Downtown Las Vegas may be the center of the Las Vegas Valley, but it has not been the epicenter of economic growth, arts, culture, entertainment or modern urban living. Though, if Mayor Oscar Goodman and other visionaries continue to have their way, that is all about to change. Downtown Las Vegas is on track for a renaissance and people will never think of Downtown the same way again.
Redevelopment, by its very definition, is supposed to eliminate and prevent urban blight, carefully manage growth, keep and promote existing businesses, encourage investment and involvement by the private sector, redesign areas that are not used or are improperly used and encourage and engage residents, businesses and community organizations to get involved. For Downtown Las Vegas, redevelopment has been fraught with a mixed bag of ambition, false starts, broken promises, innovative new ideas and hope. Add to that a mayor who believes change will (and already has) come and you have the beginning of a great story.
“I believe that Downtown is the epicenter of all that happens in the Valley, and like the core of an apple, it has to be healthy or else rot occurs. I have willed much of the development to take place and true believers have followed,” said Mayor Goodman. “The City Council and businesses have been 100 percent supportive of the efforts. One example is the Visual Improvement Plan that provides matching funds for businesses in the redevelopment area that refurbish the exteriors of their businesses. Many of the older businesses have taken advantage of this program.”
One such Downtown business is the El Cortez, which will transform its Ogden House Motel into the boutique Cortez Cabana Suites on North Seventh Street. The $50,000 grant it received for this project is greatly needed — the El Cortez will spend more than $6.3 million on the project.
This program is just one way the city is reaching out to businesses and encouraging change and growth. The city’s Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency (RDA), founded in 1986, is responsible for promoting redevelopment in Downtown Las Vegas and the surrounding commercial districts. The RDA’s redevelopment area includes more than 3,900 acres, which it defines as the greater Downtown Las Vegas area east of Interstate 15, south of Washington Avenue, north of Sahara Avenue and west of Maryland Parkway. Also included are surrounding commercial districts, such as Charleston Boulevard, Martin Luther King Boulevard and Eastern Avenue corridors as well as a sprinkling of older commercial properties.
“The redevelopment really didn’t get legs until the mayor (Goodman) was elected and has been most notably expansive since about 2003 or 2004,” said Scott D. Adams, director of Las Vegas’ Office of Business Development. Adams also serves as operations officer for RDA functions.
It was in 2003 that the Las Vegas Premium Outlets mall was built, and although many questioned its location and viability and predicted it would fail, they were wrong. The mall has proven to be what those at the RDA refer to as “an early catalyst for revitalization and a tremendous boost for Las Vegas.”
Now, all eyes are on current developments, including the Downtown casino district, where vintage properties such as the Golden Nugget and El Cortez are receiving much-needed updates. As well as, a new City Hall and Union Park, which is a mixed-use, 61-acre site that will anchor redevelopment efforts.
Mayor Goodman has long been a vocal supporter of the Union Park project, believing it to be a key element of all future development.
“It is going to be the focal point and icon that will take us to the next level on our way to being a world class city,” said Mayor Goodman. “The Lou Ruvo Brain Institute, designed by Frank Gehry, will have the entire world talking about the project. The Smith Center for the Performing Arts will provide a cultural base, stimulating everything else around it.”
Indeed, Union Park will have many features and uses, including more than 1.9 million square feet of office and medical space, 5.2 million square feet of residential space, two non-gaming hotels, one gaming hotel with an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 rooms and as much as 100,000 square feet of casino floor and 475,000 square feet of retail, the 400-suite Charlie Palmer boutique hotel, Lou Ruvo Brain Institute, World Jewelry Center (more than 2 million square feet) and the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Without a doubt, this is an expansive project that will transform Downtown Las Vegas.
“Union Park is a one-of-a-kind city neighborhood that will add energy to the Downtown area by providing a true metropolitan environment that will include world-class art, culture, architecture and places where Las Vegans can work, live, play, shop, and learn,” said Rita Brandin, senior vice president and development director for Newland Communities. Newland was retained by the City of Las Vegas in late 2005 to serve as development manager for the project because it involves multiple partners and interests. “This development, located in the heart of Las Vegas, along with several other landmark projects like the Lady Luck redevelopment and the Live Work project along Main Street, will collectively create a new identity for Downtown.”
The first wave of residents in Downtown, whether at Union Park or one of the other new high-rise projects like Newport Lofts or Juhl, are looking for an “anti-suburb” experience. We call these residents the “early adopters.” They are willing to trade a highly controlled living environment that can be found in the guard-gated communities of the suburbs for the more eclectic experience of city life, explained Brandin.
