Thursday, May 29, 2003
Cover story: Restoring the core
Call us wishful thinkers, Pollyannas even. But the signs we're reading strongly suggest that downtown Las Vegas is on the verge of breaking out.
City leaders have been working for almost 20 years to revive, rehabilitate, redevelop, revitalize--choose your favorite word--the downtown area. They have a mixed record at best. Fremont Street's lighted canopy undoubtedly has saved the Glitter Gulch casinos from bankruptcy, but in the grand scheme downtown tourism has continued to lose ground. Main Street Station, the only new casino in the downtown core in decades, flopped initially and has only recently become a steady though unspectacular piece of the downtown puzzle. The Neonopolis dining, shopping and movie complex has struggled to attract crowds and is now revamping its strategy. A few years ago, Mayor Oscar Goodman successfully secured a prize 61-acre parcel west of the Plaza Hotel for redevelopment purposes, but a shovel has yet to gouge any dirt there.
On the other hand, some encouraging things have happened. The Clark County Government Center, home to thousands of county workers, has begat another building next door occupied by the Regional Transportation Commission and Regional Flood Control District. The architecturally impressive Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse opened at Las Vegas Boulevard and Lewis Avenue. Las Vegas City Hall expanded to keep pace with the growing municipal work force. The Regional Justice Center, though an over-budget, much-delayed construction nightmare, eventually will open, consolidating all the state and local courts in one central facility. The Internal Revenue Service, seeking to build a new, larger facility in Las Vegas, recently chose a downtown site that will bring hundreds of workers to the area. All these entities could have moved to the suburbs, but they chose to gather their resources downtown.
All that, of course, does little for downtown after 5 o'clock and on weekends. The social and cultural development of downtown often has been a case of taking one step forward and two steps back. The Arts Factory opens as a haven for up-and-coming local artists, but the Enigma Café, the valley's hipster mecca, closes. The John S. Park neighborhood succeeds in obtaining historic designation, but the old Las Vegas High neighborhood, increasingly dominated by commercial businesses, fails to secure the same status. New facilities and programs to serve the homeless are established and expanded, yet downtown streets and parks still teem with the less fortunate.
Still, the signs are growing that downtown is about to emerge from the doldrums. The healthy, enthusiastic crowds at First Friday arts events are a monthly reminder of the community's growing desire to find a cultural center and a sense of community in a valley of individuals.
There are nonbelievers--downtown will never interest suburban dwellers who don't give a crap whether Las Vegas has an urban soul. In fact, they're probably tired of hearing about it--downtown this, downtown thatÉdon't you alt-journalists have anything better to write about? For the naysayers, unless there's an "American Idol" tryout scheduled at the Golden Nugget or they have to go to court, downtown is not on their cultural map.
But for the rest of us, the signs are encouraging that downtown slowly but surely will re-establish itself as the focal point of Las Vegas life. Some things are happening now, as the snapshots below reveal, while others will take several years to reach fruition.
It's inevitable. Whenever anyone gets excited about the revival of the downtown arts community, there are always going to be some naysayers who cry foul at the sound of back-patting and best intentions.
It's ironic, though, that the current hemming and hawing comes from one of the local arts community's premier benefactors: Wes Isbutt, commercial photographer and owner of the Arts Factory.
"I'm in kind of a cynical mood these days," Isbutt admits. "We have these neighborhood meetings, and people come out in droves. Politicians, city planners, you name it, they're there. And, of course, they're all chanting and screaming and raving about all the good things that are happening down here. So I go, `Okay, well, let's see, last week I chased off four homeless dudes, and two of them stole my tile saw. And there was a dead dude at the bus stop two days ago. By the way, aren't there supposed to be some green areas put in down here? And wasn't there an archway that got approved by the Arts Commission like five years ago? And where are the bike cops or the foot cops or the mounted cops? Oh, they're all down on Fremont Street. I got it.'"
At first, it seems a strange bitterness coming from the man who--at no profit--shepherded the Arts Factory from a condemned firetrap to the hub of the Vegas art scene (the building currently houses nearly two dozen galleries, studios and workshops). But Isbutt, more than anyone, has seen how plans and promises tend to fold against the realities of scarce funds and social blight.
