LV Weekly

Will a new student-housing project jump-start a UNLV District rebirth?

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A rendering of the Degree’s pool deck.

If you were lucky, you discovered it as I did. Perhaps you were invited to see a friend’s band at Favorites or the Sports Pub—Constant Moving Party, Endless Mindless, one of those—and you spent the rest of the night dancing to a DJ set by Robert Oleysyck or Romney “World Famous Rocket” Smith. Maybe you had some studying to do, and instead of doing it in the library or in your apartment, you got a table at Cafe Copioh or Cafe Espresso Roma. If you were inspired by something you’d heard on KUNV’s Rock Avenue, you went to Benway Bop or the Underground looking for it.

The Degree Apartments at UNLV

That was the late 1990s and early 2000s. Back then, we didn’t call the section of Maryland Parkway that runs adjacent to UNLV “the U District”; it was just “Maryland” or “the Parkway.” And I’m not going to spend the rest of this piece lamenting a vanished time and place; as far as I’m concerned, if Tom & Jerry’s, Big B’s, Mr. Goodcents, Moose McGillicuddy’s or Cafe Rainbow were meant to survive, they probably would have. But there was something to it. Those places had something that’s been absent from the U District for a while, an intangible thing that’s since moved down to Fremont East: the feeling of being at the absolute center of the action.

But I’m not a student, or even remotely close to student-aged. So I asked 20-year-old Jacob Sidhom, currently in his second year of UNLV’s theater studies program, what he thought of the U District as it is now. He even lived there—in the Dayton Complex, one of UNLV’s few dormitories—during his freshman year, before moving to another apartment a couple of miles to the north. So, how did the U District feel to him? Was it awesome?

Traffic races the under-construction Degree apartments on the UNLV campus Maryland Pkwy, Sunday, March 19, 2017.

Traffic races the under-construction Degree apartments on the UNLV campus Maryland Pkwy, Sunday, March 19, 2017.

“It was okay,” he says. “It was very welcoming, and I did end up with a small community of friends—but all in all, I didn’t want to go back.” He cited a lack of privacy as one of the things that put him off—the dorms are close-quartered accommodations, for sure—but later, he suggested another reason why he moved away: “The area across the street from the campus … it’s not the most reputable part of town.”

Perhaps not. UNLV is and always has been a commuter school. Fun as the Parkway was back in the 1990s, the businesses surrounding UNLV struggled even then, as their clientele lived in apartments several miles away. And the, um, aged apartment complexes in the district weren’t much more inviting then than they are now.

Consider the numbers: UNLV’s current enrollment is 29,600 students, and only about 1,900 of them live on campus. I don’t know how many more students live within a half-mile of campus, but I’d be surprised if the number were much higher than those living in the dorms.

The U District needs to become. And something big is about to happen that might get the Parkway’s constant-moving party going again.

THE 758 BEDS

Ralph Mathieu looks at the Degree every day. His comic-book shop, Alternate Reality, a neighborhood fixture since 1995, is just steps away from the newest building on the UNLV campus—and he’s excited by the possibilities it represents.

A few operating businesses are seen in a mostly vacant commercial business space at the Campus Village shopping center located across the street from the UNLV campus on Maryland Parkway, Sunday, March 19, 2017.

A few operating businesses are seen in a mostly vacant commercial business space at the Campus Village shopping center located across the street from the UNLV campus on Maryland Parkway, Sunday, March 19, 2017.

“It can only be positive,” he says, looking out the window at the half-completed building. “Hopefully it’ll lead to a resurgence of Maryland Parkway; it’ll reinvigorate the UNLV corridor and surrounding businesses in ways that haven’t been seen in a long time. It’ll become a destination environment.”

It might. The Degree is a giant—the word is not too strong—block of student apartments, a cooperative venture between UNLV and private developer the Midby Companies. It stands five stories tall and occupies what in other, older places would count as acity block. Inside are approximately 758 apartment-style bedrooms, arranged in a variety of two-bedroom, two-bath and four-bedroom, four-bath floorplans. Several hundred parking spaces are contained in a covered, controlled-access garage. And all the other amenities you’d expect of a fancy apartment building—the fitness center, the resort-style pool (with cabanas), the outdoor fire pit—are present, along with student-friendly conveniences like bike storage and private study cubes.

Reading through the Degree’s list of goodies, it’s tough not to think of Jacob Sidhom’s adventure in the dorms.

“Sometimes, it felt like a prison cell, with the white brick walls and the two bunk beds,” Sidhom says, chuckling. “But you make do with what you have.” Though he and his roommate got on well, he wouldn’t have minded having the kind of privacy the Degree will provide: “It’d be nice to say ‘I need to work; I’m gonna go be alone for a while,’ instead of, “I’m gonna work, and you’re gonna play PS4 five feet away from me.”

The Degree apartments on Cottage Grove Ave. are seen under construction in Las Vegas, Sunday, March 19, 2017.

The Degree apartments on Cottage Grove Ave. are seen under construction in Las Vegas, Sunday, March 19, 2017.

That’s the thing about the Degree that has Mathieu most excited: When the complex opens its doors this fall, it might be occupied by students who never have considered living in the U District before—and those students will want to walk a few steps out their doors to eat, drink, watch live bands, study in coffeehouses and maybe pick up the occasional comic book, which Mathieu will happily sell them at a 10 percent student discount.

David Frommer, UNLV’s executive director of planning and construction, would love to see all that happen. “If you research it, I think you’ll find that students who live on campus tend to be more connected to their education,” he says. “It not only benefits the quality of the experience and the success for the student, it makes the university an even more compelling and attractive place.”

Frommer is working on several other UNLV projects that could jump-start the U District. One is already finished—the UNLV Gateway parking garage, at Dorothy Avenue and Maryland—and Frommer’s working with developer Frank Maretti on a five-story mixed-use building that will stand in front of it and will include private market housing in addition to restaurants and retail. “[It could] change the dynamic of development on Maryland Parkway—more density, more of an urban quality,” Frommer says.

He’s also working with RTC on concepts for a possible streetcar line that will connect UNLV’s main campus to its medical school campus on Charleston, by way of the Fremont East corridor. “RTC is a fantastic partner,” he says. “We have kind of a similar interest in expanding the quality of the community, be it through education or transportation.”

The under-construction UNLV Degree apartments tower over Tiffany Square and The Pioneer Plaza shopping center, Sunday, March 19, 2017.

The under-construction UNLV Degree apartments tower over Tiffany Square and The Pioneer Plaza shopping center, Sunday, March 19, 2017.

There are many other projects in planning, some years out. There’s talk of expanding the campus westward past the Thomas & Mack Center, onto 42 acres of recently acquired land on Tropicana. (That acreage made the news recently as a possible location for the Raiders’ stadium; the FAA discouraged the idea, citing its proximity to McCarran Airport.) And the existing campus might become more urban in feel, as one-to-two-story buildings make way for four-to-five-story complexes “that use the land more effectively,” Frommer says. “You’ll have this kind of … not New York urban, but semi-urban quality, where it’s a very pleasant place to be, with a sense of place.”

But first comes the Degree. And maybe, just maybe, a few new businesses on the Parkway, drawn by those 758 new beds. (Alternate Reality’s Mathieu would love to see more vegetarian and vegan restaurants in the neighborhood, if anyone’s listening.) And as it happens, Frommer misses funky little places like Moose McGillycuddy’s and Yayo Taco as much as we do.

“Maryland Parkway has an opportunity to retain a good sense of authenticity—to be about local Las Vegas,” he says.

And maybe, I suggest, whiskey-and-beer bar the Freakin’ Frog can return to Maryland someday.

Frommer laughs. “You have to have a dream, right?”

BIG TOWN OFF-CAMPUS

The funny thing is, to young U District denizens like Jacob Sidhom, things are pretty good on the Parkway right now. Wanna shop for records? Head to Moondog. Get a beer? Hit the Stake Out. Drink some coffee and study? Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Grab a bite to eat? Cugino’s, Chao Thai, 7 Sinful Subs and many others. “One of the nice things about living in that area is that there’s a wide variety of food choices,” Sidhom says.

The mostly vacant Campus Village shopping center sits across the street from the UNLV, Sunday, March 19, 2017.

The mostly vacant Campus Village shopping center sits across the street from the UNLV, Sunday, March 19, 2017.

You can also begin to see where new pieces will fit. Properties like Campus Village are being renovated. Land is being cleared in anticipation of new development; recently an old bank and a car wash were razed, leaving tantalizing empty space. And nearby is the Boulevard Mall, which itself is undergoing an unusual but welcome rebirth. In 10 years, maybe less, the U District could be as busy and beloved as Fremont East, with students studying in all-new coffeehouses and dancing to indie DJs in all-new neighborhood clubs.

But even if it feels much as it does now, Mathieu will still be on Maryland, still selling his comics.

“This is where I’ve always wanted to be,” he says, gesturing around him in a wide circle. “I’d hate to not be here.”

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