Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: Housing has to be cheaper for Downtown to be fully realized

Critical mass: During Life Is Beautiful Downtown finally felt like … a downtown.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

If Downtown were buzzing like this all the time, there’s little doubt the magic population density numbers espoused by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh would become a reality.

Since starting Downtown Project with other investors a few years ago, Hsieh has talked about a certain density required to sustain growth. In the days before Life Is Beautiful—when festival workers were everywhere, people were walking the streets, murals were being painted and the bars were full—the Fremont Street Entertainment District appeared to have hit that sweet spot.

“I love it. It feels like New York,” said Daniella Capitano, 29, walking east on Fremont near Ninth. “How long before it’s like this all the time?”

A year? Five years? 10? Never?

It’s an unanswerable question.

For at least one week next year it will feel this way, because Life Is Beautiful organizers have already promised a second event. Between now and then, however, numerous projects will be completed that might contribute to energy and density growing beyond the festival dates.

By the time LIB returns, Downtown Project will have renovated three old motels—the John E. Carson, Eden and Ferguson—and turned them into taverns, retail and other-use spaces. In the short term, the Downtown Container Park is slated to open in a few weeks, and Publicus, a restaurant at Maryland and Fremont, looks like it will open some time in November.

In addition, Downtown Project’s website has a job posting for someone with a minimum five years of grocery retail management experience to oversee “the Market.” As reported here, a grocery store is planned for the space across from El Cortez where a Mexican restaurant and convenience store/deli used to operate.

Downtown needs basic amenities like a grocery store to grow the kind of population and pulse it’s had this past week, but more than that, it needs places for people to live—and not at the sky-high rental rates found in the handful of high-rise condos. A quick scan online found condo rents ranging from $1,750 for 1,645 square feet at Newport Lofts to $1,400 for 786 square feet at Juhl.

Over Life Is Beautiful weekend, a handful of people involved in Downtown businesses mentioned two residential developers who are talking about bringing plans for higher-density residential development to Downtown because “the metrics are right.” Months ago, the head of the Molasky Group of Companies talked about wanting to get low-cost, high-density residential Downtown, too. And Hsieh has said Downtown Project hasn’t ruled out the idea of developing its own residential units, though it hasn’t submitted plans.

In early October, though, Downtown Project received special-use permit approval from the Las Vegas Planning Commission to convert several former hotel rooms in the Gold Spike into monthly rental units. Talking about the need for the conversion before commissioners, Todd Kessler, who handles real estate transactions for Downtown Project, described it as “something the Downtown community is in need of, given the Zappos employees, the median income of those employees and the needs that exist. ... It allows the opportunity to live more inexpensively Downtown.”

Of course, that’s not just important for Zappos workers but also for many people working in the restaurants and bars spawned by Downtown Project and other investors. If DTP and others want Downtown to grow, to be infused with the renewable energy that springs from people walking the streets and interacting with each other, they have to give them inexpensive places to live.

That’s how Las Vegas is going to become ... well, it will never be New York City (and we certainly don’t want New York real estate prices). But that’s how it will become Las Vegas’ own version of a true city.

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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