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Coolican measures how far downtown has to go, one step at a time

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After watching the Las Vegas Philharmonic blow the doors off the Smith Center recently, my date and I wanted to have dinner downtown. We stood outside the sparkling new performance hall, looking toward the Golden Nugget, and pondered how we’d get there. In most big cities in America, it’d be a no-brainer. We’d walk. After all, it’s barely more than a mile, less as the crow flies. But then we considered the walk. Lonely Bonneville or Ogden underpasses, empty lots and darkness. So close, but so far. We hailed a cab instead.

This is a key challenge for downtown: Despite pockets of hopeful activity on Fremont East, the Arts District and Symphony Park, they aren’t connected, and many people eschew walking. They aren’t far apart, but they feel like they are because the walks offer speeding cars, few attractions and scant fellow walkers.

And without walkability, without the coincident interactions between people and the spaces they inhabit, you don’t have a true urban area. You have an urban theme park.

A Walk From Smith Center to Arts District to Downtown

To get a better feel for this problem, photographer Sam Morris (see the photo gallery) and I took a stroll on a recent Saturday evening:

We begin at the Smith Center and head toward the Arts District. Once we’ve left the pedestrian-unfriendly Smith Center, we hit Bonneville—with its six lanes of traffic—and go east toward the underpass, which is bracketed by 20-foot sound walls. Ugh.

We hit the corner of Bonneville and Main, an intersection featuring an empty lot, an Adult Superstore and an office complex with fencing that looks like it could house the National Security Agency. We take a right on 1st Street at the Transit Center. This is a wide intersection with traffic entering from several directions, including a curved road, perhaps designed by someone from Boston.

Things are looking dark and apocalyptic on 1st, so we go left on Garces and walk along an empty lot fronted by some failing landscaping and a pile of garbage. So far, we’ve seen three other pedestrians.

We bang a right on Casino Center and look ahead at the city’s thriving bail bonds industry in front of us, clustered like boutiques on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. Casino Center has been the recipient of some city improvement money, so it has some landscaping, though here’s a hint: Palm trees provide no shade.

Across from Newport’s imposing concrete facade is a small apartment building offering $199 “sizzling hot specials.”

We pass an appliance maintenance shop advertising “expert microwave repair,” which seems like a campy horror flick in the making.

At Casino Center and Coolidge: three empty lots and a building surrounded by barbed wire.

Finally, we’re off the set of "Robocop" and we reach Charleston, where Artifice and Bar + Bistro at the Arts Factory are hopping, though it’s worth noting that I know this because the parking lot is full. Sam and I, who walked 1.4 miles to get here, are probably unique for having done so.

There’s a cool jazz band playing on the patio at Bar + Bistro, and artists are doing their thing.

Bobby Wysocki is adroitly working some paint with his fingers. “We just need something in between where those bail bonds are,” he says. “I’ve seen this city reinvent itself, and we’re doing it again.”

We hit Main north of Charleston and head toward Fremont. This strip has great potential, which is probably why the Build a Greener Block people turned it into a cool urban scene for a weekend in the spring. But for now it’s deserted.

At Pay Less Bail Bonds, three bullets apparently hit the safety glass door.

At Goodfellas Bail Bonds, where copyright infringement is apparently no crime, the guy standing outside has decided to really play the part by wearing a track suit. Goodfellas advertises an “Internet café.” Synergy!

Homeless dude sleeping on a bench.

At a gas station, we look west and see the Smith Center. It’s maybe 200 yards from us, but we’d have to hop a fence and then cross the railroad tracks to get there.

We pass an intoxicated couple. Until now, we’ve come upon just a handful of other pedestrians. This is a key impediment to walkability. Walkers beget other walkers.

We get to the Fremont Street Experience, where the cover band is playing Van Halen’s “Panama.” We walked 1.4 miles from Bar + Bistro to get here.

The Fremont Street Experience is its usual boozy, sweaty, jiggly self. Highly entertaining.

The bar district on Fremont East is a little slow tonight. It’s worth noting, given all the hype, that it’s one block. One block.

We walk east on Fremont past the recently shuttered Western Hotel toward our destination, the Bunkhouse. At 9th and Fremont we hit the demolished Ambassador East. The marquee says it’s “CLO ED,” no “S.” Someday, someone will do something great with this lot, which is massive.

Finally, we take a right on 11th and arrive at the Bunkhouse. The parking lot across the street is hopping, a little party spot for concert pre-gamers and what look like underage kids. Hipster silos — 24-ounce cans of PBR — stand here and there throughout the parking lot.

We’ve walked a total of 3.5 miles.

All-in-all, a fun evening. People assume downtown is dangerous, but the walk never felt unsafe or even the least bit shady. In the future, I might plan a night out around this walk.

But let’s be clear: This has been a sobering reminder of exactly how far Downtown has to go.

J. Patrick Coolican is a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter @jpcoolican or email him at patrick.coolican@lasvegassun.com. His Neon Eden radio show airs Wednesdays at 8 a.m. on 91.5 FM.

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