings he owns on West 46th Street.