It's delightfully easy to blast Las Vegas… or simply to make fun of it. It is the world capital of shamelessness, so it is more or less beside the point to criticize. Yet with the debut of the colossal $8.5 billion CityCenter, Vegas makes pretension to "sustainable urbanism." Even by Vegas standards of hype, this is mendacity at a colossal scale.
CityCenter describes itself as "a collection of spectacular hotels and residences, sensational spas, astonishing dining and extraordinary shopping." But MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren asserts higher aspirations for the largest private development in U.S. history, saying he aimed to create "something with expert urban planners” that would “put world-class architects into the mix" in order to “stretch the boundaries of our knowledge and create something that would be a gift, a resource to the community that we could make a lot of money on.” CityCenter’s developers claim that it is "one of the largest sustainable developments in the world, with six Gold LEED certifications from the U.S. Green Building Council."
The distinction says more about the shallowness of LEED scoring than about the depth of CityCenter's commitment to sustainability. Although the buildings employ state-of-the-art energy saving (hence money saving) technology, the gold ratings are based in part on pure gimmickry, like “the world’s first fleet of stretch limos powered by clean-burning compressed natural gas." A mecca for gambling, shopping and recreation built in a desert climate is, by definition, unsustainable.
And not just environmentally. The project only averted bankruptcy this spring when MGM paid $100 million in debt service owed by its partner, Dubai World. Dubai World, of course, is the company that recently rocked markets across the globe by asking to postpone its gazillions in debt.
L.A. Times architecture writer Christopher Hawthorne calls City Center "a final bender for Wall Street's decade of unreason." Is it too much to hope that this glitzy fiasco will permanently discredit the blend of leveraged debt, "starchitecture," and headlong consumerism that has spread around the world with ever taller and more fanciful towers and ever more grandiose claims to represent a glorious future?
Megaprojects are the product of meglomania, whether in Las Vegas, Shanghai, Dubai, Universal Studios or downtown Los Angeles. No amount of solar-paneled green cladding can disguise their fundamental flaw: Bigness dwarfs and often destroys the human scale that great places have in common.
It is hard not to admire the audacity, the “make no little plans” grandeur of big visions. The Greeks, however, had a name for such delusions: hubris. When Icarus climbed too close to the sun his wings melted and he plunged into the sea.
In the case of giant real estate “projects,” it is not only the promoters who get taken down.
We Americans have our own parable of urban hubris in the saga of Robert Moses. Yet no matter how often the story is told (including the latest book on his nemesis, Jane Jacobs, Wrestling with Moses), public officials continue to be particularly prone to the siren song of megadevelopments. Grand Avenue in Los Angeles; Ground Zero in Manhattan; Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn; Hunters Point in San Francisco... the list of recent “public-private partnerships” to remake cities on a grandiose scale could fill a page.
The invariable promises of investment returns commensurate with the project’s size invariably disappoint. No one is that smart, it turns out. Sustainable urbanism comes in small doses, crafted to the climate and history of real places. It comes from new building that respects human scale and the fabric of organic towns and cities. It emerges from the efforts of property owners, investors, designers and craftspeople understanding and applying timeless principles to the needs of our time.
Sustainable urbanism doesn’t have to carry the weight of the overhead and egos of mega developers, starchitects, and all the myriad fixers — lobbyists, lawyers, flacks, event planners, consultants etc — that live off their wake . It doesn’t put the public purse at risk on speculative real estate ventures. The public isn’t jolted with yet another over-the-top effort to shock and awe them with ever-larger and more lavish excess. Instead, sustainable urbanism thrives off both the synergy and the competition that comes from appropriately sized and scaled additions to the cityscape.
That is not to say that urban interventions must be tiny – only that they not be bloated and autonomous. When the 104 acre Villa Italia Mall in Lakewood, Colorado was taken down, its redevelopment into the mixed-use downtown of Belmar was certainly a big project. Moreover, it shares many of the downsides of megaprojects, including public sector financial subsidies and risk as well as relatively bland, homogenous design and development, particularly in the tilt toward corporate retail tenants. Yet obviously there was no “organic” way to transform a dead mall.
Similarly, the redevelopment of the thirty-four acre Burlington Northern Railyard on the northern edge of the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon is the product of a single developer. The construction of more than 2500 midrise housing units, 90,000 square feet of retail space, and two major urban parks is a big development by any standards. Yet it differs sharply from the megaprojects in its faithful extension of the famous Portland block pattern over the grayfield site. It may be large, but it is the antithesis of the self-contained and almost invariably anti-urban design of megaprojects. It is simply several more well-executed blocks of the Pearl District, rather than a place unto itself.
These comparably large projects stretch the limit of scale on place-making, financial risk and social and economic diversity. One of the best designed and intentioned megaprojects of our time, the redevelopment of Denver’s Stapleton Airport, demonstrates that once projects cross the threshold of counting square feet in the millions it becomes essentially impossible to be successful, if success is defined as creating prosperous, human-scale urban fabric. Certainly, Forest City’s Stapleton is an exemplary model for trying to faithfully execute urbanism on a mega-scale (as distinguished from the botch made of Playa Vista in Los Angeles). But even there, the power centers, office park and suburban subdivision elements undercut their claims to authentic sustainability of real urbanism.
Nor is real urbanism simply an academic conceit or an elitist niche. On the contrary, it is the only proven model for successful civilizations, prosperous regions, environmental staying power and decent living standards for working people. The modern real estate industry’s products, of which megaprojects are simply the reductio ad absurdum examples, have yet to pass the test of surviving in geographies and economic eras not characterized by cheap oil and cheap money. The current economic reckoning is a warning that, like the dinosaurs, megaprojects are highly vulnerable to any change in the climate.
The counter argument is, of course, that no one knows if they will stand the test of time and “if you build it they will come.” Megaprojects may be forlorn or unloved by urbanists now, but when we have four billion more people on the planet, at least some of these projects will be cherished cornerstone investments in the cities of the future. The optimistic proponents of this view predict “this too shall pass” and, just as Rockefeller Center emerged triumphant from the Depression, CityCenter and its cousins will be vindicated as a form of visionary city building that was simply ahead of its time.
This view certainly has a well-funded lobby and fawning fans in the media, ever impressed by record-breaking spectacle. But common sense ought to prevail. Megaprojects are bad bets, even in Las Vegas. In almost every regard, giant projects crush the essential elements of diversity, flexibility and intimacy necessary to making – and sustaining – great places.
Instead of CityCenter, imagine something on its scale broken up into 1500 more modest projects across America; each significant enough to make a mark, yet restrained enough to strengthen the city instead of overwhelm it. Not only would the investment have made a far better contribution to the goal of sustainable urbanism, it would have been far less recklessly risky. As Jane Jacobs warned nearly 50 years ago, "the forms in which money is used must be converted to instruments of regeneration -- from instruments buying violent cataclysms to instruments buying continual, gradual, complex and gentler change."
Rick Cole is city manager of Ventura, California, and recipient of the Municipal Management Association of Southern California's Excellence in Government Award. He can be reached at RCole@ci.ventura.ca.us