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Businessmen, tourists fuel boom of hotels in Flushing

For many years, politicians, planners, business leaders and residents have proposed everything from town squares to movietheaters to more housing for downtown Flushing.

While most of these grand plans have stalled, one form of development has found a welcome home in the area: hotels.

Over the last several years, downtown Flushing has quietly become one of the borough's centers for hotels.

Six hotels have opened in Flushing in the last three years, three of which starting doing business in 2002. Altogether, there are about 400 rooms in the downtown Flushing area. Only the areas around Kennedy and LaGuardia Airports have more rooms, hotel managers said.

"Main Street, this little area, has something to offer," said Elliott Forsey II, general manager of Flushing's Comfort Inn, which opened in September. "A lot of people are looking for an affordable alternative to Manhattan. And we're it."

The hotel bonanza started with the opening of Sheraton LaGuardia East on 39th Avenue in 1991. The site had been bought by the owner of The World Journal, a Chinese-language daily newspaper, with the goal of building printing presses. But the plot was not large enough for the World Journal's operations, and instead developer Heo-Peh Lee designed a luxury hotel with 173 rooms and eight suites.

The Sheraton, which became the largest building in downtown Flushing, was seen as a gamble at the time. But it quickly paid off, luring visitors from around the world staying to do business in Queens.

In the late 1990s, smaller hotels began following in the Sheraton's footsteps. The Imperial Hotel on 38th Avenue and the Best Western Queens Court Hotel on 39th Avenue both opened within a block of the Sheraton. Two years ago the Flushing Motel opened on Linden Place, on the edge of an industrial area of Flushing.

In the last year, a Comfort Inn arrived on 37th Avenue, Flushing Int'l Hotel came to 35th Avenue, and the Flushing Grand Hotel started operating on Main Street.

The smaller hotels offer a less expensive alternative to the Sheraton. While the cheapest rooms in the Sheraton currently cost $135 a night, almost all of the competition have rooms for about $90. The number of rooms in the smaller hotels range from 28 to 59.

The influx of hotels is in part due to Flushing's zoning laws. Hotels escape many of the parking requirements mandated for commercial and residential developments and therefore can be built quickly without the need of a zoning variance.

In many ways, the hotel boom comes somewhat of a surprise.

"It's a very mixed market," said Juan Sepulveda, director of sales and marketing at the Sheraton. "It's not a natural market for hotels."

Hotel managers said Flushing has been able to carve out a niche based on several factors. With Flushing becoming a banking center, many businessmen and women need a place to stay. In the summer, those watching the Mets at Shea Stadium or the U.S. Open at the USTA National Tennis Center often come to downtown Flushing, packing the rooms.

Located a short taxi ride from LaGuardia, airline passengers stuck in the city due to bad weather flood Flushing's hotel rooms. Visitors to Queens College and St. John's University often stay in Flushing. Tourists also come to Flushing looking for a relative bargain.

Asian customers make up a large percentage of the hotel occupants. While chains such as the Sheraton and Comfort Inn have a more mixed clientele, the vast majority of those staying at the Imperial are of Chinese, Korean or Indian descent, an employee said.

"The ethnicity in the neighborhood makes them feel comfortable," said the employee, who did not wish to be identified.

In an attempt to attract even more business clients, the Sheraton is currently undergoing a $2.5 million renovation, which includes work on all of its rooms. Yuan Garden, the restaurant in the basement of the hotel, has been completely remodeled. Sepulveda said he hoped Yuan would become Flushing's first destination for a "power lunch."

"We want to let people to know that we have one of the best gourmet Chinese kitchens in all of Queens," Sepulveda said.

Confronted by a cold winter and warnings of terrorism, hotel managers said business was slow. Still, Sepulveda said the Sheraton was doing well compared to Manhattan hotels, with an 84 percent occupancy rate for 2002 as opposed to 72 percent for the average hotel in Manhattan.

Although some said the market for hotels in Flushing has reached its saturation point, the boom has not yet ended.

Forsey said another hotel was being planned for College Point Boulevard, and the New Millennium Construction and Development Corp. plans to begin work on an 120-room hotel as part of a 18-story tower at the Sears site on Northern Boulevard in 2005.

"Flushing's growing at a fast pace," Forsey said. "People think that the growth's continuing."

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718 229-0300 Ext. 141.

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