Storied Hotel Durant reborn as revamped Graduate Berkeley

The Hotel Durant is no more — after a makeover and some upgrades, the newly named Berkeley Graduate has some quirky touches and is still very much rooted in its city.

The lobby at the Graduate Berkeley, formerly Hotel Durant, at 2600 Durant Ave., is designed to be a “living room for the community.” Photo: Graduate Hotels

Sipping a complimentary glass of Pinot Grigio and nibbling on a strawberry, Daiva Mockaitis of Indiana surveyed the newly renovated lobby of Graduate Berkeley, formerly the Hotel Durant, with approval.

Mockaitis said she has been staying at hotel at 2600 Durant Ave. for three years on visits to her son, a UC Berkeley student, for parents’ weekends and other events. Of the renovations, which were completed in April, she said: “Thumbs up, absolutely.”

Graduate Hotels, a Chicago chain specializing in hotels located in college towns, bought the 144-room hotel a block from UC Berkeley in September 2015 for $47.5 million and has rehabbed it. With tourism in the East Bay heating up, and a shortage of hotel rooms, it seems likely that the company chose the right place at the right time.

The chain has hotels in locations including Tempe, Ariz., Charlottesville, Va., Athens, Ga. and Madison, Wis. and focuses on imparting a sense of place in its boutique hotels, as well as creating inviting communal spaces, and offering local food and beverages.

On Thursday, Mockaitis, her daughter, Sofia, and Sofia’s grandmother, Jadze, were taking advantage of the latter two elements, sitting on high-backed wicker chairs and consuming Napa Valley wine along with fruit and cheese. The hotel offers the amenity to guests every day from 4-5 p.m. in the lobby.

“This is our public space, the living room for the community,” said Dell Dellinger, the hotel’s general manager.

“This will be the heartbeat of the hotel. Our goal is to have it active all the time, with students, parents, residents in here on their smartphones, their iPads, their computers,” Dellinger said.

Along those lines, Fadi Frances, a UC Berkeley engineering student, and Dan Mulhern, a professor at the Haas School of Business, dropped in briefly to chat and tap away on their respective laptops at the long wooden table in the center of the room.

“They were most gracious to us,” said Mulhern, an Oakland resident, talking about how the hotel allowed them to do so.

A large pop-art painting depicting former Cal and NFL running back Marshawn Lynch against a background of Skittles is one of the first things a visitor sees in the lobby of the newly revamped Graduate Berkeley hotel. Photo: Janis Mara

Any fears about the beloved 1928 hostelry becoming a sterile chain hotel should quickly be put to rest by such furnishings as a large pop-art painting depicting former Cal and NFL running back Marshawn Lynch against a background of Skittles. It’s one of the first things a visitor sees in the lobby.

Behind the reception desk is what at first appears to be yellow and brown wallpaper, but is actually shelves bearing more than 8,500 issues of National Geographic.

These features are new, but Henry’s, the hotel’s popular restaurant and bar, is the same except for a refinished floor. It is closed for now — Dellinger said Bill Chait, a Cal alum and Los Angeles restaurateur, and Carl Shuster will be taking it over.

“We expect to have a soft opening for Henry’s in late May,” Dellinger said. The formal opening should be toward the end of summer, he said. (Henry’s is also notorious as the scene of a dramatic and violent hostage crisis in 1990.)

In a not so subtle nod to Cal’s arch rival, the men’s room at the Graduate Berkeley hotel features a urinal painted Stanford red and bearing the Stanford logo. Photo: Janis Mara

After checking to see that the room was unoccupied, Dellinger proudly opened the men’s room door to show off a urinal painted Stanford red, bearing the Stanford logo.

“You’re never going to see something like that in a traditional Marriott cookie-cutter hotel,” he said with satisfaction.

Other touches cater to the UC Berkeley sensibility as well. Daiva Mockaitis said one of her favorite new features are the “Do not disturb” signs, which are in the shape of a pennant and say, “I’m studying.”

Perhaps inevitably, the rooms contain posters from the 1960s movie The Graduate, portions of which were shot on campus and on Telegraph Avenue. Other touches include drawings by Rube Goldberg, a Berkeley grad.

Rooms rent for around $250 at present, and the occupancy rate is around 80%, Dellinger said.

This occupancy rate is on a par with the rest of the East Bay,  where tourism is growing at a fast clip.

In Alameda County, hotel occupancy jumped from an average of 62.9% in 2010 to 77.9% in 2016, according to STR, a Tennessee-based hotel data and analytics company. Contra Costa County hotels saw a similar increase, going from an average occupancy of 61.5% in 2010 to 77.6% in 2016.

As office rents in San Francisco soared, businesses have expanded to the East Bay, particularly Oakland, bolstering corporate travel to the area. In Oakland, the art galleries and restaurants in the Uptown district are also a big draw for visitors.

Few people think of the hospitality industry when they think of Berkeley, but the city is definitely on board with the trend. The university is a huge draw, attracting parents like Mockaitis, alumni attending games, visiting scholars and others.

Attractions like the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and new restaurants in the area also pull in visitors.

A bedroom at the Graduate Berkeley. Photo: Graduate Hotels

Overnight person-trips to Berkeley increased by 2.8% per year since 2010, hitting 740,000 in 2015, according to a September 2016 study conducted by Oregon-based Dean Runyan Associates for Visit Berkeley.

Visitor spending in Berkeley was $298 million in 2015, a 5.6% increase over 2014. More than 60 percent of this spending was by visitors staying in hotels and similar paid accommodations, according to the study.

With numbers like these, it’s not surprising that Graduate Hotels chose Berkeley as one of the towns in which to acquire a new property. And they’re not alone. The French Hotel on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, another longtime favorite, has a new owner/operator who is in the process of doing renovations. Prima Donna Hotels is redoing the 18-room hotel and converting the coffee shop into a bistro. And plans have been approved to build a brand new 16-story, 334-room hotel, with a conference center, on the Bank of America site at 2129 Shattuck Ave. (at Center Street).

The exterior of the revamped Graduate Berkeley, formerly Hotel Durant. Photo: Graduate Hotels

“I’m really enthusiastic to hear about their investment to upgrade the hotel,” said Jordan Klein, Berkeley’s acting director of economic development, about Graduate Hotels. “It’s great for the community and visitors to Berkeley to have those upgraded facilities.”

Klein said, “My understanding is they expect those upgrades to allow them to shoot for a higher price point for their room rates, or at least that’s my assumption. Hopefully that will generate more revenue for the city in terms of transient occupancy taxes.”

With 1,435 hotel rooms in 21 operating hotels, the city of Berkeley collected $7.8 million in transient occupancy taxes from hotels in the fiscal year 2016, according to Dan Marengo, spokesman for Visit Berkeley.

“They did change the name of the hotel, which has some history and equity to it,” Marengo said of the new Graduate Berkeley. But he added: “It’s going to be a huge plus for Berkeley. Graduate Hotels is a top new chain and they are going to do wonderful things for the property. They have generated a lot of buzz for the Berkeley hotel community. It’s (the hotel) a huge asset to Berkeley’s tourism infrastructure.”