Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: Gentrification has arrived. Could it be a good thing?

Unclear future: Billy Shabo says redevelopment efforts Downtown are hurting his business at Ogden Mart.
Photo: Sam Morris

An odd report from NPR last week had ears buzzing Downtown.

Gentrification—a shift toward more expensive stores, wealthier residents and higher land values in an urban locale—is generally considered a bad thing, as rising prices are believed to push longtime, but less affluent, residents out. It’s a big, dirty word in Downtown Las Vegas, where Downtown Project has bought up many parcels around Fremont Street, then boarded up and fenced off buildings, slowly beginning the process of “repurposing” them for new uses. But the NPR report painted a more nuanced picture of gentrification, one that might apply to Las Vegas.

A Columbia University professor cited by NPR said his study found that while “elderly, disabled and those without rent-stabilized apartments” might get pushed out, other renters would stay to enjoy the new parks, schools and general safety. After two years of Downtown Project maneuvers, gentrification may be happening in Downtown Las Vegas, but it’s not a case of good or bad. There’s some of both to go with that ugly buzzword.

On the good side: It’s now reasonable to walk from 6th Street to 10th Street on Fremont in the dead of night. Would I venture too many blocks off Fremont? Probably not, but it’s progress. Two years ago, no woman would walk those three or four blocks at night. These days on weekends, you see it all the time. That’s a testament, mostly, to the fact that Container Park, between 7th and 8th streets, is up and running, with its flame-shooting mantis shining light upon its surroundings and people walking around, scaring away those in the shadows.

If bars/restaurants are your thing, there are a lot more of them Downtown now. I count at least a dozen, and more are on the way.

For me, personally, it’s completely changed—from a place where I was mugged four years ago at 6th and Carson Avenue to a place where I stop and talk daily to people who live or work Downtown.

But these changes have their downsides. Just ask the guys running Ogden Mart at 823 Ogden Avenue. One block north of Fremont Street and the Container Park, Ogden Mart’s business has hit a snag lately. See, DTP has in its portfolio Avenue 8 Studios, two residential buildings west of the market. Avenue 8’s numerous renters have helped keep Ogden Mart—one of the cleanest, homiest marts you’ll find in the city—in the black. But things are changing at Avenue 8.

The buildings opened as Campaige Place in 2000 with some 320 single-room-occupancy units averaging 200 square feet each. The target renters were those making under $23,000 annually; and the project’s $12 million cost was funded through federal tax credits and $8 million in government-backed bonds. Any rental restrictions tied to financing, however, end next year.

In the meantime, renters are slowly being moved out of Avenue 8 and offered studios starting at $525 a month in the 3800 block of East Charleston Boulevard. When Avenue 8 is empty, the place will be renovated. Who will get the new leases? Will former renters be allowed back in, or will it become corporate housing for Zappos or Downtown Project employees? My sources say that remains unclear.

But for the owners of Ogden Mart, the Shabo family, the future isn’t as important as what’s happening today. They’re losing customers daily, and they see Downtown Project as a very slow, plodding machine whose redevelopment plans often seem stuck in the mud. “They have so much on their plate, I think they get lost, they don’t know where to begin,” says Billy Shabo, who notes that renovations are starting on a new mid-range grocery store on Fremont by Downtown Project. He wonders who will run it, saying that if they had given him a chance, he would have helped them run a market—“and I’d turn that place into gold!”

For that matter, he had an idea for a retail business in DTP’s Container Park, which opened in November. “I reached out to them several times; not once did I get a call back. Nothing.” All of this makes him extremely leery of the redevelopment happening Downtown.

And gentrification? Maybe it’s happening at Avenue 8. Someday, it may even bring more business to Ogden Mart. But by the time “someday” arrives, Ogden Mart may already be gone.

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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