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California delegates offer poor reviews for high-priced DNC hotel

By David Perlmutt, Kerry Singe and Gavin Off
dperlmutt@charlotteobserver.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Many members of the California delegation at last week’s Democratic National Convention weren’t happy with accommodations at their main hotel, the Blake Hotel on South McDowell Street, saying it charged five-star rates for low-star rooms.

The range of complaints from the convention’s largest delegation included mold, cockroaches, a broken lock, sparsely furnished rooms, stuck elevators, nonworking Wi-Fi in rooms, plaster still wet from renovations and a shower that nearly scalded one delegate’s child because it had only one temperature (“nearly boiling”).

One delegate found a room flooded. And days before the convention began, stucco fell from the hotel’s exterior.

The hotel – built in 1973 and operated under other names including the Adam’s Mark – has undergone recent renovations to its north tower and several floors in its south tower, Mecklenburg County records show.

Hotel managers didn’t return calls to the Observer on Monday. But records show the county granted it temporary occupancy certificates just before the DNC.

The Blake wasn’t the only Charlotte hotel to get poor reviews. Some guests disliked staying miles from uptown Charlotte, some as far away as Concord and Rock Hill. The Washington Times reported that bedbugs were a problem in some hotels, though the health department reports the paper cited were months or years old.

Michael Smith, president and CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners, acknowledged the DNC showed that the city needs more convention hotels if it wants to host national and international events.

When California Democratic Party chairman John Burton left the convention early for a scheduled dental appointment, California Assembly Speaker John Perez joked Burton chose a root canal over staying at the Blake, according to media reports in California.

Several delegates said the California Democratic Party plans to try to negotiate at least a partial refund. Burton declined to comment on the matter Monday, said party spokesman Tenoch Flores.

All the California delegates who spoke to the Observer made a point of saying that they enjoyed Charlotte and the convention. But, at $310 a night plus tax, they said, their lodging was well below expectations.

“It was what you’d expect a $89-a-night room to be,” said Scott Dick, a delegate from Carmel Valley who hosts a radio show, “The Tasty Planet,” that reports on food, wine and travel. “If it was $89 a night, it would have been no problem.

“But I shared a room (with another delegate) and it still cost me about $890 for the room and tax for five nights. There were no add-ons (to his bill).”

Travel writer’s review

As a travel writer, Dick has stayed in hotels around the world, the worst in the Mediterranean island of Malta where “my shoes stuck to the floor” and “I had to sleep in my clothes.”

“I’m not in the business of reviewing hotels and trashing hotels, but I feel compelled to say that my experience at The Blake was slightly a notch above the hotel in Malta,” Dick said.

In his room, a towel rack was coming unbolted from the wall, and a sink was clogged for a day. A ride on the elevator was not a pleasant experience, he said. At one point, it took 20 minutes to get from the sixth floor to the lobby.

Dick said the staff was nice and did everything they could to fix the problems.

“The kids on the floor told us, ‘We’re understaffed and we’re not prepared,’ ” he said.

California state Sen. Ted Lieu, a delegate from Torrance, tweeted during the convention that he had to be moved to five different rooms before he found a suitable one. Two of them had showers with only scalding-hot water. He got locked out of one room because the lock was broken.

And another room had “a funny smell.” About yet another room, he tweeted: “I’m not even going to mention the cockroaches.”

Several delegates, including Dick and Forrest Williams of San Jose, complained that they’d bought a breakfast package for $100 for the delegation’s morning meetings and the food offering got skimpier by the day.

“For what we were paying, that place just didn’t meet expectations,” Williams said. “You could tell it was an old hotel. It smelled like one.”

During one morning delegation meeting, California Attorney Gen. Kamala Harris mused that the delegates had traveled great distances to stay at “the Hotel California,” a reference to a 1977 Eagles song about a weary traveler enticed – then trapped – in a nightmarish luxury hotel.

County: Hotel met codes

James Bartl, the county’s code enforcement director, said The Blake met all the necessary building codes to accommodate guests.

The codes ensure that hotels meet minimum standards. Yet that doesn’t mean that all guests will like the building or have pleasant experiences, Bartl said.

“If you had your house renovated and you met the requirements of the building codes, does that mean you’d be completely happy with the work or the finishes?” Bartl asked. “The things that people react to in terms of the quality of their experience probably don’t have to do with building codes.”

The temporary occupancy certificates opened up the north tower and the three renovated floors in the south tower to guests.

Enforcement officer Gary Mullis said temporary certificates of occupancy usually last about 30 days.

“It means the building functions as intended,” Mullis said. “Issues such as comfort are a non-player.”

But even the county health department has awarded the Blake’s lodging area high marks in recent years. During the past three inspections, the hotel received only minor violations, such as caulk damage to sinks and dirty ice buckets, records show.

Recent inspections did find water several degrees hotter than recommended, records show.

Complaints of neglect

Six years ago, a highly private group of New York-based investors bought the hotel, then still part of the Adam’s Mark chain, and the adjacent office building, the Cameron Brown Building, for $47 million.

The buyers included members of the Chetrit family, which newspaper articles have said is one of the largest private landowners in Manhattan. The family and its affiliates have owned some of Leona Helmsley’s properties and what is now the Willis Tower in Chicago.

Tenants in the Cameron Brown Building remember the new owners visiting Charlotte, promising big renovations.

The promised improvements never came to the office building, which fell into disrepair and was sold at foreclosure auction earlier this year.

Work did begin on the hotel, which was turned into a boutique hotel and renamed the Blake. Last year, the hotel was sold to a group called Carolina Hospitality Group LLC 2010. The new owner paid $24.3 million for the hotel and land, which has a tax value of more than $44 million, according to Mecklenburg County records.

One longtime tenant in the office building said the hotel’s reputation has long been deteriorating. He said he tells out-of-town clients to stay elsewhere when visiting. The Sacramento Bee and staff researcher Marion Paynter contributed.

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