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A Condo in the Arts District?

Artists don’t want a tower in their community

Chuck Twardy

Sunset-backlit, the Spring Mountains have taken on the lilac and powder-yellow hues of a Maxfield Parrish print, neatly complimenting the murals on the cottages facing Colorado Street. A group of 25 artists and arts-district supporters has gathered around the space between the two pairs of modest dwellings, which are not likely to be around much longer.


Painter Dray and photographer Christine Wetzel, who rent the two muraled houses, have convened the outdoor, evening meeting. They are concerned about the early signs of the gentrification process typical of any urban area that becomes known as an arts district. It sent SoHo packing to Chelsea in downtown Manhattan, but no one knows where Dray and Wetzel will go if a proposed 43-story condo tower is built on the spot.


"A high-rise would take away the sense of community," says Dray, who says he'd like the city to buy the property, three parcels on the southwest corner of Colorado and Casino Center Boulevard, and build a community arts center on it.


On April 13, the City of Las Vegas Planning Commission approved rezoning the property, from high-density residential to general commercial (allowing for a mixed-use development), but voted to postpone consideration of the project's site development plan until its meeting Thursday, because of a typo in official notification documents that listed the tower at 34 stories instead of 43. According to the Planning and Development staff report, which recommends approval, 34 stories of condominiums would rest on a foundation comprising eight stories of parking and nearly 8,300 square feet of retail space at ground level.


It's precisely the sort of development that Mayor Oscar Goodman has promoted in the effort to bring residents and vitality to Downtown Las Vegas, but it would seem to clash with his other vision for a vibrant arts district.


"We're with the development that's going to bring more people down here," Dray tells the group, but he says that artists like Wetzel and himself are "the pulse of everything" that has made the area thrive. "Why put a high-rise right here, right in the heart" of the district?


Ideas sweep through the group, from starting a website, to seeking pre-emptive historical designation for other parcels in the district, to picketing. Dray tries to steer the group from the last idea, but it's clear he and the others are upset that the tower proposal arrived suddenly on the scene. "The only warning was the sign," says artist Dana Greenwald, a member of Blank Canvas and a friend Wetzel enlisted to help organize support.


Over an hour's discussion, as the hills fade to gray and the gaudy lights of the Stratosphere take over as the pre-eminent element of the cityscape, the group agrees to attend Thursday's meeting and to speak in civil tones against the tower and for a community center.


But it's unclear how much support they will get from others in the arts district. (Technically the land is partly in the arts district but a remapping will include all of it, according to the staff report.)


"I'd rather see those cottages stay with artists in them," says Jerry Misko II, an artist, a Las Vegas native and coproprietor of Dust Gallery, around the corner on Main Street. But he says he will reserve judgment on the project until he learns more about it.


"My own personal jury is still out, I guess," says Cindy Funkhouser, who owns The Funk House antique store and gallery directly across Colorado Street. Funkhouser also is president of the nonprofit arts organization Whirlygig Inc., and the founder of First Friday. Colorado Street and Casino Center Boulevard are blocked to car traffic and open to street-festival events each First Friday.


"We are quickly losing space where artists can afford to live or work Downtown," says Funkhouser, who plans to attend the Planning Commission meeting. "I want to see what that project is," she says. "I think they [the owners] need to have that opportunity" to make their case for the project.


The deed for the property shows that Mythic Management LLC of Canoga Park, California, bought it a year ago for $1 million from Income Properties America LLC. But a group called 1300 South LLC is in negotiations with Mythic to buy it, according to Bill Skupa of Fine Properties. Skupa says he did not know about the opposition to the project and is reluctant to discuss it, given the negotiations. He says, though, that the proposed tower is in keeping with the city's plans for the area.


And the staff report notes that it is "generally consistent with the goals and objectives of the Downtown Centennial Plan."


If the Planning Commission approves the site plan, City Council will consider it May 17.


It seems unlikely that the group opposing the tower will prevail, given the history of arts districts here and elsewhere. But the city and developers would be wise to pick up on the idea of an artists community center somewhere in the district, given that artists and galleries have made it an attractive area to develop. It could be one way to preserve an arts district at the core of the redevelopment it helps to generate.

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