Still, if Isbutt's words sound pessimistic, his actions seem anything but. Against his skeptical leanings, he and partner Enrique Tinoco have scrounged together $120,000 to open a Tinoco's Bistro inside the Arts Factory--a move, they say, calculated to provide "synergy" (Isbutt's word) to a fractured downtown arts community.
"I've always felt like a part of the downtown development," says Tinoco, who opened his first restaurant five years ago on East Charleston Boulevard in an area Isbutt calls "the worst possible location in Las Vegas." "I think it's a great idea and a great opportunity to grow and to help support a developing neighborhood."
Now relocated to nicer digs inside the Arts Factory, Tinoco plans to have the restaurant open by the beginning of June--in fact, they're already taking bookings for the inaugural First Friday. Offering "Italian cuisine with a Continental influence," the restaurant will feature open-air dining and an outdoor performance area slated to host bands, poetry readings and performance art. Even Isbutt can't help but get caught up in at least a little of the excitement.
"To tell the truth, with the restaurant and all, I'm more optimistic now than I've ever been," he says. "But at the same time, I sure would like to see an extra cop on the street. I'd also like to see a few extra street lights and maybe a little character around the neighborhood. That would prove to me that something was really going on, you know what I mean?"--Newt Briggs
Downtown is not a shopping mecca. The big stores prefer to be as close to their customers as possible, which means they usually drop anchor in strip malls along busy suburban thoroughfares just off the freeway. As a result, it's been a long time since Las Vegans headed downtown to shop for new clothes, furniture and other goods. That, however, is about to change with the opening in August of the Las Vegas Premium Outlets.
The Chelsea Property Group is spending $80 million on a sprawling indoor-outdoor mall that will house 120 upscale outlet stores as well as an extensive food court. The outlet mall, across the street from the Clark County Government Center, is patterned after Chelsea's successful Premium Outlets-branded malls in 34 other communities across the country.
"This center will be similar to one we built in Orlando in 2000," says Michele Rothstein, vice president of marketing for the Chelsea Property Group. "The look and feel and layout are pretty comparable."
Rothstein says well-known brands such as Armani, Coach, Dolce & Gabbana, Guess, Lacoste, Kenneth Cole, Polo Ralph Lauren, St. John and Theory will have shops at the outlet center. While clothing will be the main focus, there also will be stores selling home furnishings, gifts, toys and other merchandise. And the clincher is that, as an outlet center, prices will be 25 to 65 percent lower.
"This market doesn't currently offer high-end outlet shopping," Rothstein says, noting that the Belz Factory Outlet World at the south end of the valley caters to a lower-end buyer. "We believe there is a market for shoppers who live in the area and who visit the area."
Rothstein says 8 million shoppers are projected to visit Las Vegas Premium Outlets in its first year--a figure that, if it proves to be even close to accurate, will give downtown a huge financial boost. Part of that traffic will arrive via tour buses; others will come by city trolleys slated to shuttle tourists from Fremont Street. Another large group of shoppers will consist of valley residents for whom the commute downtown suddenly will be no trouble whatsoever.
Mayor Oscar Goodman, who championed tax breaks to bring the outlet mall to the downtown area, is convinced it will be a big hit. "It's going to be a magnet," he says. "If Chelsea's not successful, then I'm not the man I think I am."--Geoff Schumacher
Las Vegas Academy
People often forget that the most highly regarded high school in Nevada, and one of the best in the entire nation, is in downtown Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Academy of International Studies, Performing and Visual Arts has been housed since its creation 10 years ago in the historic high school at Seventh Street and Bridger Avenue.
The Las Vegas Academy is the equivalent of New York's "Fame" school of television and movie renown. It's a magnet school designed to hone the skills of talented musicians, singers, dancers, actors and visual artists. It also offers advanced courses for students who want to learn foreign languages. The academy has received numerous national honors, including being designated in 2002 as a "blue ribbon school" by the U.S. Department of Education.
The school has done much to enhance the image and cultural development of downtown, says Principal Bob Gerye. "Kids coming from all over the valley are bringing their unique talents and skills to this neighborhood," he says, noting that academy students have been active in First Friday events. "They're bringing art and culture to the downtown area. They've helped to focus a lot of the arts regeneration."
One way the school has done this is through high-quality stage productions produced in its two theaters: a 200-seat black box theater and a 1,400-seat performing arts auditorium. The big venue hosted the academy's recent production of the Broadway musical Les Miserables, which was well-attended and critically acclaimed.