Lou Ruvo Brain Institute
Some aspects of the project may give Las Vegas the credibility it has been seeking for so long, especially in the medical field. This is what makes the Lou Ruvo project so exciting and promising. Founded by Larry Ruvo in honor of his father, who had Alzheimer’s, the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute will focus on seeking cures for memory disorders and dementia associated with neurodegenerative diseases, including ALS, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and other dysfunctions. The 68,000-square-foot building is architecturally different and will be home to meeting space, a diagnostic imaging center, an interactive museum of the mind and a Wolfgang Puck Kitchen & Catering. It is located on the southwest corner of the Union Park site on two acres.
World Jewelry Center
Another key project in the redevelopment of Downtown is the World Jewelry Center. It will be a centralized marketplace for global gem and jewelry companies as well as a shopping destination for the public. The 50-story trade tower is expected to feature gem grading labs, educational facilities and meeting facilities. It will also be a dedicated Foreign Trade Zone, which offers logistical benefits as well as a way of deferring or eliminating duties on merchandise brought into the United States. Duties are paid if/when materials enter the domestic market, but no duties are paid if the merchandise is re-exported. As of June 2008, the World Jewelry Center reported 30 industry firms had already secured office space in the tower.
While plans are promising and more people are committing to projects, the recent economic downturn has raised new questions about the viability of certain aspects of redevelopment efforts and may put others on hold entirely. Yet, progress is inevitable according to both Adams and Brandin.
The Smith Center for the Performing Arts
The $475 million Fred W. and Mary B. Smith Center for the Performing Arts is a 4.75-acre cultural complex. Its main hall will be the new home for the Las Vegas Philharmonic, Nevada Ballet Theater and touring Broadway shows. Plans also call for a 300-seat theater and 200-seat flexible studio, which could be used for smaller community events.
The Smith Center is helmed by Myron Martin, president. His extensive arts and business background includes serving as president of the UNLV Performing Arts Center and bringing the Broadway musical “Hairspray” to Las Vegas.
Donald “Don” Snyder, president of Boyd Gaming until his retirement, is the volunteer chairman of the Smith Center’s board of directors. He has invested countless hours working to make the project a reality. “The Smith Center is the most important project to be built in Nevada during our lifetime,” said Snyder.
Credit Crunch Slows Progress
The most notable impact on progress has been in both the public and private credit markets. Publicly, we have been delayed in our issuance of RDA bonds, and privately, developers have no certainty as to the financing of larger scale projects, said Adams. “As the credit markets settle, we expect financing to resume to a more normal situation and projects to move forward more quickly.”
Brandin noted that while market conditions relating to capital are dismal currently, this will correct itself over time. She likens the development timeline for Union Park to be more of a marathon rather than a sprint.
“What will keep this project on track is a collective effort of multiple world-class development partners, Newland Communities as the development manager and the City of Las Vegas as land owner and project visionary,” said Brandin. “That means the project has incredible support and resources to continue moving forward. Redevelopment in any economic environment is a high risk proposition — you have to have the right developers who are experienced with the nuances and challenges of a denser, urban approach.” Brandin believes each of the developers who have committed to Union Park have done so because they truly understand the long-term value of being a part of the project’s vision.
“The developers see the power of the mixed-use urban plan and it is this environment they see as the most supportive of their long-term success. Every developer could have chosen to locate on or around the Strip or even in the suburbs. But, they recognize the value of the unique opportunity within Union Park,” said Brandin. “We have been very deliberate about entering into agreements with developers who buy off on that adage and who have the experience to work in an urban environment.”
Redevelopment efforts have taken a phased in approach. The first phase (2006-2007) consisted mostly of securing commitments from private developers, breaking ground for the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute and design planning for the Smith Center. Phase two (2008-2009) and phase three (2008-2009) overlap, with the former including construction for the Smith Center, Charlie Palmer hotel and the World Jewelry Center as well as a start on the residential and retail aspects of the project. The third phase focuses on continued land development with an emphasis on residential, hotel, medical and office projects. The final phase (2009-2012) calls for project completion depending on the then-current market.
“In addition to economic challenges, developing a plan of this scope (approx.11 million square feet) with multiple projects and partners, obviously requires a great deal of coordination and consensus building,” said Brandin. “Fortunately, each of our project partners recognizes the value of partnering with Union Park, the City of Las Vegas and Newland Communities. Together, we endeavor to literally transform Downtown by developing a true metropolitan center. While each project has its own agenda, purpose and objective, our development partners are highly invested and understand our over-arching goal to give Southern Nevadans what they deserve — an amazing place in the historic heart of their city, a place separate and distinct from the Strip, yet equally exciting, dynamic and stimulating.”
