Big things are happening in Sin City courtesy of Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, who, with other investors, is backing the $350 million Downtown Project. Announced in late 2011, the venture aims to transform downtown Las Vegas—and in particular the mile-long stretch of Fremont Street east of the Fremont Street Experience—through investments in real estate ($200 million), small businesses ($50 million), education ($50 million), and tech startups ($50 million). Though the built environment is only part of the larger Downtown Project picture, it is crucial to its success.
“Tony’s vision is to create a more vibrant city,” said Downtown Project architect Paul Cline. “We’re trying to benefit from these macro-level social returns that seem to be a part of what it means to be in a city. Las Vegas didn’t have that before.”
The guiding principle behind the redevelopment company’s approach to urban design is that there is not one. “Even the words ‘master plan’ are sort of a faux pas around here,” said Cline. Instead, flexibility is key. “We have a compass that tells us which direction to head. We don’t have a map that tells us what’s going to be there we when arrive.” And while he acknowledges that a lack of a plan can be tricky when it comes to development, it also yields benefits. These include an ability to adapt to feedback, and a focus on building flexible spaces that can be reprogrammed as needs change.
The project’s signature development is the 56,000-square-foot Downtown Container Park, an outdoor mall at Fremont and Seventh streets that opened in December 2013. Downtown Project leadership originally hoped to build the complex entirely out of recycled shipping containers. (The project’s website lists “create the shipping container capital of the world” as among the program’s goals). But “we learned that didn’t work for us,” said Cline. “It’s unrealistic to bring a new construction method to a jurisdiction and expect them to adopt it.” Plus, building with shipping containers would have been more expensive and time-consuming than building from scratch on the blank-slate site. The designers turned instead to the Xtreme Cube, a modular system primarily used by the mineral extraction industry. “We took this kit of parts and twisted it, reimagined it as a shopping mall,” said Cline. The 39 shipping containers on the site are repurposed as (among other things) stand-alone restaurants, an elevator shaft, a play space, and an AV tower.
Cline acknowledges that, “from a design perspective, it’s easy to criticize [the Downtown Container Park], as some elements are anti-urban.” For security, and to allow the space to serve as a ticketed performance venue after dark, the mall is surrounded by a fence. “In the future, if some of the realities on the ground change, what I’d really love is to take one of the containers and rotate it 180 degrees, so you could enter from the sidewalk,” said Cline.
The bulk of the Downtown Project’s architectural work involves renovating existing buildings, with an emphasis on mixed use—a rarity for Vegas. Two recent projects are the John E. Carson and Ferguson’s Motel. The John E. Carson, which opened earlier this year, is a former short-stay men’s hotel converted into office, retail, and restaurant space. Ferguson’s Motel, which is still under construction, will also accommodate a variety of uses, its courtyard parking lot replaced with landscaping. Ferguson’s, on 11th Street, “speaks to how we’re pushing our footprint further down Fremont Street,” said Cline. “Tony often talks about giving people a reason to walk one more block.”
The Downtown Project, whose construction projects are ongoing, has already achieved measurable results, increasing foot traffic, construction activity, and local investment. But it is also vulnerable to critique. The program is an exercise in gentrification, its office spaces, retail, and restaurants designed to attract young, well-educated, and highly paid singles and families. Rather than public parks or plazas, it is anchored by the container park, a gated, privately patrolled shopping mall. And there is something troubling—some would say menacing—about Tony Hsieh’s grip on downtown Las Vegas. His followers have, for instance, been accused of boycotting small business owners who fail to toe the party line. “It can feel cultish,” wrote Gizmodo’s Alissa Walker. Hsieh’s coziness with city government, in addition, seems to allow little room for dissent. A recent Las Vegas Sun article quoted Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman saying, “Whenever he needs anything, I’m here.”
The Downtown Project—like revitalization efforts in downtown Los Angeles and elsewhere—operates on the premise that savvy investment in real estate can generate both profits and social benefits. “We’re definitely trying to earn a return on the projects we’re building, but to a large degree Tony’s vision is to create a space where there’s enough activity in a variety of areas that you start to create a kind of pile-on value that you aren’t even paying for,” said Cline. “There’s this notion that if you can change the context people are in, you can start to accelerate those social processes that make our investments more valuable, and also make the city a more valuable place to live.”