Vegas shows her scars
The Valley’s boom and bust is visible in its architecture
Thu, Dec 30, 2010 (midnight)
Photo: Steve Marcus
Robert Fielden isn’t bitter about what has happened to his city. For the most part, when he passes the half-finished eyesores and fully finished absurdities that dot the landscape, he points and gives a hearty laugh that comes from his West Texas belly.
Fielden, who moved to Las Vegas to be an architect in 1964, spent years, decades really, as a Cassandra and an iconoclast, warning that the boom was not sustainable and would end in disaster. He was largely correct. And yet, he still loves his city. “I wouldn’t trade it for anyplace in the world.”
Now, though, gazing up at the mountains of Henderson, Fielden looks more besmirched than his usual bemused. A Hong Kong developer has blasted the once-scenic hills to create the Ascaya project’s luxury home sites, although there’s no building going on, and the developer says there are no immediate plans to begin selling lots.
Fielden likens it to an empty mining camp.
“It’s just a shame. Ruined those beautiful mountains,” he says. “Puts tears in my eyes.”
Fielden’s metaphor, the mining camp, is more than visual. He’s also conveying the consequences of the boom and bust for the entire valley: Once the mine has been depleted, and the company takes its money and leaves, the scarred landscape is forever changed. Although Vegas’ building boom is finished and the developers have mostly departed or gone bust, they left behind a landscape that will define our city for decades.
As it happens, the best view of Ascaya, that Henderson hillside, is from a vast parking lot behind an empty commercial development, one built with the expectation that growth would drive demand for new shops. The parking is in the rear, presumably to give the front of the shops a more urban feel. But it’s a pointless, faux urbanism—most everyone will have driven to get here, and it’s set far off the road.
Jeff Roberts of the firm Lucchesi Galati, which designed Springs Preserve, questions the wisdom of this urban style of development in suburbia. “The idea is that you drive to suburbia to get an urban feel—which is really weird,” he says.
There’s nothing urban about this parking lot near Green Valley Parkway and Horizon Ridge. Because of rigorous parking requirements—even, bizarrely, at taverns—we only use about a quarter of our commercial space. The rest goes to “free” parking. But as UCLA economist Donald Shoup points out in The High Cost of Free Parking, it’s not free at all. It merely raises the cost because the developer has to buy additional land, which means higher rents and higher prices for goods and services. The ample parking, meanwhile, inhibits any chance for actual urban spaces because walking across them is tedious and unpleasant.
From this vantage point, Fielden looks down at the homes in the valley below. For these homeowners—many of whom no doubt owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth—the views of those mountains have been changed forever by the stalled Ascaya project.
“The land of a hundred thousand rooftops that all look alike—is it not?” Fielden marvels. “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. But everybody has a palm tree that does nothing but absorb water and gives you no shade.”
For Fielden, this is a constant theme: The failure to understand the desert, its ecosystem, its light and heat. The failure to live with respect for the community and the natural surroundings. A blindness to context.
Context. Now we’re on Gibson Road in Henderson, up the hill from Interstate 215, and there sits Vantage, a boxy, glassy, modernist condo development; a historical artifact of the era of the credit boom, and, perhaps, delusional exuberance. It was a $160 million project, but no one lives there. It sits on the hill, surrounded by suburbia, like a hipster who’s stumbled into a church that he thought was a nightclub.
We’re on I-215, the great beltway on the outskirts of town with its redundant commercial and retail blending together, gliding by. “And on and on and on,” Fielden says.
Architects say the Las Vegas real estate bubble had wildly distorting effects on the behavior of developers, architects, consumers and elected officials. “Everything was moving so fast, no one stopped to think about what they were doing,” Fielden says.
The mania for land and the hyperinflation of construction costs set off an economic sickness—what seemed rational at the time, in hindsight, looks like folly.
