Robert Lang

Urban planning expert Robert Lang recently became a resident of the region he’s long been studying from afar. He left Alexandria, Va., to become executive director of the Brookings Mountain West initiative, based at UNLV. This collaboration between the venerable Brookings Institution and the university builds upon the work of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. For example, Lang believes his new city can use the strengths it gained through tourism—such as a great airport—to fuel a more economically diverse future.

What do you hope to bring to Las Vegas?

When you first move to a town, you’re most useful to it. I’ve been publishing about the West since the early 1990s, so I’m not out of left field. But I also have some distance that can bring a kind of re-imagining of the opportunities, if I may be so bold. After five years or so, I might go native and start to miss some of these things.

What opportunities is Las Vegas missing?

Las Vegas hasn’t fully leveraged its strength as a convening city. The city needs to look at the shows it brings in and determine what can turn into permanent industries. Simply hosting a meeting is not inconsequential. It can make a city a leading center for an industry. Look at World Market Center. It transformed an annual event into a permanent feature of the economy. People might scoff and say, “That’s not high-tech,” but all you have to do is look at Milan, Italy, to understand what impact design can have on an economy. Las Vegas has taken way too much from Tuscany in the last few decades and not enough from Milan.

What impact will CityCenter have on Las Vegas design?

This changes the model for what people think of Las Vegas. The city has come full circle from when it built the Strip and set a new model for the world in design. For the past 20 to 30 years, though, it’s been emulating other environments with neoclassical design. It is the largest-scale modernist mixed-use project in the country and sets a new model for how to do in-fill projects. I think this will prove to be the seed of a larger, more mature urbanism.

It’s such a massive project. Will it live up to its hype?

When they’re being built, massive projects like this can seem like a boondoggle. Rockefeller Center was controversial at the time. It was a bold modern project delivered during the Great Depression. They said it was too big, too ambitious. But it created Midtown, which is now the largest cluster of office space in the country. Historically, projects like this don’t fail. The only underperformer is the Renaissance Center in Detroit. It essentially built a fortress to separate itself from its city. CityCenter is a celebration of its city. I think it will be Las Vegas’ Rockefeller Center.

Where else will Las Vegas’ revival come from?

Las Vegas still has almost none of the branch offices for producer services we’d expect—insurance, advertising, management consulting, accounting, those types of companies. These firms establish themselves in world cities with well-connected airports because the business travelers won’t tolerate stopovers. With its direct flights, Las Vegas should be a global hub. Instead, that business is going to L.A.

L.A. is a Faustian bargain for Las Vegas. It’s the giver of so many good things; it’s provided the influx of growth over the last two decades. But it’s also that big sucking sound to the west. It dominates the West more than New York dominates the East.

How can we turn that around?

If you seek to attract, then you will start attracting. It’s pretty straight-forward economic development strategy. In the West there’s this ethos that this stuff just happens. It doesn’t just happen. This region hasn’t historically made the investments—in universities, for example—needed to attract venture capital. And it hasn’t done enough to convince the federal government to help build up its infrastructure. In fact, we’re about to publish a report about how the region isn’t getting its fair share of stimulus dollars.

Where would you direct those dollars? Build Interstate 11 between Las Vegas and Phoenix. That needs to be fixed now. I’m actually angry about that. I mean, there’s a freeway connecting Lubbock and Amarillo, Texas, but not between Las Vegas and Phoenix. These are the two largest adjacent cities in the country not connected by a freeway. This stretch is supposed to be a trade corridor between Mexico and Canada, and we’ve got a two-lane road? The whole country suffers as a result.

I’d also build the high-speed train between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. With no extra capacity on the freeway between here and L.A., you really feel it, through a hot desert, on a three-day weekend. It’s totally dysfunctional. High-speed rail is most appropriate for replacing short plane trips. It’s much more energy efficient, about a third the energy cost. And it will free up terminals to take in more long-distance and international flights.

Follow Lang and Brookings Mountain West research at brookingsmtnwest.unlv.edu. The site includes links to the original Mountain Mega report and other publications that track and evaluate economic indicators.

topics: Seven Questions
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