This Place …

A. Has a Bright Future in a Booming Downtown B. Is Frickin’ Doomed

Chuck Twardy

Neonopolis sits almost empty, the failure it was widely predicted it would be. Now what?

It is a still Saturday afternoon, and Neonopolis is not entirely empty. A custodian sweeps. A woman strides through the kiln-like courtyard, and through a passage to Las Vegas Boulevard, to catch a bus. The up escalator is off, and the climb to the second floor is tedium illustrated. But an employee wipes the counter at Popolini, the only business open in the food court. The streams and squiggles of neon suspended from the ceiling over the vacant gray tables and chairs lend the space a Twilight Zone-y effect: Where are all the people?

And a sign outside announces a jewelry shop to come, in the adjacent retail space, which is otherwise empty, too. You are about to enter a dimension ...

These almost absurdly hopeful tenants, the movieplex upstairs (recently purchased from Crown by Galaxy Theatres, which also owns the theater in the Cannery) and the Jillian's in one corner of the complex, are vestigial pockets of life in a dying plant. Neonopolis is every bit the disaster its detractors predicted, a big, cheery lump of abandoned carnival, festooned with signs and harlequin-like patterns, awaiting ... what? A second try, with a different tenant mix? A redesign, with interior and exterior reconfigured, even a new identity? An implosion, the Las Vegas response to inefficiently profitable structures?

At the moment, we don't know. Prudential Real Estate Investors sold the $100 million complex last spring for $25 million to FAEC Holding Wirrula, with businessman Rohit Joshi as the local buyer's representative, according to published reports. Plans for the 250,000-square-foot white elephant remain secret, although the Review-Journal's John L. Smith reported, earlier this summer, rumors of a P.F. Chang's and "a first-class Mexican restaurant." KVBC-TV reported that Joshi "intends to open it up and make it more inviting to customers." But so far that's all he's said publicly. Calls to Joshi & Associates were not returned.

Neonopolis, which opened in May 2002, went on the market two years later and took another two years to sell. It fairly leached tenants. Every visit to Fremont Street, it seemed, found another vacancy, and on a typical August afternoon, it does not take an MBA or a real-estate license to figure out why. In case you haven't noticed, it's hot here. Under the shaded canopy of the Fremont Street Experience, perhaps, people might stroll, but back and forth between casinos, gulping yard-long margaritas and football-sized beers. Maybe you'd cross Fourth Street to eat at one of Neonopolis' corner restaurants—one Mexican, both gone—but why would you want to stroll around this enclosed oven, checking out trinkets?

"Great location, poor execution," says Richard Truesdell, president of Cornerstone Group and former chairman of the Las Vegas Planning Commission. "It's not any more complicated than that."

Too bad the city couldn't see that as it was happening. Instead, the history of Neonopolis is a curse unfolding on the head of an impetuous hero who refuses to heed ample warnings. Smith has written that you couldn't blame former Mayor Jan Jones for wanting to do something with the stretch of Fremont Street south of Fourth, but the history of urban renewal is replete with doomed plans to supplant small businesses with big blocks of retail.

Las Vegas might have taken a cue from the bruising eminent-domain fight for the land on which the adjacent Fremont Street Experience parking garage stands—the city seized that land in 1993 and only two years ago settled with owners. Nonetheless, in 1998 the city launched another series of eminent-domain suits that wound up costing it $23 million for the land under Neonopolis. The underground parking garage cost another $15 million. A year later, the parent company of the movie theaters slated to anchor the project filed for bankruptcy.

The opening date for the complex was pushed back two years, and when it opened in 2002, its fortunes started to plummet almost immediately. Within a year, Mayor Oscar Goodman was blasting plans to replace retail tenants with offices. A trendy New York gallery set up shop in a third-floor space for six months and left. In 2003, an Ohio businessman filed a discrimination suit after claiming Prudential and its third-party property managers, JSS Advisors, had nixed his plans for a gay-themed nightclub. The nightclub opened and failed nearby, a victim, perhaps, of mere association with the accursed complex.

The one slice of good news for Neonopolis came this summer, when Poker Dome finished construction. The $6.5 million studio, taking up part of the movie-theater area, will host tapings of the Poker Dome Challenge, which airs on Fox Sports. The Nevada attorney general's office ruled that it is a game show and not a gaming event, and the Gaming Control Board okayed the Challenge, as Gaming Wire's David McGrath Schwartz has reported.

"The show has gotten mixed reviews, with some people questioning the talent of players," Schwartz wrote. "But if Poker Dome is a success, it's the only one so far for Neonopolis."

Poker Dome would bring a studio audience of 150 to the complex, not the kind of catalyst the place requires.

"I think they need a big tenant," says architect Craig Galati, the sort that would make people say, Yeah, I'll go Downtown for that. Galati, who served on the city planning commission when Neonopolis was planned, says he had doubts about the movie theaters. "I think a lot of us were skeptical. I said, ‘I have to drive by six theaters to go to this one.'"

Galati, though, acknowledges that the burgeoning of Downtown residential life, with condominium towers sprouting all around, could make the Galaxy Theatres a "neighborhood" destination. "If that's the case, you have to have the retail to cater to people living there," he says. That would mean a complex that appeals as much to local shoppers as it does to Glitter Gulch tourists, if not more.

The mix of 20 million visitors and residential towers coming online should make a success of any complex on the site, says Truesdell: "Good retailers would look at that and figure a way to capitalize on that." Instead, he says, the developers missed opportunities at every turn. Instead of putting neon all over the complex, justifying the name, Prudential and its architect, RTKL Associates, went with mostly stucco facades. They split food services, instead of locating them in one place. They signed up low-key tenants instead of creating a destination. They failed to cross-market with the Fremont Street Experience. "They didn't create a buy-in with the casinos," Truesdell says.

The key is to make Neonopolis, or whatever it will become, an attraction for both Downtowners and tourists. This will require one or more big anchor tenants, services for locals, as well as more lively entertainment. "It has to go to a broader base retail," says Truesdell. "It can't be 10 T-shirt stores. It's got to be a destination unto itself."

Also needed, he says, are sharper marketing efforts and "intense day-to-day management" that provides good security and value to tenants.

Both Galati and Truesdell see enough critical mass forming Downtown to make a reconfigured Neonopolis successful. And a quick scan confirms the optimism. Streamline Tower is rising across Las Vegas Boulevard. Hennessey's Tavern and Mickey Finnz Fish House & Bar have moved into the long-shuttered spaces across the Fremont Street pedestrian mall. The city's plans for a nightclub district are taking shape further east along Fremont Street, with lounges such as the Beauty Bar and the Griffin. Plans call for the former Sears at 601 E. Fremont to become a large nightclub with a condo tower above.

Goodman's small-scale but energetic efforts to revitalize the area are having an effect. Through a spokeswoman, he declined to comment for this story, but he has been quoted as being enthusiastic about the possibilities for Neonopolis. He should be, because it remains the monkey wrench in the otherwise humming works around it. Getting Neonopolis right could be crucial.

But Galati sees potential in the complex. "I think it can be retrofitted to do a number of things," he says. "The courtyard could be a dynamic space."

With or without the neon signs, the courtyard might be more lively were it enclosed instead of being a congenial convection oven. At the same time, Neonopolis needs to open itself to its developing neighbors. Instead, it turns mostly blank walls to all but one corner, effectively shutting itself off from the rest of the neighborhood it was supposed to help revitalize. Any reconfiguration should take this into account, and find ways to open storefronts on Fourth Street (although this is complicated by the parking garage entrance) and Las Vegas Boulevard.

In fact, it might be a worthy idea to ditch the Neonopolis rubric, partly because the complex is identified as a failure under that name, partly to seize on any opportunity to make it appear more sprightly, more attractive, more upscale—or more of all three.

Although it might turn out that it will be rescued by the success it was supposed to spark, Neonopolis has a chance to succeed. But cosmetic improvements or mere tinkering with the tenant mix will only doom it. If it fails again, it just might have to go.

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