This manifested itself in many ways. It seemed any project, no matter how preposterous, could make money. Thus, Vantage. Any number of condo and hotel projects on the Strip could also fit in this category. Then there was rampant overbuilding. Those with land felt the need to build, and build now, with the highest possible density. They built with the assumption that growth in the valley—of residents, tourists, consumers—would lead to profitability. But the building continued even after the growth stopped, and everyone ran out of money. That has left us with the overhang that plagues the local economy.
And foolish consumers. Investors planned to make a quick buck, while families who merely wanted to own a home thought they had to buy now, lest they be left out in the cold. They were like people in a food line who gorged themselves on whatever the developers fed them, fearing this was their last meal or that the next meal would be unaffordable. So they ate and ate and ate, and then borrowed more money to keep eating, until they got sick.
Finally, elected officials, who loved the ever-growing tax revenue and the bottomless bag of campaign donations from developers, were usually quick to approve even harmful development.
After a trip to Summerlin to see the massive concrete and steel husk of the stalled project Shops at Summerlin Centre, we travel to the Western edge of the valley on 215 to Manhattan West on Russell Road, another half-finished mixed-use development. Dense, high-rise urbanism plopped down in the suburbs, its name a great irony. Some windows are covered with plywood, like an abandoned property in a city that suffered a natural disaster.
It could be a Hollywood set. Of what? Perhaps it imagines that it’s supposed to look this way, because somewhere there’s something cool and authentic that looks like this. But there is no such place. This cardboard, Potemkin-village effect is only exacerbated by the surroundings.
Across one abandoned road is a self-storage joint. On Russell are some apartments, run-of-the-mill valley multifamily housing, albeit a bit nicer and newer than most. Fielden is unimpressed. “Mundane. Pragmatic. Pretty boring. Dull, ugly places to live.”
We drive south on Fort Apache Road to something called Woodscape Parkway, where the backs of houses, one just like the other, seem to taunt Fielden. “It’s mundane and ugly. It looks like a third-grade drawing.”
Inside the development, the front of the houses have some variety, but Fielden points to unfortunate elements. The street is strangely wide given the scale of the small homes, and there are no sidewalks. This will cause drivers to go faster, which will force parents to keep children from using the street for play. Then there’s the faux porches, meant to replicate a common feature of homes in the South or East where families and neighbors swap gossip and tell tales. But these porches aren’t big enough for a single chair. “It’s decoration. They’re selling you something you’re not receiving,” Fielden says.
Now we’re in the southwest Valley, at the edge of an archipelago of development—subdivisions sometimes surrounded by empty lots, also called leapfrog development. We’re standing outside a complex filled with three-story single-family homes that Fielden approximates are a mere 6 feet 8 inches apart. Magic Johnson couldn’t lie down between them. The people live on top of one another, but they still have to go to their garages and hop in their cars to do anything.
Allowing this kind of sprawl was a mistake we will feel for years, Fielden thinks.
How did it happen? With dollar signs in its eyes, the community invited outside developers, the companies that made billions of dollars on tract homes in Southern California and Phoenix. And what did they bring? Southern California and Phoenix. They relied on the same business model: cheap land, the mass production of homes, a sharply limited variety of models.
Did it work in California? Then do it here. Like McDonald’s or Walmart.
Reed Kroloff, an architect who is director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and the former editor-in-chief of Architecture Magazine, says it’s almost foolish to think developers would do anything but replicate the winning formula, which made them so much money in the rest of the Sun Belt. Given their capital outlays for land and materials, the companies, many of which are eyed closely by shareholders, are extremely risk averse. “They don’t take chances.”
Their position was merely reinforced by federally backed lending polices, federally built roads and zoning policies they nudged into being. “It’s a circle, and a tight one, and a hard one to find your way out of.”
