Different kind of urban renewal – in Las Vegas

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Austin, Portland, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Charlotte — now those are some wholesome, prosperous, family-friendly cities.

During the past several years, Colorado Springs community leaders have visited all five. The goal: to learn, imitate and replicate. We want a new template, synergistic and outside the box, one that is sustainable, community-based, action-oriented, job-creating, attractive to young professionals and uniquely our own.

That’s the power of community building — you can never have too many clichés!

Alas, it looks as if all of those trips to other cities were for naught. Thanks to “free” money from the state, private donations from El Pomar and Anschutz foundations, and a trifling $70 million or so from public sources, we’re hoping to build yesterday’s dreams tomorrow.

But maybe we should send our leaders on a trip to Vegas. No carousing on the Strip for those wacky middle-aged party animals — we’ll suggest that they hang out with a restless 39-year-old entrepreneur who is building a new downtown in that strange desert city.

Tony Hsieh, who founded the online clothier Zappos, is investing $350 million in downtown Vegas. And no, he’s not building a new casino, or a sports arena, or a Gaming Hall of Fame. He’s not interested in attracting visitors, but in creating a community for the residents of Las Vegas.

Few visitors realize that the Strip, with its vast, otherworldly array of casinos, hotels, nightclubs, restaurants and event centers, isn’t downtown Las Vegas. Downtown is miles from the strip, a dismal and somewhat-scary commercial district that’s home to rundown buildings, parking lots, aging and smaller (compared to the Strip) casinos, and failed attempts at revitalization.

Past efforts to revive downtown Vegas have focused on attracting tourists away from the Strip. Predictably, they haven’t been very successful. Just as the conservative bourgeoisie of northeast Colorado Springs see little reason to venture downtown, Vegas visitors stay in their comfort zone.

“Community development is more about the people than real estate,” Hsieh said, “so physical spaces should reflect the community’s values. We’re helping to build the most community-focused large city in the world … in the city where you would least expect it.”

Hsieh has moved Zappos’ headquarters from suburban Henderson to downtown Vegas. He wants to build a new downtown of entrepreneurs and artists that might resemble San Francisco’s Mission district.

His philosophy, derived from the classic urbanism of Jane Jacobs, is simple.

  • Bring together communities of passion;
  • Create residential density of more than 100 people per acre;
  • Add density of ground-level activities, businesses and spaces;
  • Create the co-working capital of the world;
  • Do it in less than five years;
  • Focus on arts, music and culture.

Rather than build overpowering buildings, he’ll use shipping containers. Instead of trying to lure celebrity chefs to town with millions in subsidies, he put up $225,000 to allow a young cook with no credit and no cash to build a modest eatery.

In Vegas? He’s got to be kidding. There’s no one there but servers, blackjack dealers, strippers, valet parkers and construction workers — so where’s the creative class?

Everywhere and nowhere, says Hsieh. Thousands of Vegas residents are involved in the creative arts, as musicians, performers, designers, graphic artists and show runners, but this energy is dispersed and unfocused.

“As a global entertainment capital, Las Vegas has more artists per capita than New York,” Hsieh claims, “but lacks the connectedness that allows artists of all types to follow their personal passion.”

Hsieh has also allocated $50 million to venture investments, using an uncommon set of criteria. From the Downtown Project’s website:

“We believe that people shouldn’t have to wait 40 years to retire and follow their passion. Our goal is to support entrepreneurs who meet a basic set of criteria:

  • Are you passionate about the idea?
  • Are you capable of executing it?
  • Does it help build community?
  • Is it sustainable?
  • Unique or the best — what makes your business unique or the best at what you do?
  • Story worth — what about your business would be worthy of a story in a major publication or national news outlet?”

Fate, in the form of available dollars, seems to determine the future of cities. We’re building a city for others to visit while Hsieh is building a city for people to live in.

Hsieh is following his dreams, while Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach is following state tourism funds.

But that’s life — as Bugsy Siegel, who created the Strip in 1946 might have said, “Money talks — B.S. walks.”

3 Responses to Different kind of urban renewal – in Las Vegas

  1. I agree, John. Old ideas and stale dreams. Same ole story, same ole song and dance.

    July 17, 2013 at 1:59 pm

  2. I think this is what Colorado Springs should be – a liveable community for local residents that is also tourist friendly. The only folks who truly profit from expansion and growth are commercial real estate brokers and developers. The rest of us have to live here and pay taxes to support the infrastructure that developers neglect after they’ve taken their profits and moved on. We’ll never be like Denver, so let’s focus on what we like about our town instead of catering to Little Stevie Wonder and his overprivileged cronies.

    Mike Hunt
    July 18, 2013 at 11:33 am

  3. CS is focusing on tourism because Denver is the far better choice as a place to live.

    If you want CS to be a great place to live, shut the Army base and create faster transportation to Denver Airport.

    You cant have the cake and eat it too.

    Thank God We Left
    July 25, 2013 at 7:17 pm