About six months ago, we devoted this column to all things Downtown and its resurgence. I’ve been dividing my time between that assignment and the rest of my job as a Las Vegas Sun columnist. Splitting my time this way has been less than ideal, so I’m relinquishing this spot to a colleague. I’ll still keep my eye on Downtown and write about it when the spirit moves me. It’s been fun and educational, and hopefully I got the ball rolling.
The rest of the Las Vegas Valley, from the Strip to the suburbs, was built by rich people and corporations and their handmaidens in government — a top-down, oligarchic approach. As a result, despite our reputation for libertarianism and libertinism, the Valley can feel pretty constricting. Try to paint your house a weird color or play your trumpet on the Strip, and the authorities—the homeowners association, Metro Police, respectively—will come knocking.
It’s their city; we just live here.
Downtown is different. Of course, we’d be naive to pretend some Downtown landowners and rich interests—certain technologically advanced shoe salespeople, for instance—don’t have more power and influence than others. Still, watching Downtown develop is fun because for Las Vegas, it’s very small “d” democratic. Downtown’s transformation is turning on the actions of thousands of businesses, residents and voters rather than a mere few. It’s participatory and passionate. In short, a real city.
In that spirit, here are some issues I’ve raised and some opinions about what’s next for Downtown:
People, not cars. Urbanism, that great serendipitous relationship of people and commerce and culture, requires walkability, which in turn requires density and the subordination of cars to other needs, such as pedestrian safety. So, we need narrower streets and wider sidewalks. We should become a city known more for shade structures than insufferable summers.
Here’s an idea in that vein: Extend the pedestrian walkway of Fremont for a few blocks. (Though not the canopy, or at least not that canopy!)
And the city should make the walk between the Smith Center and other Downtown attractions and neighborhoods—currently a cheap horror flick nightmare of underpasses—a priority.
Downtown has too much parking—a 38 percent surplus over demand, according to the city—aside from the occasional special event, which can be solved by using shuttles and spacious vacant lots. Yes, it’s important that suburbanites be able to get to Downtown stores and restaurants, but you don’t see New York City ruining its urban streetscape just so the bridge-and-tunnel crowd can park.
That brings me to another point: It’s all about residents. We need people who will live, work and play Downtown. All policy decisions should be made with them in mind and should include their input.
Downtown residents I talk to, and I’ve talked to a lot of them, are quite clear: They need basic things that have unfortunately come to be called “amenities” but are actually necessities.
Typical economic development that gives away tax goodies are often wasteful boondoggles—Neonopolis, anyone?—but I could be persuaded that the city should subsidize a grocery store. It’s so central to everything, and no one will build it until we have more residents, but we can’t get more residents without a grocery store.
Other necessities: Either a significant park or series of smaller parks. A coffee shop that cleans its equipment. (There, I said it.)
When we talk about residents, we should be open to diversity—Downtown lifers, young professionals, but also families with kids.
UNLV could be a catalyst. The university should move one of its schools Downtown, something with a real architectural and intellectual footprint. Arizona State has done this to great effect in downtown Phoenix.
Remember, we know what works—we can copy good ideas from other cities while preserving what’s uniquely Vegas.
Most important, Downtown isn’t theirs. It’s ours. Let’s keep it that way.