Reimagining Downtown Las Vegas: The way I see it

The following is part four in a series detailing the efforts of UI students as they work alongside influential Las Vegas entrepreneurs, including Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, to help reimagine the city’s downtown area. View the full series.

Note: Students are also posting Twitter Updates throughout the week using the “ReiDT” hashtag, while more official updates can be found via the group’s dedicated Twitter account.

By Sevy Perez

Reimagining Downtown
“Across North Las Vegas Blvd. sit eight vacant lots–lots that aren’t vacant because they’re under construction, they’re just abandoned…” Photo by Sevy Perez

So right now I’m sitting in my complementary crashpad, which is just one of 40 crashpads of 243 luxury residencies in a big white building called the Ogden. Tony lives at the Ogden. Pretty much anyone involved in the Downtown Project lives at the Ogden. And I’m looking out all nine of the checkered living room windows at the soon-to-be Zappos HQ, the old mod-style Las Vegas City Hall that sits on the intersection of North Las Vegas Blvd. and East Stewart Ave.

Across North Las Vegas Blvd. sit eight vacant lots–lots that aren’t vacant because they’re under construction, they’re just abandoned: a silent reminder that outside only a very small ‘Downtown Project’ radius, downtown Las Vegas is still largely underdeveloped and untapped.

Reimagine Downtown
Photo by Sevy Perez
The Phoenix/Needles exit ramp for Las Vegas Expressway 515 cuts alongside two of the vacant lots, one of which has a tiny old house on it (all of which I’m told Tony snatched up during the old city hall acquisition), and that–yesterday during my tour of the Zappos HQ construction site–they may turn the lots and that old house there into shopping or something; we don’t really know yet.

There’s a Pump N Snack gas station and 7-Eleven between the future HQ and the lots that are about to become really popular. Though it was just yesterday looking out these same windows from the cool, controlled 72-degrees inside my complementary crashpad–while I was activity mapping and recording details about the also soon-to-be reworked North Las Vegas-East Stewart intersection for my class project–I saw, in the middle of a hot, sunny, clear-skies day, a raggedy homeless man inexplicably just collapse on the sidewalk next to the 7-Eleven. He remained there until the ambulance arrived. And I think about this.

Sharing an elevator with a famous billionaire entrepreneur (who I never see wear anything but a Zappos T-shirt) and being then asked for change from a panhandler within twenty feet and ten seconds of each other almost gives me whiplash. Yesterday I had to carry a platter of sandwiches across town at night (don’t ask) and was actually scared to do it. On my way here to write this I leaned on a street pole that made a loud metal cracking sound that I hope I didn’t actually cause.

The prostitution hub for the area is a good fifteen-minute walk away. The Dollar Store around the corner sells lingerie and Lunchables. There are newspaper dispensers (the closest three grouped one block away) that house stapled magazines that tell me, in Comic Sans MS, that simply by calling 702.432.4134 I can have college girls delivered to my room in minutes.

There is no recycling in downtown Las Vegas because it’s “too expensive,” the only recycling done by people willing to do the arduous sorting and delivery work–and the homeless. There is no health clinic. There’s a food problem, no grocery store within walking distance, a water problem, a sprawl problem (there are only 14.5 people per square acre in the area; city status requires 100 people per square acre), no place to get a haircut, easy-access Red Bull (a necessity for hardworking, college-aged kids), no park, no benches on sidewalks (which are filthy), the list goes on.

What downtown Las Vegas does have is a lot of drinking, smoking, tattoos and enthusiasm. Infectious enthusiasm. It’s hard to describe Tony’s now infamous serendipity philosophy thing until it punches you in the head twice, until you’re a victim of it and you feel like your entire life may fundamentally shift because you just so happened to mention so-and-so in passing over dinner.

The best analogy for what’s happening here is what happened at Warhol’s Silver Factory, save the amphetamines and stuff–there’s even the silent, corner-hogging benefactor whose gravitational pull is so strong that I’m told people have left whole careers over bottles of wine to come help. And so what you have is a group of really interesting people orbiting around a single, capable entity that can together make a lot of really interesting stuff happen.

What the Silver Factory did to art, I believe the Downtown Project will to do business. I don’t feel as inspired as I do frightened and excited by typing that. But I think the important thing is that I at least feel something. The only thing missing in this analogy is the actual silver and tinfoil, though if you just substitute the exotic flower kitchen and post-it wall it works pretty well.

This is the danger: not that this experiment will succeed or fail, because you learn either way. The danger is that credit will not be given where it’s due, because a lot of this stuff is democracy drowned in an online shoe company. Now the Downtown Project doesn’t work this way; I know because they’ve told me. There isn’t room for ego in a place that substitutes Return on Investment with Return on Community. But everything’s only a couple steps short of feeling like a cult. Eating lunch at the Beat, the cafe everyone frequents, I overhear the term core values eight times. I get called a Zappos kid. People tell me things like we want you to want to stay.

My complementary crashpad comes with six complementary books: Triumph of the City, Renegades Write the Rules, The Startup Playbook, Delivering Happiness, and the Zappos 2010 and 2011 Culture Book, and I’m struck by the paradox of essentially prescribing creativity and the quote unquote creative process (I’ve never known what that means). But I get it. When you need 85.5 more people per square acre, you have to do some recruiting. And that’s what a lot of this is right now: recruiting, the early stages.

The choice to move and try to revitalize downtown Las Vegas is a highly calculated one. In fact, after total reflection and immersion, it’s the best choice that could’ve been made. You can’t rebuild something that doesn’t need rebuilding. And while few things are actually concrete here yet, they’re all being built or planned. The Downtown Project office is in a cocktail bar that at night becomes a real functioning cocktail bar. There aren’t any desks. You just work where you drink. Hospitalist and internal medicine doctor Zubin Damania (the internet celebrity rapper ZDoggMD) and his sidekick Assistant Director of Healthcare Initiatives Josh Levine (Josh.0) are tasked with fixing the healthcare problem in downtown Las Vegas, and they work out of the Beat.

So, I am but the faintest blip on the radar here. But a part of me actually does want to stay. I think core values are important. I’ll probably take Renegades Write the Rules. I’ve already read Delivering Happiness. Am I being inducted or recruited? I don’t know. But this is the most exciting place I’ve ever been. Because here it is, the way I see it: all this money, all this effort, all these people, they could be going toward much more comfortable lives in a much more comfortable place. And at the end of the day, they’re here, trying.