Live Work Las Vegas
While Union Park is the centerpiece of the redevelopment, there are other important projects. One of these projects, Live Work Las Vegas, will be located directly across from Union Park. This 13-acre development will feature 1.2 million square feet of commercial office space as well as a new 300,000-square-foot City Hall and a Regional Transportation Center. Live Work Las Vegas is also expected to include shops, cafes and restaurants.
Fremont East District
Another key component for the transformation of Downtown Las Vegas is the Fremont East District, Downtown’s new entertainment district. Located the project began in 2007 with a $5.5 million streetscape effort, which was made possible by a partnership between the City of Las Vegas and Fremont East property owners.
The streetscape transformed urban blight by infusing a vintage Las Vegas vibe featuring 40-foot tall neon signs, lighted gateways, attractive landscaping, improved sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly streets. The transformation of Fremont Street spanned three blocks, from Las Vegas Boulevard to Eighth Street, with the hope of attracting nightclubs and restaurants that can tap into the Fremont Street Experience’s 18.7 million visitors each year.
By all accounts, the project has been a true success story, with more than a dozen new businesses coming to the area. They include Beauty Bar, Boomer’s, Brass, Canyon Club, Celebrity, Downtown Cocktail Room, Gold Diggers, The Griffin, Hennessey’s Tavern, Hogs & Heifers, Mickie Finnz Fish House & Bar, Sidebar, Take 1 Nightclub and Triple George Grill.
“The Downtown casino properties are already investing new dollars into their properties based on the energy they feel around them,” said Mayor Goodman. “The Entertainment District is becoming the place to be. Downtown has a vibrancy about it that will continue to grow and energize the entire area.”
Gold Spike Hotel & Casino
Since January of 2008, The Siegel Group Nevada, Inc. has made two major acquisitions in Downtown Las Vegas and both sites are currently undergoing a major redevelopment. The Gold Spike Hotel & Casino, located at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Ogden Street, is a 30-year-old hotel and casino that is being completely renovated, inside and out.
“We are redoing the casino floor, adding two new restaurants and a new bar,” said Michael Crandall, director of business affairs. “We are remodeling all 112 hotel rooms, as well as combining the adjacent Travel Inn Motel to connect both properties as one resort compound. The entire exterior will get a makeover which includes new paint, new landscaping and a new sign package. The total cost of the complete renovation will be approximately five million dollars.”
The Siegel Group has also acquired Casa Palms Apartment complex. Located on Las Vegas Boulevard just north of Bonanza Road, it will be re-branded as a Siegel Suites. The building was completely run down and a huge eyesore for the city. We are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade the property and make it a safe, clean place to live, said Crandall.
“By putting money into these properties we not only clean up the property, but also the neighborhood around it. We pride ourselves in acquiring rundown, dilapidated buildings and then turning them into a safe, fun, clean place to live, work, eat or gamble for one person or an entire family,” explained Crandall.
18b Arts District is another important facet of the redevelopment. It is the place where the popular First Friday arts and cultural event takes place every month, drawing an average of 10,000 visitors. Located south of Downtown and bounded by Commerce Street, Hoover Avenue, Fourth Street, Las Vegas Boulevard (at Charleston Boulevard) and Colorado Avenue, it is named for the original arts district area, which included 18 blocks. It now features a variety of galleries, shops and eateries. To encourage visitors, the city offers free rides on City of Las Vegas Art Buses between all the First Friday stops and attractions.
Also catering to the arts is the newly renovated Fifth Street School. Once a faded memory, the historic building, which served the community as a grammar school from 1936 to 1966, received a $13.4 million rehabilitation. The Spanish Mission-style architecture is accented by the school’s original decorative fountain in the center courtyard, featuring preserved mosaic tile patterns. It will be home to a number of arts, cultural and architectural groups, including the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Fine Arts Program, Nevada School of the Arts and the American Institute of Architects.
Progress is evident everywhere and a vision is slowly becoming reality. Though the redevelopment’s strongest proponent is in his final term as mayor, due to term limits, his legacy — and his enthusiasm — will continue to make an impact for generations.
“A vision has been adopted for the future of Downtown, and my colleagues have been most supportive of the dream,” said Mayor Goodman. “Since what is happening makes sense, there is every reason to believe it will continue. The legacy is that a renaissance has begun and will continue as Las Vegas matures into a world class city.”