Construction is slated to begin in September on a third theater with about 750 seats. The $12 million project, which will replace a parking lot and tennis courts, is slated to open in the spring of 2005, bringing even more cultural events to downtown.
Gerye says downtown's reputation for crime and vagrancy has not proved to be a problem on his campus. While parents of eighth-graders applying to the school sometimes worry about safety, he says their concerns rarely recur. "In the 10 years that we've been open, I can't remember an incident," he says. "It shows people that downtown is just as safe and viable as any part of the valley."
The school, built in 1929, has more mechanical problems than most other high schools in the valley, but Gerye says the 1,400 students don't complain much. "It's an old building," he says. "Stuff breaks, and the heating and cooling are sometimes an issue. But the kids aren't here for the building. They're here for the programs. They're willing to put up with an overflowing toilet once in a while."
Besides, the old school's historic designation and art deco touches mesh with the artistic sensibilities of the students and faculty. "The building is an artwork in itself," Gerye says.--Geoff Schumacher
John S. Park neighborhood
The John S. Park neighborhood is 1940s and 1950s homes and shady old vegetation. It's haunted by a residential who's who of past and present power brokers and cultural mavens (Richard Bryan, "Simpsons" animator Tim Babbington, Jimmy the Greek, the Stupaks, the Binions, Danny Greenspun, Mark Huff, Chris Giunchigliani, Dayvid Figler, Bruce Woodbury, casino executives). It's bounded on the north by Charleston Boulevard, the south by Oakey Boulevard, the west by Las Vegas Boulevard and the east by Ninth. Its historic district--the city's first--goes from Charleston to Franklin, Park Paseo/Fifth Place to Ninth. Its namesake is the little John S. Park Elementary School (now called Park-Edison, since the at-risk school was taken over by Edison).
But the neighborhood is more than names and boundaries. It's a swirling, changing mix of old-timers and young professionals and artist-types and diverse ethnicities and couples with kids. People know each other, swap beta on plumbers, talk about the party last night and gather at Baker Park on Sundays with the kids. It might be at the heart of the revival to reclaim downtown and make it home. Just take a stroll down to Luv-it Frozen Custard or the Liberty Café inside White Cross Drugs, or maybe down to Dino's for a beer, or over to Commercial Center for a meal. And along the way knock on a few doors, wander into some back yards and sip from a few old frosty glasses. You're bound to run into some of the young blood that's been moving in, swooning over the built-in planters and wall-ensconced ironing boards, and planting new roots with a period-consciousness that fills the graceful old spaces with new paint, fresh wood floors, lamps from eBay and lots of vinyl and old books.
"I wouldn't even remotely in my wildest dreams consider living in any other part of town," says Barb Brents, a UNLV sociology professor. She and Mike Pawlak, who works for the county, were actually the beginning of the new young hip folks to move in. They entered the neighborhood in 1988 as renters, and eventually bought a 1954 house that they're in the process of repainting and reroofing. Berkeley Bunker, Southern Nevada's first state senator, lived in the house.
"I think some of the problems with living in gated enclaves in the suburbs is it's the same kind of people," says Pawlak. "And as far as accessibility here, it's a 12-minute drive to the university, shopping's close, you can walk to the store. We'd certainly like to see more stuff...a Trader Joe's would be nice, and a coffee house, and a Wild Oats."
On another street, Courtney Mooney--a historian who can tell you all about the neighborhood--lives in a 1958 house she moved into in March. It's known as the house with the big dance floor. "I always wanted to live here," she says. "I don't like the cookie-cutter Summerlin houses. These houses have character and stories."
Sure, there are annoyances: the incessant tour helicopters, and the crime-ridden high-rent storefronts on Las Vegas Boulevard that hold such aborted potential.
"We have a sense of place here," says poet/judge/NPR commentator and on-hiatus Mercury columnist Figler, whose 1951 house boasts the "best back yard" in the neighborhood--spacious, graceful, tree-happy. "We just don't know what to do with it." He says the neighborhood needs a catalyst. "We need to take over our schools here, raise money, hold English language classes, build bridges with our neighbors."--Heidi Walters
Behind the stage curtain, the Huntridge Theater has had its share of shakeups in recent months. Since reopening in January under the auspices of Eli Mizrachi--whose family's real estate holdings company bought the historic theater in December--the concert venue has seen more tempo changes than a punk band. Mike Stratton, originally hired on as the venue's general manager, left in February; Kat Kellams took off in early March and Mary Messina in early April.
