Close Quarters: CitizenM Bowery in New York
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On a recent trip to New York City, I decided to check out the CitizenM, the Dutch chain's modular hotel on the Bowery. Though the towering property is physically situated in Manhattan's popular Lower East Side neighborhood, it’s all very European — and, given that each room was built in Poland before being shipped to the Big Apple, it's easy to understand why.
Although I’ve stayed at hundreds of properties over the years, from ultrabudget to ultraluxe, I’ve never stayed in a modular hotel. Knowing that I had a trip to TPG’s New York City headquarters to look forward to, I was pleasantly surprised to see that CitizenM’s second NYC location would be opening mere weeks prior to my trip. (The 230-room CitizenM Times Square has been open since 2014, though the 21-story, 300-room Bowery location takes the crown as the world’s tallest modular hotel.)
Although Dutch hotel developer and operator CitizenM doesn’t align its properties with any loyalty programs, I was pleased to find its newest location already on sale through Hotels.com. By booking with a Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card (and using Hotels.com to begin the process), I earned 10x miles on the purchase. (Offer ends Jan. 31, 2020)
While the Times Square location is more attention-grabbing, I found that CitizenM’s Bowery rates were far superior. For my four-night stay in early October, the all-in price before any cash-back calculations was $1,125.25 ($281 per night, including tax). For those same four nights, a stay at CitizenM’s Times Square location would’ve demanded $1,713.46 ($428 per night, including tax).
You’ll find differing opinions of this part of Manhattan, as well as the CitizenM’s impact on its overall motif. Op-eds chastised the builders for the giant, red crane that dominated the local skyline for two years.
Granted, the crane is now gone, but some suggest that the modular approach — which was supposed to reduce overall build time — created even more chaos for locals than a conventional hotel build would have.
Beyond that, the Bowery has evolved in recent years. While its industrial, gritty roots can be seen if you look hard enough, what was most evident on my trip were the trendy denim shops and coffee bars that seemed to never fully empty out. There was even a Whole Foods nearby, a telltale sign of gentrification. In other words, the Bowery had become a perfect fit for a brand like CitizenM. Though the 246-foot-high building looked a little tall compared to the rest of the ‘hood, it somehow managed to fit in.
Little Italy and Chinatown were right next door. It was half a block from the Bowery subway station, with the J and Z subway lines. It was a 25-minute cab ride from LaGuardia Airport (LGA) and 40 minutes from New York-JFK on a weekday afternoon.
CitizenM’s website proudly advertised one-minute check-in. My check-in took a hair longer than a minute (I’d guesstimate five), but it was still one of the more seamless check-in processes I’ve encountered. Check-in is one of those things where you wonder if it’ll ever drastically evolve. Kind of like a toaster. It’s going to be pretty hard to significantly change the design and functionality of a toaster, you know?
Kitchen analogies aside, the lobby was set up with four self-service computer screens, where you could punch in your last name or scan a QR code if you booked direct. Anyone who has used a self-serve airline check-in kiosk will be immediately familiar. I entered my last name, and a gleeful CitizenM staffer quickly waltzed over to complete the process.
She picked up a keycard, tapped it on the counter and guided me through one final screen: selecting a room type. Now, given that this was a modular hotel, there was only one room type, but I was able to choose from a low floor, a high floor looking east and a high floor looking west. When I asked, she recommended a high floor facing east. I was told this room would have the best views of Manhattan. (This turned out to be wholly accurate.)
Out popped a printout with the number for my room on the 12th floor, which placed me just over halfway up the 21-story building. A lanyard was added to my room card (a surprisingly simple touch that made it much easier to keep track of), and I was pointed around the corner to the four-pack of elevators.
One last note about the keycard: It boasted a design unique to the Bowery location, and highlighted the hotel’s collaboration with 5 Pointz creates, a well-known street-art collective. Staffers were so proud of the card that they encouraged me to keep it as a souvenir at checkout.
I found the check-in process really refreshing. Perhaps it was the gentle relief of not having to slyly ask for a room upgrade given that it wasn't possible at a modular hotel where each room was the same.
Also, the lobby smelled amazing. I can’t pinpoint what the aroma was, but it was there every time I returned. Now that I’m gone, I’m curious if they sell it in a bottle. Perhaps a candle?
For those new to modular hotel rooms, here’s a dose of reality: They’re small. Really small.
But CitizenM’s construction partner went to great length to make 14 square meters (150 square feet) feel a lot bigger than one would expect. Each room in the hotel was the same size, with the same layout, the same furniture and the same lighting.
