Rockaway Inn Rides Renewal Wave


Aug. 12, 2013 10:13 p.m. ET

Nearly a month after a boutique hotel called Playland Motel opened a few blocks from his Rockaway Beach home, Michael Mahoney went to check out the much-hyped spot.

Mr. Mahoney, 63 years old, whose parents once owned a nearby Irish pub that is now a Laundromat, grew up in the neighborhood, left in the 1990s and returned seven years ago to retire. And as a longtime resident, he had been skeptical about the new hotel—but left with guarded optimism that the area could again be the summer destination it once was.

"To look at how colorful, happy and exciting it looks—it's beautiful," said Mr. Mahoney after taking a brief tour of the two-story building that a young clientele has been packing on the weekends. "What I see is a renewal of the Rockaways."

Once a vacation spot for movie stars and later home to the now-shuttered Playland amusement park, Rockaway Beach has been through a nearly four-decade roller-coaster ride—most recently seeing homes gutted and businesses closed by superstorm Sandy. Still, residents and community leaders see businesses such as the new motel as signs of a recovery taking foot.

"In the last three years, we started to see new residents and new blood taking interest in the neighborhood," said Dolores Orr, the chairwoman of the local community board.

To date, all but eight of the 40 storefronts along the main stretch of Rockaway Beach Boulevard—the neighborhood's commercial strip—have reopened 10 months after the storm, Ms. Orr said. A shopping center off the stretch still remains in shambles.

Along with the new motel, a cluster of new businesses including two wine bars, an Uzbeki restaurant and a gourmet deli have set up shop. Just off the boulevard, the Rockaway Beach Surf Club has reopened for business, securing a liquor license that its owners hope will draw customers and funding for a separate nonprofit that works with the community on public art and recreation projects.

"All of those businesses were planned pre-Sandy and our concern was, would they go forward with them?" Ms. Orr said.

Adding to the swell are a growing number of private bus companies that offer direct access to the beach, bringing in Manhattanites and Brooklyn residents faster than a subway ride.

"It's about time they started to bring the tourists back," said Mike Sullivan, 54, of Belle Harbor. "I have no problem with the hipsters, or whatever they are called. Wherever they go, they spend money."

The most ambitious addition to the scene so far appears to have been the motel, taking over a spot that long served as a local watering hole.

"It really is a game changer," said Gary Washington, 56, who retired from the Bronx to a condo two blocks from the motel. "There was an anticipation for the place, what are they and what's going to happen."

During its heyday, the storefront was Boggiano's, a popular clam bar and pub with live music and rental apartments. In the 1990s, it gave way to the Tap & Grill, a local favorite and a pit stop for visitors heading to the subway a block away.

"It was rough, but it was home," recalled Daniel Mulhill, 52, of Rockaway Beach on a recent Friday afternoon while having a few beers with friends in the new space. "Now it's a nice environment," he said of the Playland Motel.

The plans for the motel began last May when building owner Andy Cholakis was looking to sell. A friend had mentioned the space to Jamie Wiseman, a commercial-real-estate broker who had worked on projects including the Output nightclub in Williamsburg and the conversion of a Bushwick church into 99 apartments.

Mr. Wiseman had been coming to the Rockaways for four years, because the beach was much closer than the Hamptons and because other young people from the city had begun to flock there. "Instead of hours waiting in line trying to drive to Montauk, it made sense to build something that was more accessible," he said. "People drive out there and head back at night."

Mr. Wiseman teamed up with colleague Robin Scott and friends Diego Galarza and Eduardo Suarez, owners of the Williamsburg restaurants El Almacen and Rosarito Fish Shack.

Within five days of meeting Mr. Cholakis, the sides were in contract to buy the space, according to Mr. Wiseman. By September, they had closed on the building, $1.3 million for 7,000 square feet of property a block from the beach with another 7,000 square feet outside, he said.

Two months later, the storm swept through, tearing off the building's roof and pouring in 4 feet of water, mud and sand. "There was never a question about whether we were going to keep moving," Mr. Wiseman said. "You kind of just have to go do it."

What they have created is a cross between a bed-and-breakfast and a hostel, with shared bathrooms and showers, and an area for guests to mingle downstairs.

The bar and the building's facade were built from a barn, while the floors are distressed wood from the Bushwick church. The parking lot in the back is gone, and in its place is a beach club complete with a lounge area made of loose pebbles and outfitted with folding chairs, kiddie pools for wading and a ping-pong table.

On a recent Saturday, Gavin Russom from the now-disbanded alternative dance band LCD Soundsystem was the night's DJ. The next day, Tiki Disco, the popular roving dance party put on by the owners of Bushwick's Roberta's restaurant, was a nightcap for those headed to the train. For more than an hour after the beach officially closed at 6 p.m., the line for the disco party wrapped around the block. Inside, circles of friends lounged over cheap beer and pitchers of white sangria.

"It's such a great, relaxing, chill place," said Natalie Rawling, 31, of the East Village, celebrating a friend's bachelorette party. "This is a place you would have out in the city, but it's here."

But the owners know that for the space to succeed, it needs to appeal to locals who stick around after summer ends. To that end, the restaurant, bar and an adjoining pizzeria were designed with the community's tastes in mind, the owners say. The menu includes freshly caught seafood by fisherman James "Frankie the Fish," Culleton, 57, of Rockaway Beach. On a recent weekend he had provided the restaurant with local clams, fluke and tender scallops.

More than two-thirds of the staff are local, including some holdovers from the Tap & Grill, according to Mr. Wiseman. There are movie nights in the works, and there have already been calls for birthday parties and weddings.

"I know it will get much slower," Mr. Wiseman said, adding, "We are committed to the project. We certainly are not going to walk away from it."