Venue bosses characterize it as a leaner, meaner approach. That meanness comes in the form of two longtime scene veterans, Tom Anderson and Kim Garcia, taking the venue's helm now as it ventures out of the economic doldrums brought on by the Iraq war--Anderson's explanation for a recent spate of Huntridge shows that were either sparsely attended or canceled because of low ticket sales.
"Up until the war, shows were really successful," Anderson says. "Then in April shows that had long histories of success in the market were off. Soulfly was off, Zakk Wylde's Black Label Society was off. Every promoter west of Denver was getting clobbered. The minute the economy slumps, entertainment is the first thing that gets hit."
With the storm clouds parting, though, Anderson and Garcia hope to resume steering the Huntridge's straight--if predictable--course as a young person's concert venue.
"I think this is the best I've seen the Huntridge," says Garcia, who specializes in regional and local bands. "We've got really good bands and a crew that works great together. It's just like the old-school Huntridge." ("Old-school" meaning the Huntridge of the early '90s, not the '40s).
But in the long term, indications are that the rock venue will pursue an over-21 crowd. According to city officials, the Huntridge hopes to eventually add a bar and restaurant to the existing building. Taking advantage of a recent zoning code amendment that relaxes the rules regarding liquor licenses for historic buildings, the venue applied and was approved for a special use permit earlier this month. That allows the venue to eventually apply for tavern and restaurant licenses (currently, the venue has to get permits to serve alcohol on a date-by-date basis).
Huntridge management is mum on the matter. Mizrachi did not return phone calls, and Anderson declined comment on the matter. Nonetheless, such changes can only bode well for the historic movie theater-turned-rock venue.--Andrew Kiraly
Some visitors to the city's celebration of the cultural corridor last weekend were heard to ask staff and volunteers "Where's the Neon Museum?" Perhaps they expected a gleaming new building wrapped in multicolored tubes, blinking on and off. But as of yet the Neon Museum remains a series of disparate locations around downtown, primarily the restored signs that grace Fremont Street and Third Street and the museum's Neon Boneyard of decommissioned signs on two empty lots across from the Reed Whipple Cultural Center. If you add the organization's "Living Museum" project, wherein the museum works with owners of signs still in commercial use in order to preserve them, then the Neon Museum is scattered all over the city.
That's slowly about to change. The Neon Museum, initiated by the city of Las Vegas Cultural Affairs Division, is now a separate nonprofit organization with a new director, Sandra L. Harris, and a plan to construct an outdoor neon sign park, visitors center and café adjacent to the boneyard lots. As a way of kicking off public awareness of the museum's capital campaign, the Neon Boneyard was opened to the public for the first time during the cultural corridor festivities. Despite 102-degree temps and little shade, dozens of people took a tour of the signs, from the famous (Binion's Horseshoe, Golden Nugget, Silver Slipper) to the functional (Huntridge Plaza, McDonald's). "We had a very enthusiastic crowd, and we were especially pleased to see lots of family units," said city cultural specialist Sandra Ward.
Drawing those family units from the suburbs and educating them about the Neon Museum's plans was what the day was all about. The Neon Museum's fundraising efforts, beyond sponsorship for the restoration of individual signs, are poised to kick into high gear to make their plans for a bricks-and-mortar presence a reality. Some observers might think the gestation for the Neon Museum--which by both populist and aesthetic standards clearly has the potential to become the city's preeminent museum facility--has been glacial. Perhaps; it's also been smart. By slowly building the museum up, one element at a time, step by step, the Neon Museum is far likelier to realize its ambitions than if it had tried to build a world-class museum facility from the ground up. As an example of government initiative driving private development, it's one of the city's most successful (so far) examples of downtown revitalization.
Those who want to learn more about the Neon Museum, or contribute to its fundraising efforts, can visit www.neonmuseum.org.--Gregory Crosby
Las Vegas Performing
My, how the hype flew at last week's City Council meeting. Superb acoustics. Intimate and inviting. Bringing vitality to the urban core. A community building. What? Gaming honchos seeking a license for another locals casino? No. Rather, a group of gaming industry figures, performing arts supporters and philanthropic types converged on City Hall last Wednesday to pitch a metropolis-class performing arts center to take root on Oscar's 61 acres downtown.