The king bed took up most of the space. It was, without question, among the top five best beds I’d ever encountered in a hotel in terms of comfort. That said, the bed touched the room’s walls on three sides, which meant that there was just one way in and out. If you’re sleeping with a partner, that means one of you will crawl over the other when rising for a midnight snack (or, you know, bathroom run).
You could request more pillows, but only two were included by default. You may be perfectly happy with one pillow per person. I, firmly in the more-is-merrier camp, am not.
Then there was the fluffy comforter. Much like Mitch Berman found in his recent review of the Park Hyatt New York, I too found this comforter-only approach entirely out of place for the season. Temperatures were in the 80s during my stay, and when you only have a winter comforter, you’re left to either melt or freeze.
Speaking of temperature control, there was the MoodPad, an iPad loaded with software that allowed you to control blinds, temperature, light color (in the shower and bathroom), multimedia and more. I generally scoff at such inclusions, preferring to use tried-and-true wall switches that I know won’t raise my blood pressure. To CitizenM’s credit, the MoodPad was a delight to use. It was fast, with lights, blinds and TV controls responding nearly instantly. (For those who still would prefer not to look at yet another screen, there were remotes and wall switches as well.)
Unfortunately, you couldn’t lower the room temperature below 18 degrees Celsius (64.4 degrees Fahrenheit). This wouldn’t have been a big deal except the 64.4-degree setting came nowhere close to actually chilling the room to 64.4 degrees.
With those gripes out of the way, the rest of the room was really impressive. The inclusion of an actual overhead light was a sight for sore eyes, and lighting in general was very bright and impressive.
There was ample room in the toilet, and the tall shower drew no complaints.
CitizenM provided two types of shampoo and a separate bottle of conditioner. In keeping with the brand, each of these had clever phrases printed on them, which made for fun reading. I’m glad I brought my own bar soap, as the hotel assumed that the shampoo would double as soap.
A grand total of six power outlets were positioned mere inches from the bed’s headboard, which is worthy of laud. Just beside those outlets was a small, but effective, desk. The only real gripe with the desk was its position in relation to the HDTV. The Samsung set was mounted flush with the wall. In effect, the only way to watch TV was to watch it in bed.
By tapping the media tab on the MoodPad, you could sift through a few dozen movies — some of which were decidedly new releases — and watch up to two for free each day. I scrolled to "Incredibles 2," tapped play, and within seconds it was on. Splendid. Given that I was in New York while the hometown Yankees were squaring off with the Oakland A’s in the Major League Baseball playoffs, I also appreciated that the 50-plus available cable channels were all in high-definition. (Which, amazingly, still can’t be assumed as a given.)
Storage space was tight. Super tight. There was no closet to speak of, just a few hangers in what could liberally be described as a clothing nook. I stashed my Hartmann carry-on, proudly procured by flying a million miles on Delta Air Lines, below those hangers. I emptied most of that out into the useful storage bin beneath the bed. (For those curious, there was also a safe beneath the bed, though I left my collection of diamond-encrusted belt buckles at home for this trip.)
There was enough room for a small refrigerator, which was stocked with two Evian waters each day. Thankfully, CitizenM eschewed the minibar approach and left the refrigerator otherwise open for guests to fill as they pleased. Given that there was no in-room coffee maker (boo), I popped a couple of Starbucks Cold Brew bottles in at the end of each evening so I’d have a pick-me-up ready and waiting when the alarm went off the following morning.
With a wall-to-wall window, the views of New York City were simply sublime.
I was on my own for this trip. But as for families? Fuhgeddaboudit. You might get away with two adults and a small child, but you won’t like it. If you’re considering four or more in one of these rooms, be sure to film the entire experience and email it to our tips inbox — we’ll make sure the world at large gets a laugh out of it.
Food and Beverage
During the check-in process, a screen popped up and asked if I wanted to add a breakfast buffet to my stay for $19 per day. I couldn’t select just certain days; it was either each day or none. If you opted out and wanted to add it later, you’d be dinged $22 per day, per guest.
CitizenM’s breakfast buffet was above average, boasting bacon, pancakes, eggs, roasted vegetables, potatoes and a decent selections of breads. A bowl of mixed fruit and yogurt, not at all unlike what you’d find in a Delta Sky Club during morning hours, was also spotted. It was handy because it was in the lower lobby, but for $19 to $22, you could do a lot better for a lot less.
Service, however, shined. Every staffer I encountered at CitizenM was bubbly and eager to help, and those staffing the breakfast buffet were no exception. Food was refilled right away, and there were plenty of uniformed employees roaming the breakfast area to fulfill drink requests.
