Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: The area’s 2013 sea change was one for the record books

The crowd gathers around the stage for an announcement during the BYOB! Bring Your Own Brush community painting party, which is part of the Huntridge revitalization efforts, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013
Photo: Yasmina Chavez

Feel like you want to pinch yourself? Or is that an urge to slap the techie next to you?

Shelling out $5 for a small container of popcorn can do that to you. So, too, can the sight of a once-abandoned Downtown combat zone becoming something Las Vegas hasn’t had in decades: a city center that, day by day, is becoming safer to walk. And a “safer to walk” Downtown is a big step.

A sea change is happening down here, with a big chunk of it occurring over the past 12 months. Depending on your viewpoint, it’s been a good thing, a bad thing or both.

New businesses seem to be opening monthly. There’s fervent talk of the need for affordable housing. More people are walking east Fremont Street and the Arts District. And it’s not uncommon to hear tavern talk of Downtown’s new “energy”—along with a running commentary on gentrification and corporate influence sans community input.

There’s talk of things great and small in the coming year. But first, let’s look back at the year that was ...

There was much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair over Downtown Project’s purchase of the Gold Spike hotel and casino, only to turn it into a smoke-free, non-hotel and non-casino. Now it’s a daily hub for the laptop set, even though DTP employees have moved out and into offices on Carson Avenue. Hotel rooms have been converted into affordable apartments, which we’re told are supposed to be available for rent by anyone.

Incidentally, Downtown Project dropped “community” from its slogan, opting for “connectedness” as one of its three Cs: “Collisions, Co-Learning, Connectedness.”

The fundraising effort for the renovation of the historic Huntridge Theatre was a show of community and Downtown pride, collecting more than $200,000 in a few months.

Zappos renovated and moved into the old City Hall, bringing along 1,500 employees from Henderson.

Likely to become an annual event, the inaugural Life Is Beautiful Festival went off almost without a hitch, despite its risky setting: 15 blocks of Downtown. Celebrating music, art, food and learning, the fest was also the biggest billboard for Downtown, with reported attendance of about 30,000 per day.

Downtown Grand opened with a few throws of the dice by casino impresario Steve Wynn, who said Downtown’s redevelopment is bringing Las Vegas “back to our roots.”

The sleeper has (almost) awakened: SlotZilla, a zipline on steroids that will send riders gliding just beneath the frame of the Fremont Street Experience canopy, took most of the year to build and is close to opening.

It’s hard to think of a bigger departure from the past and invitation to a new way of thinking about Downtown than Inspire Theater. Opening before the end of the year on the corner of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, it will feature a bar, work space and coffee bar and will focus on a daily diet of speakers.

Change doesn’t happen without hiccups, pain and plain old screw-ups ...

Krave was supposed to be the world’s largest gay nightclub and a big boost to Neonopolis. That didn’t happen. It opened for a short time mid-year, but state officials closed it for unspecified tax reasons.

East Fremont Street became so popular on the first Friday of the month that it also became a headache. Police complained of people drinking on the sidewalks, numerous arrests were made and businesses feared violence. So police cracked down, put up barricades, checked IDs. If it hurt business, many bar owners felt it was necessary.

Whether it’s government red tape, slow contractors or hidden faults in old buildings, renovations Downtown consistently take longer than expected.

Life Is Beautiful went off smoothly, but a month later, one of the festival’s murals was painted over, causing a minor uproar. The reason: It didn’t “reflect the spirit” of Downtown.

Complaints arose about a policy of random bag checks at the newly opened Container Park. The practice was quickly dropped by the DTP development.

And look forward to what’s to come ...

A developer says to expect 1,000 new residential units to be built Downtown in the next 24 months. High-rises, mid-rises and micro-apartments, these will be for residents, not tourists, which most of the high-rises of the early-2000s targeted.

Downtown Project’s unstoppable march eastward on Fremont Street will include “repurposing” of Ferguson’s Motel at 1028 Fremont St., John E. Carson hotel at 124 S. 6th St. and Eden Inn at 120 S. 6th St. Bars, galleries, restaurants, juice bars, offices and retail space are all expected.

The Bunkhouse, which I’m told will open in the second quarter of 2014, has essentially been hollowed out—it’s innards gutted with the facade kept intact—to become a major music venue with small bungalows for galleries, musicians, whatnot.

The Arts District. It’s hard to point to one thing because the Arts District isn’t predominantly owned by one developer (See: Downtown Project). But this area is one to keep an eye on, as several developers are.

Smatterings of ideas: A grocery store on Fremont Street is planned between 6th and 7th. Councilman Bob Coffin confirms a multiplex movie theater is being talked about on property in the Arts District north of Charleston. The Atomic, Las Vegas’ oldest bar, also has some big things to come.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover Downtown, he lives and works there. He is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded Downtown journalist, stationed at an office in Emergency Arts. His work appears in the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly.
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