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Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: Urban transformation could make Las Vegas for Las Vegans

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The Strip’s casinos and complexes like CityCenter might not be built for us, but Downtown’s are increasingly catering to locals.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Driving down the highway for the occasional foray beyond Downtown, my 9-year-old son looked at the shimmering gold of the Trump Tower, the compacted buildings of CityCenter and the other skyscrapers of the Strip.

“It looks like a real city, doesn’t it?” he said.

Las Vegas is, of course, a real city. Even if our skyline is a bit fake.

We have some of the tallest buildings west of the Mississippi, and like other cities, we have highly paid public servants, whose pay periodically infuriates taxpayers. We don’t have many potholes to fix because we don’t get much icy, wet weather, but we have crime, the occasional fire and plenty of traffic headaches.

And let’s face it, the skyline isn’t for us. The “park” recently announced for construction on the Strip isn’t ours, either, and CityCenter is as far from a civic gathering place as the Fremont Street Experience is Downtown.

These are places grown for tourists. At least, they have been.

In large part due to the redevelopment of Downtown Las Vegas, change appears on the horizon that threatens—or promises, depending upon your viewpoint—to replace old casinos with something very different.

Call it the city-fication of Las Vegas.

Let’s start with the Gold Spike, an ancient hotel-casino on Las Vegas Boulevard that was purchased by Downtown Project partners, including Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, and reopened less than a month later. But not as a casino. Or a hotel. It’s now a bar and restaurant that the new owners hope will become a watering hole for Downtown residents and off-shift workers. Hsieh said putting an end to casino operations was done in part to help create “community” Downtown. It’s unclear how the Spike’s hotel rooms will be used in the future.

Last week, the president and chief operating officer of the Molasky Group of Companies woke everyone up at an otherwise pedestrian gathering at the Smith Center with the announcement that his company is looking into constructing residential apartments Downtown. And not just Downtown but in the parking lot of the California hotel and casino near Stewart Avenue and Casino Center Drive. The reason? Workforce housing for a jump in people employed Downtown, with a huge boost coming later this year when Zappos moves into its new headquarters refashioned out of the old City Hall.

I’ve also heard from several sources that Tamares Group, owner of the Las Vegas Club, is considering turning some of its hotel rooms into workforce housing or apartments. Nothing is set in stone, mind you. Jonathan Jossel, Tamares Real Estate director of properties, said the company is “evaluating a number of options for the property.” In early April, Tamares announced the Vegas Club hotel would be closed but the casino would remain open.

Even cab companies, we hear, are considering changes Downtown. Recent stories in the Las Vegas Sun about cab drivers refusing rides to people who want to travel relatively short distances have caught the attention of company owners. Not wanting to be left behind as Downtown grows, we’ve been told, those companies are making changes to incentivize drivers so they won’t be so quick to turn down a rider.

Wrap your head around what’s happening: casino hotel rooms being repurposed; new residential projects being considered; a casino/hotel reopening without the casino or the hotel.

If change like this keeps happening, one day the Las Vegas skyline (the Strip, of course, isn’t in the city of Las Vegas) might actually be the one my son points to as that of a “real city.”

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover Downtown, he lives and works there. He is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded Downtown journalist, stationed at an office in Emergency Arts. His work appears in the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly.
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Joe Schoenmann

A native Wisconsinite, Joe earned a journalism degree to get out of college early but wanted none of the craft ...

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