The sweet smell of smoky meat fills the courtyard as Paul Simon covers drift from a band onstage. Kids scamper over an insanely cool treehouse playground, while parents watch from below, chatting or sipping cappuccinos from the Beatnik’s walk-up coffee window. Couples swig craft beer at patio tables, shop doors are open, the grass is literally green, and trash, compost and recycling bins are placed at perfect intervals, just as far as you’re willing to walk and no farther. Welcome to urban utopia.
This is the Downtown Container Park, the shiny new shipping container-constructed, Downtown Project-funded, preying mantis-guarded development on Fremont East. Inside its sleek, industrial walls there are plenty of temptations, from local boutiques and new restaurants to a couple of bars, a stage with grassy seating and that epic playground centerpiece even adults will want to climb on. What won’t you find? Homeless people, dogs, picnic lunches and anything resembling the city grit just outside the guarded front gate.
Because the Downtown Container Park isn’t really urban development. When the project went before the City of Las Vegas Planning Commission in August 2012, the staff report recommended denying waiver requests that would have exempted it from the requirements of the Downtown Centennial Plan. The report said the proposed design “focuses attention on the interior space and does not encourage an interactive urban environment.” It compared the park to Neonopolis in that its inward orientation wouldn’t embrace the “existing urban fabric of the Downtown environment.”
But the Container Park went on as planned, and now that it’s actually come to fruition, it’s an inward-facing shopping center literally walled off from the world around it—a self-contained bubble of safe, clean fun where we can escape from the neighborhood’s rough-edged reality and enjoy ourselves (in moderation). Will the Park’s closest neighbors take advantage? Will Downtown’s lower-income residents feel welcome to walk through its gate, past the chipper greeter, and the juggling clown, and the security guard giving everybody the once-over?
I’m not asking these questions because I think the Container Park is bad for Downtown. It’s not. But installing a private playground and park on Fremont East highlights the need for more public urban gathering spaces. Places where we can experience the wonderful messiness of unfettered interaction. Places where there’s no one saying, “Sorry, ma’am, no dogs,” at the door.