The same eating area (dubbed CanteenM) served a small lunch and dinner menu as well, but given that only a handful of things were on the menu, I ate elsewhere. The vibe was excellent, but I couldn’t imagine too many people eating full meals here. The hotel was just blocks from top-rated restaurants that hit all budgets. The bar seemed to be a hit and during my visit was free of rowdiness.
Just to the right of the check-in area, in the main lobby, was CoffeeM. While this technically sat inside the hotel, it was designed to be a coffee stop for anyone, guest or not. I stopped by for a drip coffee ($3) and a macchiato ($4), and found both to be gratifying, though not stop-and-FaceTime-my-mom-worthy. What was exceptional, however, was the staff. Huge, genuine smiles, fast service and well wishes for my day. Good vibes can go a long way, you know?
Perhaps the biggest, most impressive amenity at the entire hotel was the so-called Living Room. You couldn’t miss it.
In fact, right after check-in, I sashayed to the left and peered down at this massive communal space, replete with ... gorillas..., ample seating, copious natural light, televisions and an open connection to the CanteenM eating and bar area. Put simply, it was stunning.
I’m typically not one for hanging out in hotel lobbies. I either want to be left alone in my room, free from the mayhem of the day, or I want to be outside enjoying the splendors of wherever my travels have taken me. The Living Room, however, had a gravitational pull that was tough to resist. The space, while always populated, never felt crowded, due to its ginormous size. My completely unscientific take on why it existed? The rooms were really tiny. Guests needed a place to work, convene and breathe, and no room type in this particular hotel could pull that off with aplomb.
The hotel’s Wi-Fi was gratis everywhere. CitizenM has gone to great lengths to brag about its Wi-Fi, and I can unequivocally say I believe them.
In my room, I ran a Wi-Fi speed test on my laptop. The result? 120 Mbps and 125 Mbps up, outrageously fast by any measure, and by hotel standards, in the upper-est of the upper echelon. Thanks for showing every other hotel how it should be done, CitizenM.
It’s rare to see charity as an amenity, but in each room there was a door hanger that allowed a guest to decline service. While we’ve seen hotels award bonus points for declining in-room cleaning, CitizenM recorded each decline and donated the money saved to initiatives for "better mobility in developing countries.”
When asking if an iron and ironing board could be delivered to the room, I was informed that there were two “Ironing Heaven” stations on the ninth and 15th floors by the elevator bank. The one on the ninth floor was littered with spare carpet rolls and what appeared to be an inflatable pool raft. The iron and ironing board were there, yes, but the iron had no water, and there was no sink nearby. I attempted to dry-iron five shirts with varying degrees of success. (In case you haven’t noticed, there are quite a few marks here against this being a suitable hotel for a business traveler.)
As you’d expect at the world’s tallest modular hotel, there was indeed a rooftop bar here: CloudM. Sadly, it didn’t open alongside the rooms themselves, and was still closed for construction during my visit. I was told that my room key would allow me to indulge at the rooftop bar at CitizenM’s sister property in Times Square.
There was a fitness center here, a floor down from the lobby. It was passable, with two TechnoGym treadmills, an elliptical, a stationary bike and a stack of dumbbells. While it was nice that bottles of water were included in the gym, the lack of windows gave off a stuck-in-the-basement vibe that was hard to overlook.
Service truly stole the show at CitizenM Bowery. Every member of the staff, regardless of the touch point, was warm and helpful. Being on the road for extended periods can take its toll, and the personnel here went to great lengths to make sure their hotel felt like home to visitors.
While the location isn’t what most would describe as picturesque, it’s certainly useful. You’ll avoid Times Square prices, you’re out of the Midtown mayhem and you’re a subway ride away from anything in Manhattan.
The hotel’s most charming element is also its most detrimental. While it’s totally novel that these rooms were constructed in Poland and assembled like a real-life Lego set, 150 square feet is supremely diminutive. Even by New York City standards.
For solo leisure travelers looking for fresh, hip digs, this spot is worth considering. The welcoming bar, enormous communal Living Room space, passable gym and freakishly fast Wi-Fi make it a great place to spend time.
But when it comes time to head back to the room, you’ll need to prepare for tight quarters. CitizenM compensates for the size with free in-room movies and water along with epic views and a comfy bed, but the equation still doesn’t quite work for business travelers and families. Even for a couple, I’d caution against a stay here unless you plan on spending the vast majority of your time outside the room itself.
All images by the author.