Thursday, June 12, 2014

Long Live Downtown Summerlin!

By Geoff Carter 6/09,

Downtown Summerlin in the Las Vegas ValleyLook, I’m thrilled by the very idea of the Howard Hughes Corporation’s Downtown Summerlin retail and office project, now under construction just south of the Red Rock Casino Resort. I’m pretty much counting the seconds until opening day. I’m a sucker for built environments; you can’t make enough Linqs, Downtown Disneys, Town Squares and Forum Shops to sate my desire for walkable, themed retail complexes. I can’t actually afford to buy anything in these places save for the occasional ice cream cone or round of beers, but still, you get a thumbs-up from me, built environments. I like the bespoke cut of your jib.

There are several reasons I have this appreciation of built environments, most of them rooted in my unfashionable appreciation for the original EPCOT Center, which I won’t go into here. (Disney has since destroyed many of the things I liked about first-iteration, 1982 EPCOT … but again, that’s not a discussion for this blog.) But my chief reason is this: These places bring people together. Lots of people, all at once, all of enjoying themselves in one way or another. Take, for example, this common Town Square scenario: I could be coming off happy hour at Double Helix and you could be walking out of the Apple Store with a brand new iPad in hand when, unexpectedly, we meet up. And it doesn’t matter that we came to Town Square for entirely different reasons, or that we’re parked on entirely different sides of the complex, or that the city environment that surrounds us is as phony as a three-dollar bill. The point is, we met up. And it was nice to see you.

That offhanded, “nice to see you” moment is what we’ve been sweating blood to engineer in Downtown Las Vegas since the mid-1990s. Recently, thanks in part to an infusion of Downtown Project money, we’ve been able to pull it off. Fremont East is bustling, day and night. (More so at night.) And local businesses have been doing their share, too: The Arts District, particularly Main Street, is beginning to catch. We spot each other on the street—hey, look over here, you see me? I’m waving like crazy!—and we have what Downtown Project acolytes call “collisions,” perhaps because saying “we ran into each other” taxes millennial attention spans. The point is, Downtown Las Vegas is no longer a place where we would never, ever meet by chance; now, the probability of a Downtown “nice to see you” is high. It’s at least an orange on the five-color scale.

It’s not an unnatural thing for Summerlin residents to want a place like that for their own. Nor is it surprising that they’re not keen to come down to Fremont Street to get it, considering that fully half of our pedestrian corridor—the Fremont Street Experience—is still kind of skeevy. (And how strange and sad it is that Downtown’s first attempt at a pedestrian mall has failed so completely.) And, really, if you’re going to do a happy hour bar crawl, it’s preferable to do it somewhere you don’t have to pay $30 in cab fare to get home. Summerlin residents are as unlikely to drink on Fremont East as Ogden residents are to go drinking in Downtown Summerlin.

So, maybe it’s that name that has some of us upset. “Downtown Summerlin.” How dare they, right? We were Downtown first! You can’t co-opt realness! Never mind that many of our offerings aren’t wholly different from what you’d get on the far west side, at least superficially; Container Park is, at the end of the day, a shopping mall, and a $15 cocktail is a $15 cocktail everywhere. Still, Summerlin using the word “Downtown” in the name of their buildout bites at us a bit, because it’s been our fist-in-the-air rallying cry for the past decade. We are Downtown. It’s like Summerlin is stealing our artisan-made hubcaps and putting them on their H3.

But you know what? We should let them have it. This was something that needed to happen. Two million people live in the Las Vegas Valley. It’s about time that a number of locally-focused urban centers formed outside of the Strip. We need Downtown Las Vegas, yes, but we also need to build up Downtown Summerlin, Downtown Henderson (Water Street por vida!) and Midtown. It’s the only way we’ll be able to give meaning to what is, at this point in time, little more than unchecked suburban sprawl.

Just imagine. A built-up Downtown Las Vegas—one with the ample residential and office space that we really ought to be building right now—could connect by light rail to the UNLV District, which could connect to Downtown Summerlin or even to the high-density district city planners hope to build at Sahara and Decatur. It could become a series of tethered districts, much like Seattle (a city which, by the way, we now roughly equal in population). Downtown Vegas could be our Belltown; the Arts District our Fremont; Summerlin our Madison Park.

And if you’re worried about these other “urbs” stealing our light, don’t. Seattle’s neighboring city of Redmond is big and booming, but it’s no Seattle. Redmond residents still go miles out of their way to hit up Seattle’s bars, restaurants and clubs. They don’t do this every day or even every week—why go all that distance for a simple beer?—but even the most staid suburbanite gets a taste for donuts they can’t get anywhere else, or to check out a outdoor concert by a band they last saw at Coachella.

Downtown Las Vegas will keep and expand its customer base not through first claim to the “Downtown” name, but by the uniqueness and variety of its offerings. They can build whatever they want in Downtown Summerlin, but they can’t make the historic Huntridge neighborhood, the Las Vegas Halloween Parade, the First Friday street party, the rooftop scene at Commonwealth, a live show by Cults at Container Park or a Key Lime doughnut from O Face happen from scratch. We own those tastes and experiences, and we need to keep making more like them. That’s not a bad idea, anyway, with SLS Las Vegas set to open up at our doorstep with its own raft of one-of-a-kind bars, clubs and restaurants.

(And oh yeah, we need to build offices and high-density housing in Downtown. Without those vital elements this whole thing is pointless, and “Downtown Summerlin” deserves to eat our lunch.)

I left Las Vegas for Seattle in 2002 because I didn’t think this tourist town would ever want to be a city. I came back in 2012 because Las Vegas proved me wrong. I look beyond Downtown Las Vegas and I see a booming Chinatown District. I see Midtown actively planning for its future. And there’s discussion of rail-based transit in the corridors of power that actually goes beyond the theoretical. Las Vegas is ready to become … not just in Downtown, but everywhere. That’s good news for everyone. Long live Downtown Summerlin!