At least once a week, someone tells me that Downtown is more than Fremont Street and the blocks of buildings and empty lots purchased over the last few years by Downtown Project.
They point to the Arts District, where First Friday began more than a decade ago. They point to the far west end of the Fremont Street Experience, where the Plaza keeps innovating, including the recently opened Bier Garten and the announced construction of a rooftop hockey rink for the Las Vegas Wranglers.
Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project, though, is the zillion-pound gorilla. It put $200 million of its $350 million redevelopment investment into real estate, then divided the remainder among education, small business and technology.
But real estate is where it’s at. That’s why the person running DTP’s real estate strategy is Andrew Donner, “an adult,” as so many DTP observers tell me, in a world of young people with good ideas and intentions but without the experience to work the nuts and bolts of the business world.
One thing Downtown Project did with undaunted fervor from the start was buy up oodles of Downtown property. To the uninitiated, the idea seemed sound: Buy and do it quickly, so that by the time sellers get wind of all the acreage changing hands, their property is already sold and they can’t hold out for more money.
As it was happening, even experienced developers said the plan was good; property values could have gone much, much higher if DTP had taken longer acquiring real estate. They’d seen it happen all over the Valley during the boom years.
Today, DTP owns much of the land and buildings in and around Fremont Street between Las Vegas Boulevard and Maryland Parkway. But if there’s one difference between Downtown Project and the master-planners of yore, it’s the lack of a plan—unless you consider Hsieh’s famous wall of Post-it notes (each with a hoped-for Downtown business) a plan.
That means DTP is sitting on buildings and property until ideas spring up. One by one, buildings are assigned plans, then very slowly developed. Container Park opened last winter; now the John E. Carson building is under construction; maybe the old Bunkhouse Saloon will open next, then Ferguson’s, then ... who knows?
A developer with decades in the business said other developers wanted to get in and build something necessary—like apartments—but they’re reluctant because DTP owns all the property. The developer spoke on the condition of anonymity. (If the Las Vegas development world is anything, it’s careful not to burn bridges.)
“[DTP] should have brought more people along with them, big investors, and bought checkerboard, leaving some property open for others to get in,” the developer opined. “Then create a catalyst project and let others come in with their energy. Before you know it, the neighborhood fills out.”
When you buy all of the land, the developer added, “and you don’t have the people and infrastructure, it’s going to be a long, slow process. Large developers have bought large swaths of land and then they have a plan to execute—they’re not just sitting on it and trying to come up with ideas.”
Political decision-makers already see Fremont East’s redevelopment as a success. Last week the City Council even started collecting a fee for tavern licenses in the area, arguing that development was going so well free licenses were no longer needed to draw business.
At the same time, the council extended the free tavern licenses to the nearby Arts District, arguing it still needs help attracting business. A bigger draw, though, might be its patchwork of property owners, which allows more people to create businesses—and quickly. Bars are going up; there’s news of a new microbrewery; and in February, a group received approval for Galaxy Street Market, a project with food vendors and a craft-brew business on Charleston Boulevard across from the Arts Factory near Casino Center Drive.
Indeed, there is another “downtown” Downtown. And it’s certainly moving along.