Las Vegas Lessons, Part 1


I spent much of last week in Las Vegas for the International Council of Shopping Centers' RECON 2017, the world's largest real estate convention. It's a gathering for developers, brokers, property owners, retailers, architects, landscape designers, construction companies, municipalities and more to get together to discuss real estate possibilities, in the one city that owes its very existence to aggressive real estate ventures.

I had a good time, at least as much as I could; being there for a convention is far different from being there for pleasure. In fact, I've been to Vegas many times before, but always within a business context and never for pleasure. Also, I had not been in about 15 years, which is important for two reasons: 1) in Vegas time, with the rapid pace of development there, 15 years is an eternity; and 2) it completely predates the establishment of this blog, so I can include my thoughts on the city in this forum.

In that vein, here's a Corner Side Yard take on the Sin City -- part urbanist, part sociologist, part economist, all observational -- that details my thoughts on a truly unique place.

The Strip and the city of Las Vegas are two entirely different entities. I think this subtle distinction, which few outsiders really know about, is key to understanding Las Vegas' growth and development. Hal Rothman's book Neon Metropolis, published in 2003, notes that the Las Vegas Valley grew in three distinct phases: the Union Pacific Railroad, the construction of Hoover Dam and military investment enter the picture prior to 1945; organized crime arrives and Nevada legalizes gambling, driving investment and perceptions through the 1960s; and the passage of two Corporate Gaming Acts in 1967 and 1969, which drew corporate investment into the area (partly as a means to dilute criminal investment). In that second phase, and continuing into the third, casino developers sought to avoid city development and permitting regulations by setting up outside of the city boundaries, which is at Sahara Avenue on Las Vegas Boulevard (aka the Strip). What most people recognize as Las Vegas is actually the unincorporated communiites of Winchester, Paradise and Spring Valley -- significantly sized communities of their own, but under the jurisdiction of Clark County, Nevada. The county, which has two-thirds of Nevadans within its boundaries, takes a far more laissez-faire approach to development than the city of Las Vegas does, and directly reaps the benefits of development without having to pass through the city. That being said...

The Strip is a great pedestrian experience. Anyone familiar with the Strip knows that a stroll of the roadway is an experience unto itself. From north to south, the Strip builds as a visual spectacle beginning at the Stratosphere toward Circus Circus and continuing to the Wynn and Encore, before reaching a crescendo at the intersection of the Strip with Flamingo Road, where the Bellagio, the Venetian, the Flamingo, Caesar's Palace, Paris, and Planet Hollywood converge (see the picture above). The dense concentration of resorts continues southward past the MGM Grand to include the Tropicana, the Escalibur, the Luxor, and Mandalay Bay. Architects and urbanists Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Scott Izenour wrote of the Strip in their 1972 book Learning From Las Vegas, and one of their criticisms at the time was the isolation of the resorts via massive parking lots. If anything, the developers should be commended for revising their thinking on the Strip by creating the pedestrian environment. Yes, it's gaudy, yes, it's a jarring juxtaposition of architectural styles, but it does what so many other cities still fail to do -- bring the experience right to the street. A great addition to the Strip is the usage of escalators and pedestrian bridges to minimize pedestrian interaction with the high-traffic Strip, serving a dual purpose as entrances into connected resorts. Which means...

The Strip is an exclusively private space. It might be better to think of the Strip as the world's largest mall, because its private management reminds me of enclosed shopping centers, writ very large. It's clear that every inch of the Strip has been thought out as a way to collect and divert traffic into the resorts -- the Monorail stops, the signage on the pedestrian walkways. If you're looking dial down the Strip's intensity through quiet public open spaces, you're out of luck. The best you can do is find something inside one of the many resorts.

Downtown Las Vegas is quite different from the Strip. Continue northward on Las Vegas Boulevard and eventually you will enter downtown Las Vegas. This is where the earliest hotels and casinos were established, the ones that drew visitors in by railroad as opposed to automobile. Resorts here are smaller and less overwhelming. It has a long-standing reputation for being a little more downscale, even seedier, than the Strip further south, but the city has worked hard to clean up its image and make it a fantastic destination in its own right. The Fremont Street Experience, an open-air pedestrian mall with a super-sized LED canopy display, unites several of the downtown casinos with an experience that's completely different from the more well-known Strip. However, downtown Las Vegas probably maintains a secondary status in the Las Vegas Valley because...

There are poor linkages between downtown Las Vegas and the Strip. The Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas sits about two miles north of the city's southern boundary, where the Stratosphere hotel and casino are located. Downtown is about three miles north of where the real action and activity begins near the Wynn and Encore resorts. In between are the kinds of warehousing, light industrial, marginal commercial and grimy multifamily structures often found on the outskirts of downtown areas. There are wedding chapels, auto repair shops, convenience stores, and the like. There's nothing that easily draws visitors between the Strip and downtown. Why?

The north end of the Strip is plagued with high-profile failed projects. The Fountainbleau Resort Las Vegas and Echelon Place stand out as two high-profile casualties of the Great Recession, proposed just as the Strip was developing a continuous string of modern resorts that would reach from the Strip all the way into downtown. The Fountainbleau, a $2.8 billion project first proposed in 2005 with the second tallest structure in the Las Vegas Valley, managed to reach 70 percent completion before construction stopped in 2009 when the project went into bankruptcy. The $7.2 billion Echelon Place was announced in 2004, and the implosion of the Stardust Hotel and Casino, which it was to replace, happened in 2007. However, there were fits and starts in its construction due to the economy, until the developers sold the site in 2013. The new owners are proposing a new venture called Resorts World Las Vegas, but that project too has been plagued with delays. It's clear that had these two projects been developed, they would have had a catalytic impact on further development northward toward downtown.

That's enough about the city and the Strip; I'll follow up soon with more thoughts on the overall region's built environment, economy and potential future.

This piece originally appeared on The Corner Side Yard.

Pete Saunders is a Detroit native who has worked as a public and private sector urban planner in the Chicago area for more than twenty years.  He is also the author of "The Corner Side Yard," an urban planning blog that focuses on the redevelopment and revitalization of Rust Belt cities.

Photo by Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons