The Other Downtown - Las Vegas Weekly

The Other Downtown

With new retail, office and residential loft space, can Henderson bring new life to Water Street?

Pj Perez

It's hot. Yes, it's always hot in summer, but today, here in downtown Henderson, the sun feels even less forgiving than usual. I'm not looking forward to leaving my air-conditioned car.

I've parked beneath the shelter of an abandoned Texaco station at the southeast corner of Lake Mead Parkway and Water Street, the future site of a planned mixed-use development called City Tower. A large sign affixed to two wooden posts depicts a midrise office tower with an inviting plaza entrance.

The project is now leasing "prestigious retail and office space," according to the sign.

Right now, however, under that spiteful midday sun, the future site of City Tower's gleaming offices and landscaped grounds is little more than blight.

Broken chain-link fencing and wooden I-beams are piled behind the old station. On an island where gas pumps once sat, a metal trash can overflows with plastic shopping bags full of garbage. Just south, a pink building that used to house a motorcycle dealership called Rude America is abandoned and boarded up, the words "4-SALE" hand-painted on its side.

Looking south on Water Street, toward its retail businesses, city services and casinos, it looks like a ghost town. The east side of the street is torn up, piles of asphalt and concrete lining the thoroughfare for about half a mile. There are vacancies in the low-slung, street-front retail and office buildings. Save for one old man in a red ball cap braving the heat as he slowly ambles up the sidewalk, there are no signs of life.

Welcome to the hope of downtown Henderson, the Water Street business district.

Unlike the redevelopment efforts of the higher-profile downtown area of Las Vegas, Henderson's plans and progress haven't received much attention. There are not multimillion-dollar, high-rise condominium developments springing up on every other corner. There are no headline-grabbing battles between residents and developers over building heights or eminent domain. There is no ongoing struggle to clear the area of prostitutes and drug dealers.

What Henderson does have is a concrete, concise plan (adopted in 2000) for rejuvenating its oldest—and one of its most economically depressed—areas, the historic Water Street corridor, the original town site of this fast-growing and quickly-sprawling city. The downtown redevelopment area is just one of four administered by Henderson's redevelopment agency, but by and far the most interesting—and the most promising.

There are similarities between the downtown areas of Henderson and Las Vegas. Both are the oldest areas of their respective cities. Both feature a gathering of casinos—though Henderson's are small in size and number, and without hotels.

Both have nascent arts scenes with their own art walks (more on this later).

Outside of the old tract housing surrounding their respective business/commercial districts, both lack affordable, urban housing options.

It's easy to think that by default—in terms of size and scope—Henderson's development progress would come by easier. Las Vegas' downtown area is actually a collection of varying neighborhoods and districts: the newly-designated "entertainment district" on East Fremont Street, the Arts District near Charleston Boulevard and Casino Center Drive, the historic John S. Park neighborhood, the 61 acres behind the Plaza hotel.

By contrast, Henderson's downtown redevelopment area consists of, in basic terms, the area bounded by Boulder Highway, Lake Mead Parkway, Van Wagenen Street and Greenway Road. It's barely more than a few square miles and focused mostly on Water Street and its intersecting roads.

• • •

At the city of Henderson's website, a slick slide presentation shows the evolution of Water Street as its planners envision. The first slide shows the street as it is now, with short, weather-worn buildings, sun-baked sidewalks and asphalt and few accoutrements save for half-sized palm trees dotting the thoroughfare. The next slide shows Water Street as it will look after the current phase of road improvements are complete, with widened, colorful sidewalks, old town-style lampposts and new, shade-giving trees. By the third slide, midrise, mixed-use buildings have replaced the one-story eyesores, and the last slide makes downtown Henderson look like a busy, small-town, pedestrian-friendly Main Street, with sidewalk dining, couples gleefully shopping and cars parked along the sidewalks.

But creating a computer-generated simulation is one thing. Actually getting people to not merely visit Water Street, but also live, work and play there, is a completely different undertaking.

• • •

As the sun continues to remind me of the No. 1 reason not to live in Southern Nevada, signs of Water Street's actual progress become clearer. The road is torn apart, yes, but it is evidence that Phase 2 of the street beautification plan projected in that computer simulation is under way.

South on Water Street, old-time storefronts like Gold Casters Jewelry are left behind, and a different vision of downtown Henderson emerges.

At the corner of Pacific Avenue and Water Street, a gorgeous, five-panel, 45-foot-wide, 22-foot-high mural adorns the east side of the Embarq building. Designed by former Henderson resident Robert Beckmann, the work—unveiled in 2003—is a visual retelling of the city's early history, and the first in a series of murals that now dot the downtown area.

South of the Sprint building, at Atlantic Street, is downtown's anchor casino, the Eldorado. To fall in line with the city's "moderne" architectural theme, Boyd Gaming remodeled its façade recently, creating a more attractive exterior than its previous washed-out, Southwestern design. The Henderson Redevelopment Agency kicked in $90,000 to help offset the project's estimated $335,000 expense.

The sidewalk outside the casino appears to be the model of Phase 2's ideal outcome. It is wide, with young trees yearning to cast shade onto the black iron benches and trash receptacles. Less in line with any redevelopment plans are two homeless men seeking refuge in the shade of the Eldorado, breaking the dead silence of the ghost town-like afternoon. One strums a guitar and plays Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." The other plays percussion on a used tin can.

Across Water Street from the Eldorado, the steel frame of a new, three-story building rises from a dirt lot. A sign shows a rendering of a finished project called the Meridian, which is now leasing apartments and office space.

According to Henderson's redevelopment literature, the Meridian was supposed to be completed this past March. It's now slated to open in late September.

Koko Darakjian of RLK Investments, developer of the project, offers some insight.

"The infrastructure down Water Street had to be prepared," says Darakjian.

"It was built back in the '40s or '50s, so we had to upgrade everything." The Meridian will be the first fully mixed-use development to open on Water Street. Across Atlantic is the Pinnacle, another three-story building, which opened last year. That project features the Cynnamon Styx coffee shop and bakery on the first floor and executive offices on the other two.

The sign on the tinted window of the bakery indicates that the shop is open on Saturdays. But a tug on the locked door—and no apparent sign of life within the building—tells me otherwise.

East on Atlantic, the residential neighborhood surrounding downtown Henderson is as dead as Water Street. These old, one-story dwellings originally housed the workers drawn to Henderson for its industrial jobs.

Though many have been modified over the years, most are small, boxy and in need of serious painting and landscape work. Even the Calvary Chapel at Atlantic and Texas Streets is narrow, squat and faded.

• • •

As part of the city's revitalization efforts, new financial-assistance programs were rolled out to help businesses and homeowners thrive in the city's redevelopment areas. One, the Revolving Loan Fund (RLF), provides financial assistance to business and commercial property owners for improvements, start-up capital and equipment. Another plan, the Homeowner Assistance Program, provides grants and low-interest loans for improvements to existing residential properties.

Robert Ryan, the city's redevelopment manager, reports that about 15 loans for homeowners have been approved so far, but only two RLF applications have been processed.

"Some of the property owners have been there long term," Ryan says. "They haven't—or won't—make improvements because they don't have to." Those landlords likely have no incentive to change what they've been doing because ultimately, a developer will come along, purchase the property as-is and rebuild something shiny and new, conforming with the city's new Downtown Design Standards. This reluctance to upgrade has kept new businesses away from the already low-traffic area.

"One of our biggest problems has been the lack of inventory to attract businesses," Ryan says.

• • •

One of the few businesses still active on the northern end of Water Street, and actually open on a Saturday, is City Lights Art Gallery. A sandwich board outside beckons you in—a smart move, given the business's obscured location amid the closed offices and dusty, vacant storefronts of a long, low-slung, single-story building. I step inside to escape the heat and see what counts as art in these parts.

There are no other patrons inside the gallery. The two walls on either side of the gallery—as well as a few freestanding, cubicle-style walls in the middle—exhibit a variety of art: still-life paintings, photography, landscape studies. Most of the work is decorative at best. Postcards and prints are available en masse throughout the room.

Toward the back of the gallery, several older people are conversing and laughing. There's a real small-town feel to this place, something that might pervade the entire street if not for the unbearable heat and deserted sidewalks.

"Take a look around," says Al Matwiejow, City Lights' assistant gallery director. "If you like something, you can either buy it or vote for it." City Lights operates as a cooperative. Members pay dues to be part of the co-op, as well as a percentage of sales from any art sold in the gallery.

Only members can show at City Lights, and typically, one to two are highlighted as "featured" artists each month. July's featured artist is Ethel Surary, or "Etel," as she signs her work.

Surary is a sweet, little old lady with a vaguely Central European accent, whose paintings are full of color, shape and vibrancy. She started studying art about 10 years ago. Matwiejow reports that her art sells well in the gallery. Of course, given the number of customers in the gallery right now, selling "a lot" is relative.

As the easy-with-a-joke Matwiejow is telling me all about the gallery, a voice pipes in from behind a counter: "Tell him about the school!" City Lights is opening an art school next to the gallery. They tell me a lease is signed, and all the co-op really needs are donations of supplies—chairs, easels, implements—to get the school running.

The collective enthusiasm is admirable, unless you consider the empty room among empty buildings on an empty street. But like other small-business owners in downtown Henderson—and specifically those involved in the arts—they are fully convinced that they are integral parts of the city's redevelopment plans.

"The city has assured us they are supportive of the arts," says Richard Blanchard, president of the City Lights co-op. "They are putting a strong effort toward the arts." There's some evidence to back this up. Henderson recently added a multipurpose outdoor pavilion to its Water Street convention center, and one of its first events was the city's ninth annual ArtFest. All over the city of Henderson website, Water Street is touted as the "cultural heart" of the city, noting its galleries, murals and craft boutiques. And the city's redevelopment project manager, Michelle Romero, has been instrumental in the promotion of Third Thursday, Water Street's monthly art walk.

• • •

"It's such a nothing down there now," says Wendy Adams, owner of and former member of City Lights. "It's unfortunate, because it could have been a great event." Adams, a graphic designer and artist, was a staunch and active supporter of Third Thursday until she concluded that the city was merely using local artists to save what she calls "the failing" Water Street business district.

"Third Thursday is not an open event like First Friday," Adams says. "In order to display, an artist must be a member of a local gallery. The city will not allow artists to display or sell because they will not allow competition with the Water Street galleries or businesses." When she built her website—which promotes Third Thursday and Las Vegas' First Friday equally, and features local artists free of charge—Adams received a letter from the Downtown Henderson Business Association (DHBA) protesting the site. In the letter, posted on Adams' blog, DHBA President Shelli Bement requested removal of all official Water Street District logos, complained about the association with First Friday and accused Adams of possibly charging artists to be featured on the site.

"I don't need approval to support local artists," Adams says. "I have people apologizing on her behalf, but I haven't heard a word from her."

• • •

At 7:45 p.m. on Water Street during July's Third Thursday, there are few signs of life on the sidewalk or the street. Maybe the on-again, off-again rainy weather has kept people away. Maybe the road construction gave the impression that this month's event was canceled.

Inside City Lights, there are perhaps three patrons. The other four or five people in the space are involved with the gallery. A few doors north, a trio of men stand outside an unmarked suite, talking. This is the future home of Quiet Places Photography Gallery, a new exhibit space and studio run by photographer Gary Reese.

There's not much to see in Quiet Places, at least not yet. Reese's photography makes up most of the work hanging in the main room. Other photos are by Fred Sigman, a colleague of Reese's from Community College of Southern Nevada, where both men are art instructors.

Sigman gives the grand tour of the space. It's an impressive, sprawling collection of rooms undergoing various stages of remodeling. He points out future improvements—a darkroom, a print preparation area, multiple galleries, a digital photography studio—and talks about the arrangement between the city and the gallery.

In a move to drive more traffic to Water Street, the redevelopment agency is offering artists free storefront spaces in city-held properties, such as the building that houses Quiet Places. Artists need to obtain a business license, maintain regular business hours and pay the city a small percentage of any art sales in their galleries. The units are offered on a month-to-month basis, as the city expects the land to be redeveloped within six months or a year.

"I think Henderson wants to see a commitment from people," Sigman says.

"That they won't be hermits."

Around the corner, on Pacific Avenue, the Old Town Gallery dwells among a Chinese restaurant, a Mexican restaurant and a beauty salon in another low-profile, street-front retail center. The offerings inside the expansive space are similar to those in City Lights—folk art, landscapes, Southwestern photography. Only two patrons are inside.

I ask Susanne Reese, an artist showing at Old Town Gallery and a member of the DHBA marketing committee—as well as Gary Reese's wife—if this low foot traffic is normal for Third Thursday. According to her, Old Town Gallery saw 89 bodies, which she says is average for the event. (I'm pretty sure that during a slow First Friday in Las Vegas, you can find 89 bodies in any five-minute period in some of the more prominent galleries, let alone the entire duration of the event.) Adams believes that part of the problem with Third Thursday drawing more patrons has to do with its exclusive policies barring nonmember artists from showing.

"There are two factions involved in Third Thursday," Adams says. "People who are trying to hang on to what they've got, and people who are really trying to improve things." It might not simply be a case of the gallery owners fearing competition from independent artists. Once the puzzle pieces fall into place, a clearer picture forms: The city is giving away space to new gallery owners. It's collecting a percentage of their sales. It doesn't collect anything if an artist just sets up a table on the street. Booths are available, but, as Adams says, "They are not cheap." Then again, it's counter-intuitive, if you follow the First Friday model.

Open it to everyone. Get the city to pay for things like security and transportation. If 50 people come to display their art, they'll tell all their friends. Provide some entertainment, draw more people. For years, people feared going to downtown Las Vegas. Now, for some, it's the hippest thing to do, crack whores be damned. Why wouldn't a struggling art walk in a struggling downtown area employ similar tactics? Adams thinks she knows the difference.

"The city of Henderson is trying to recover that failing business district," she says. "In downtown Las Vegas, they are actually trying to create an artists' community."

While that certainly makes the city of Las Vegas sound noble, the veracity of Adams' statement is somewhat questionable, especially in light of approved condominium developments in Vegas' Arts District that are forcing a number of artists out of their low-rent studios.

According to Reese, the DHBA is simply doing what it can in light of road construction, short-term leases and long-standing blight.

"The merchants get together to support each other," says Reese. "These are family businesses, as opposed to the Wal-Marts. The thing is to get the family merchants through this transitional period."

• • •

Once you get south of Atlantic, Water Street's future appears fully realized. The expansive new events pavilion of the Henderson Convention Center completes an attractive block of centralized city services—the James I. Gibson Library, City Hall, the police station. A new trellis stretches across Water Street, providing both daytime shade and nighttime lighting for pedestrians making their way across a wide crosswalk. It leads to the tree-shaded plaza of the justice center.

Across Basic Road from the justice facility is Water Street South, a year-old, two-story building with an It's A Grind coffee shop as its ground-floor anchor, surrounded by offices of the Clark County Credit Union and classrooms of Nevada State College. Just east of the building, another office building is under construction.

It seems like the business district is well under way. But the third component of redevelopment, beyond the new retail and office spaces, is the creation of affordable urban housing to bring fresh blood into downtown Henderson, making it a real neighborhood and not just another glorified commercial center.

This is the arena where downtown Las Vegas' metamorphosis from wasteland to hot property has been perhaps most lacking. New condominium developments like SoHo Lofts, Juhl and Hue Lofts are priced beyond the means of most Southern Nevadans—with average starting prices about $400,000—especially the creative class that Hue is targeting.

On the flip-side, there are centrally located, new and clean apartments down there—City Center, L'Octaine among them—but they are government-subsidized properties with strict salary caps. The gap between half-million-dollar condos and low-income tenements seems impossible to bridge.

In downtown Henderson, new residential projects on the books and under construction offer a little more diversity. Parkline Lofts, at the corner of Basic Road and Pacific Avenue, broke ground in April. The city consolidated a number of adjacent parcels for developer Jack Webb, according to Steve Fowler of Keller Williams Realty.

The multiple-building condominium project features lofts and flats with full appliance packages, large windows with Strip views and 20-foot ceilings in some units, along with free admission to the adjacent city recreation center for two years. There are seven floor plans, but Fowler says nearly every unit is unique because of the project's footprint.

Fowler says that 36 of the total 65 units have been sold. Those first buyers paid from $259,000 for 1,065-square-foot, one-bedroom units to $396,000 for 1,700-square-foot, two-bedroom places. That top price is less than the starting price of most projects in downtown Vegas.

However, like most condo projects in the Valley, Parkline Lofts' prices won't stay so low.

"We've had a few glitches," Fowler says. "Architectural labor that we had to negotiate with the city. We're getting final bids from the subcontractor, but yes, the prices are going up." On Water Street, the five apartment units on the top floor of the Meridian remain available for lease, as are most of the offices on the second floor.

A Mediterranean restaurant has signed a lease for the ground floor.

"Somebody buying a condo can wait a year or so," says Darakjian. "People looking to rent usually need to move in two weeks." That seems logical, but the apartments' so-called "market rate" prices could be keeping renters away as well. At $1.45 per square foot, even the Meridian's smallest unit—990 square feet—would cost more than $1,400 a month. Even for what Darakjian calls "more of a luxury apartment"—citing security features and details like Juliet balconies—that much money may be too much, especially for what amounts to little more, at this point, than an experiment in urban renewal. According to data cited in a recent Las Vegas Business Press article, the average apartment-rental rate in the highest-priced area of the valley last quarter was $951 a month.

"Because of the crazy market, the whole idea of 'affordable housing' has become a much bigger issue," says the redevelopment agency's Ryan.

To try to fulfill that middle-market need, Ryan says, the city is talking with developers about designating a certain number of units in their residential projects to have "workforce housing" price points. That range targets those making 80 to 100 percent of the area median income.

"It's aimed at people in critical trades—nurses, educators, firefighters and police," Ryan says.

• • •

The city of Henderson believes in its redevelopment plans. Developers seem equally confident. Existing business and new gallery owners are onboard. But one has to wonder if the changes on Water Street aren't going deep enough, that new buildings and a street facelift can't guarantee an influx of people and energy to the time-worn area.

Inside the V-shaped, air-conditioned environs of It's A Grind, the young women working behind the counter complain about lack of business in the coffeehouse due to road closures and poorly marked detours.

"You have to really know your way around here," one says.

Looking out onto Water Street from inside the café's floor-to-ceiling windows, the most action I've seen all day takes place across the road at the 7-Eleven. Cops drink Slurpees in the shade of the store. People driving up to the corner seem to all know each other. There's that same intimate small-town feel I sensed in City Lights.

And yet, inside It's A Grind's shiny, new South Water Street location, all is quiet. Sterile, almost. Amid all this progress, and with so much more on the way, the truth becomes so clear:

The hottest spot in downtown Henderson is still the 7-Eleven.

That is the reality the city has to deal with before Water Street truly fulfills its promise as "the cultural heart of the city."

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