Fielden is reminded of the Malvina Reynolds song, the theme of the cable show Weeds:
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tack,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
After growing up here, Eric Strain left to study architecture at the University of Utah and wound up breaking a promise he made never to return to “this hellhole,” he says, half-joking. He came back in 1991 and started a boutique firm in 1997. Strain’s firm, assemblageSTUDIO, has designed Border Grill, striking modernist homes at the Ridges in Summerlin, and the student services and early childhood education buildings at UNLV.
We’re at a Mexican place near his office, an appealing loft space that also has the feel of a graduate school apartment with renderings and empty wine glasses, in a gritty part of Downtown. He tells an anecdote to properly sum up the building boom and what it wrought: He and about 50 others in the building community took a bus to Phoenix to see projects there. Suddenly someone at the back of the bus, with much commotion, yelled out, “We just passed my street! That’s my house!” Even the street name was the same in Phoenix as in Las Vegas. Think of it this way: Every cup of Starbucks coffee in Vegas tastes just like the one in Phoenix.
Strain, though, is insistently hopeful that the mania has passed and the city can become its more authentic self. This version would be more integrated and respectful of its natural environment, building an original aesthetic cultivated here rather than imported by “star” outsiders. (Strain was once told he could get more work in Las Vegas if he simply moved his firm to LA or New York.)
One outsider, one star, who has given us a significant structure, Strain thinks, is Frank Gehry, calling his Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health building an important milestone for its civic and aesthetic provocation.
“You can like or not like his building, but you know it. If everything that was created and everything we built everybody loved, it would just be more of the same,” he says. “And I think that’s where, in the good times, we got into such a rut, so that if it looked liked the one next door, then it was good.”
He points to the sameness of schools and firehouses with frustration—buildings that might have helped define a neighborhood and give it a sense of place, and for not very much money. One School District official told him the only priority was “butts in seats.”
“I don’t think we want to live in Disneyland,” he says, although it’s not clear if the populace would agree.
In the same vein of supporting diversity, Strain seems hopeful about CityCenter and its future. Despite grandiose claims, it isn’t clear that CityCenter has transformed Las Vegas in any meaningful way. It’s not a truly urban space. As Paul Goldberger put it in The New Yorker, CityCenter “isn’t much of a center, or much of a city.”
Strain says many urban spaces take years to change and evolve and meet their potential. Downtown Los Angeles has experienced this in the past decade. He expresses some confidence this will happen at CityCenter.
He shares a similar hope about UNLV, although as we drive there to walk through the campus, he expresses frustration. It’s a young university, badly in need of private donations, and in that quest successive administrations became far too deferential to big donors and their desires, which often weren’t aligned with the interests of the university or its students, Strain says.
“It’s tough to put your finger on what’s missing, but something is missing,” he says, on the campus of UNLV. Amid all the visual noise and insistent anti-intellectualism of Las Vegas, the university would ideally serve as an oasis of contemplation and dialogue, but also dialogue with the rest of the city.
We’re back Downtown, at an affordable housing complex at 211 N. Eighth St., a project designed by San Diego architect Rob Quigley. For Strain, it shows what architecture can do up and down the socioeconomic ladder. Outdoor circulation areas are wrapped in a playful blue netting that provides air flow. The windows are protected from the sun by chevrons, although natural light will still penetrate the windows. Unlike so many others, Quigley adapted his building to the desert.
“It shows we don’t need to treat people who need affordable housing to bad architecture, to put them in boxes,” Strain says.
The real question is: What now?
The architects are largely in agreement: We need to grapple with what we’ve done, learn from mistakes, and begin planning a new future, with the entire community playing a role.
Despite what’s happened, they are cheerful, optimistic even, that a new future can be had. Strain says if he had a pocketful of money, he’d be building. It’s time, he says.
Many of the out-of-town developers, the Tuscany crowd, have left. Fielden, as always, sums it up best: “So now we gotta go and un-fuck everything.”
Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Las Vegas Sun on December 19. We liked its snapshot of the Valley’s post-boom landscape so much, we decided to republish it.