It’s barely noon at Casa Don Juan on Main Street and the lunch crowd has taken over the restaurant. Outside, a man tells his friends it’s a 20-minute wait and suggests they go elsewhere, pausing to consider where that might be before settling on El Sombrero a few blocks north.
By all the activity, you’d think that Main Street was a bustling business and shopping hub splicing through the Downtown Arts District. In fact, investors, retailers and gallery owners have been banking on that idea for several years now, settling in, then closing up and moving on, chased out by higher rents, faulty business plans or the lack of foot traffic.
So when the owners of Retro Vegas bought their own building at Main and California in early 2012 while Patina Décor moved into Retro’s old space and Skin City Body Painting opened up right next door, it seemed there was a small consortium of like-minded individuals with a vision for the area. Add to that Corner Store, One Man’s Trash, In Style and, more recently, the successful cocktail bar Velveteen Rabbit, and there were even more reasons to visit the neighborhood.
But Skin City moved out last month when new investors bought the building; Patina is leaving its space in April and Corner Store has been closed for months. You could chalk it up to another round of musical chairs, this time spawned by investors believing Main Street might be the next hot spot for Downtown redevelopment.
Last year, StoryBook Retail LLC bought a mostly empty suite of storefronts just north of Charleston to lease, and Hop Nuts Brewing is renovating its space at 1120 S. Main St. for a new brewpub.
Paul Murad, president of Metroplex Realty, who works with Downtown buyers, sellers and investors, says the appetite for the area has gone up, partly because of properties purchased by the Tamares Group and a Tony Hsieh-managed LLC.
“People notice that. They want to get ahead and get positioned there,” he says. “We want bars, restaurants, high-end boutiques, design shops—anyone able to pay prices necessary to improve the area.”
Murad adds that money spent to fix up buildings justifies Main Street’s higher rents, which he says have doubled since 2010-’11. But the changes are of little consolation to tenants, including Welthy Silva, owner of Las Vegas Ballet School on Main, who was asked to leave by new property owners wanting to redevelop.
Todd VonBastiaans, owner of Alios, a high-end lighting company on Main Street, says it’s merely a real estate game that’s gotten a little out of hand, with potential investors walking into businesses and asking owners when their leases are up because they want to buy the building and move them out.
“I’m more of a fan of what is happening at Downtown Project than I am of Main Street,” he says. “People are coming down to the Container Park and enjoying themselves.
“It takes a unified front. [On Main Street] there are too many different people who are into it to make a quick buck. The only common vision is that they’re flipping a space.”
But Bill Johnson, co-owner of Retro Vegas, says he’s happy at home on Main Street and is working on his third map of the “Antique Alley” area.
“We see it as distinctly different than East Fremont,” he says. “This is more individual people moving in and creating things. And we’re very happy to have bars and restaurants. We were here through the worst. We were here when there was nobody. Empty buildings stink.”