What are the future prospects for living Downtown?

Juhl Las Vegas on the corner of 4th Street and Bonneville Avenue in downtown Las Vegas on Monday, November 5, 2012.
Photo: Leila Navidi

If you’re curious about living Downtown, you probably have a lot of questions. Should you buy a condo now? Or wait for new ones to be built? Might something cheaper come along down the line? This week, the Downtown Vegas Alliance and City of Las Vegas hosted a forum exploring such questions. The Wednesday panel discussion featured local real estate developers along with the keynote speaker, Peter Cummings, a developer who helped revitalize Detroit. Here are a few takeaways from the talk:

You can’t redevelop without original developments. When other cities revitalized their downtowns—think LA, Detroit, San Diego—they gussied up a bunch of old buildings. But since Las Vegas is still a young city, it just doesn’t have that many old high-rises sitting around waiting to be restored. That puts developers and aspiring residents in a bind. Demand has outstripped supply, shutting out all but the well-heeled.

Don’t hold your breath for a bunch of new high-rises. Developers would love to go on a building spree, but the math doesn’t yet pencil out. Because the economy is roaring along, materials are very expensive. That makes the price of building a residential tower costlier than what could be recouped on rents. While new projects are still being built, such as Downtown Project’s Fremont9, the pace is slow and cautious. Micro apartments, like the 211 on north 8th Street, seem to be a compromise, where developers can offer affordable rents Downtown … as long as residents don’t mind living in a 170-square-foot studio.

A Downtown Whole Foods is still a distant dream. Unless the high-end grocery store’s new Amazon overlords changes the stakes, there still isn’t a critical mass to justify an urban location. And nobody really wants to live somewhere without a good grocery. So how do you beat the development paradox? Cummings says health-care, cultural and educational institutions are the best anchors for community building. The worst? Casinos.

Art is a turbo-booster. The panelists all agree that developing the arts is the fastest way to forward the Downtown cause. They tout the successes of the Smith Center and are determined to bring an art museum to Symphony Park. On a smaller scale, panelist and owner of Juhl Uri Vaknin announced a call for the second round of artists in the Juhl’s artist-in-residence program. The first was local art star Justin Favela.

Let’s cheer on the micro progress. Cummings suggested that in developing Downtown we think small rather than large. “Large is the Strip,” he said, meaning that we have the opportunity to create a more intimate, organic, user-friendly environment Downtown. While thinking small doesn’t seem nearly exciting as mammoth game-changers, it’s probably the best way for us to grow without losing a sense of who were are.

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