That Empty Feeling

Gauging the mood of our overbuilt, under-occupied city

Photo by Francis George

Photo by Francis George

Margaret Casey took a job two years ago at the World Market Center and moved to Las Vegas from San Francisco, where she’d lived for 22 years. The native Australian was one of the first residents to settle into a condo at the Newport Lofts downtown. She had spectacular views of the city and the mountains. She was minutes from her office.

The only thing missing, it turns out, were her neighbors.

Casey estimates that Newport is about one-third full today, but there was a period where no one lived on her floor. There are still days when she runs into no one. All of that solitude, it turns out, has spooked her once or twice. “It’s like a haunted house in there,” she says. “I’ll jump out of my skin if something rattles. But usually it’s the wind.”

On the bright side, circumstances have brought her closer to the handful of neighbors. “We greet each other like long-lost friends,” she says. “And, by default, there’s so few people in the building it’s easy to keep track of everything going.”

Ah, emptiness! It’s everywhere these days. And yet, even in the grip of a recession that has, for the moment, stunted the population growth in Clark County, we seem to love our empty space. At least on the surface. The suburbs, of which Las Vegas has its share, is the promise of empty space, after all. No one calls it “empty space,” of course. It’s simply space. But it’s what draws us here. Abundant space. Cheap space. And all the freedom of mobility, and lack of prying eyes that comes with it. Owning your own castle only works if you have a bit of space to surround it.

Emptiness has even taken hold in the isolated pockets of dense high-rises that developers attempted to build during the “aught years.” To witness this conundrum—empty urbanscapes that were designed to be full—take a drive down the stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard from the M Resort toward Town Square. It would seem to have all the makings of a compelling urban-style district: linear and accessible, with major attractions along the way, such as the South Point casino and the Las Vegas Outlet Center. This may have been the thinking of developers last decade, who plunked down high-rises and multi-block condos in a bid to turn the South Strip into a hip and fashionable address.

The results are the half-full urban-style residential buildings along the road, such as Boca Raton, the Manhattan and Loft 5. The most forlorn of the bunch may be One Las Vegas. Nicely appointed on the inside and terminally bland on the outside, the twin beige towers hold down a vast, windswept chunk of dirt near the intersection of Windmill Lane and Interstate 15, like something out of The Book of Eli. In a weird way, some of these places look like they were built to be empty.

But it’s not weird to everyone. Nicole Henriquez moved into One Las Vegas, where occupancy is about 30 percent. And she couldn’t be happier in her sparsely populated digs. “It’s nice,” she says. “You know everybody there. You don’t see too many people in the elevator.”

So what gives? Does having a slack urban fabric actually suit us?

Maybe we don’t think of empty space as permanence in Las Vegas; maybe we simply see it as potential. Maybe it’s just part of a continuing Wild West tradition here. Drive around the Strip and you’ll find the forever empty space at the intersection of Sahara Avenue and the Strip, and those vast parcels just east of MGM Grand and Bally’s. There are huge chunks throughout downtown, not to mention south of the Strip. Everywhere, it seems. Always has been.

The empty spaces of many big cities are more akin to blight—a negative space due to hard times. Not open space at the fringes but blank spaces right in the middle of town. We don’t really have those spaces here because we don’t choose to see them that way. Space simply never languishes in Las Vegas; it is instead destroyed and rebuilt. We’ve always seen it as space reserved for the inevitable casino expansion or next master-planned community. Maybe today’s empty spaces are a continuing sign of the limitlessness of our aspirations, not of market failure. Just look at the wildly popular Town Square, which is surrounded by acres of parking lots, and further surrounded (especially to the north) by underutilized land. The eye tends not to notice the emptiness; rather, it sees all the room Town Square has for expansion.

And yet maybe this is an old notion of empty space—a naively optimistic one. Somehow these newer kinds of empty space—the half-built or abandoned variety—feel a bit more depressing. The Valley is full of them: a partial high-rise just north of the Rio; a series of steel shells south of Red Rock Casino, the would-be home of a giant retail center; the Echelon and Fontainebleau mega-projects on the Strip. These buildings-in-waiting are the empty spaces of our overreach, of our failure. Spaces like these suggest Las Vegas is not the singular city it likes to believe it is, but only one city among many that are susceptible to national and global forces that it has absolutely no chance to control.

The most striking of these hulks might be Manhattan West. The large mixed-used complex, in the largely vacant vicinity of Interstate 215 and Russell Road, is a complex of buildings with a jumble of faux-urban facades. It wouldn’t be a beautiful project even if it were complete, but here, cordoned off with fencing, devoid of people, the emptiness has an especially bitter taste.

Manhattan West’s façade is marked by a few broken windows—but even more so by brand-new ones that have the manufacturer’s stickers still attached. Here and there are splotchy bursts of paint, and most everywhere are the small wood forms that look like they help set the railings of the balconies that ring the project. At the western edge, a curving nine-story building is partially sheathed in glass; the rest of the façade is buttoned up with insulation, but it is like looking at a kid bundled up to face a winter day but unable to get outside.

A few semitrailers are parked in the dirt. A string of lonely wooden poles carry in the handful of black wires that might one day power the place. Below, in the dirt, are the tracks of bulldozers. Above, long, long contrails arc across the enormous blue sky. This is the type of empty space that laughs at our ambitions, our boundless optimism, our arrogance. This is the empty space that deals a blow to countless other would-be Cities of the World—the realization that one’s city is not immune to the passage of time, to limitation. Perhaps these are the empty spaces that mark the passage of a city from youth to adulthood—the sense that greatness is not assured, that every city has its day in the sun, and that day inevitably comes to an end.

Of course, if you live in the southwest corner of the valley, empty space is more than a notion. It’s everywhere. Out there we’re surrounded by raw desert. Roads routinely cut through the desert for a mile or more before they pass a new community or shopping center. Living out there is like watching a game from the top rows of a stadium; we’re part of the action and removed from it at the same time.

The dialectic of empty space in Las Vegas can hit you this way. Drive around the southwest and you can dream that this empty space might someday be developed in a radically interesting way. Sustainable homes. Pedestrian trails. Walkable commercial strips. Imagine if we actually learned something about ourselves as a community as the city picks up again. Who knows? Maybe we’ll all learn to drive less, go local, go organic … Or not. When the market recovers, we will build more of the same strip malls and homes that we’ve built here for 30 years. That’s what signifies success and prosperity. We will develop these empty spaces, but in truth, we will be preserving our notions of space. Enough space for everyone. That’s the reality of Las Vegas: We swallow up empty space in order to produce the space that people desire. We replace real empty space with its artificial facsimile. No wonder we don’t really notice.

But unless the city’s fortunes turn around, we may begin to.

Of course, Las Vegans are a resilient bunch. Even the newcomers. Casey is proud of being an urban pioneer. “I’m comfortable in an urban environment,” she says. “I’m committed to building community. I wasn’t afraid; I was looking forward to it. I still have a very positive attitude about the neighborhoods.” And she, too, is somewhat pleased she never has to wait for the elevator.