By meeting's end, the city conditionally agreed to set aside five acres for the Las Vegas Performing Arts Center Foundation to build a venue where ballet, opera and theater could make a home. But don't cheer on the cultural revolution just yet. Anyone who's watched the ebbing and flowing of fortunes downtown--cafes and art spaces opening and closing like shutters--might have cause for skepticism when he hears the specs: the 250,000-square-foot, 2,500-seat performing arts center--with a retractable stage and smaller second theater--would cost $120 million and would open no earlier than 2007. But considering the players involved--on the board are honchos from Boyd Gaming to Harrah's to MGM Mirage, politicos such as former Sen. Richard Bryan, and the usual suspects from local arts groups--this downtown project has some serious legs.
"This is about more than a building. The challenge is to fill that hole we have in our cultural infrastructure with a world-class performing arts center," foundation chairman and Boyd Gaming executive Don Snyder told the council. During the presentation, Snyder and vice chairman Dr. Keith Boman showed off the support they had lined up, most notably a $50 million endowment they hope to have set up by 2005 to cover operating expenses; they also a ran a video in which suits and arts types expressed support for the project. (Most fascinatingly, MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman mentioned how seeing The Magic Flute as a child had been a "defining experience" in his life.)
After the meeting, Snyder insisted the downtown curse--the truism that suburbanites are loath to venture downtown--would have no power over this project. "If this was built in Green Valley or Summerlin, I think residents would be even less likely to drive to those places, so downtown access here is a positive issue."
Among the success stories it trotted out, the foundation presented Mark Light, executive director of the Schuster Center in Dayton, Ohio, to drive home the value of such a project.
"[The Schuster Center] is a wow for our community," said Light of the venue that replaced a defunct department store in downtown Dayton. "The biggest winner is the community. In the late '80s, the Rand-McNally Almanac rated Dayton as one of the worst places to live out of 350 communities in the country. Today, Dayton is rated 64 in terms of quality of life. This year, we expect to put on 1,050 performances and events [in the downtown area] that will be seen in the area of 900,000 people. We're talking about Dayton, Ohio here."
Historic post office
Although museums are a clear sign of culture, by and large they have the reputation of being dull, dusty and hidebound. So, although a lot of folks are hoping the old federal post office at 301 E. Stewart Ave. will be home to a new museum, they're eager for one with a little Vegas panache.
The ongoing buzz is the new facility probably will include a "mob museum" that would cover much of the warts-and-all history of the city that tends to get glossed over a bit in other museums. Mayor Oscar Goodman has expressed interest in that, and presumably his past as a mob lawyer means he would have the contacts to fill it with interesting and unique artifacts, some of which are no doubt gathering dust in a closet at his house. Just imagine a scale model of the Stardust's skimming room next to Bugsy Siegel's death suit and the mummified remains of Jimmy Hoffa.
The building, built in 1933, was part of the Hoover administration's massive construction program, which created many of the nation's outstanding edifices and kept the poor from slaughtering the rich in a bloody revolution. The building housed the U.S. District Court until 1967, when many of the offices moved to a newly constructed federal building. Goodman likes to tell anybody who will listen that he tried his first case there. Today, it houses a post office, until the lease runs out or it finds a new downtown space.
Since the building will be used as a cultural amenity, the city was able to acquire it from the feds for free. The city thus saved the structure from an unknown fate, as the feds were thinking of dumping it as surplus.
So far, everything is in the planning stages. The architecture department of Johns Hopkins University recently used the hypothetical museum as a class project. When queried, few people in charge of planning the museum had heard of the study, which is probably just as well. The wrongheaded proposal consists mostly of information that could be better presented in a book, combined with a few ludicrous scale models of Vegas sites. The biggest howler is a model of the Benny Binion statue, which stands just a block from the proposed museum.
Nancy Deaner, Cultural Affairs Division manager, notes that the museum could be open by the spring or summer of 2005--just in time, perhaps, for the city centennial celebration. Until then, we can only wait and see if the city agrees to once again marry itself to the mob.--F. Andrew Taylor