A Tale of Two City Centers

Our new ‘evolutionary destination’ brings to mind another urban experiment the city was high on a several years back

My short-but-sweet stay at City Center was marked by cheap rent, eccentric neighbors more likely to borrow a smoke than some milk and being shook down by Metro Police outside the complex. Oh, and how could I forget the helicopter-assisted manhunts I watched from the bedroom window?

I’m, of course, talking about City Center apartments, on Bridger Avenue between Eighth and Ninth streets, where I lived from 2003 to 2005. Why, is there another City Center in town?

While journalists from Beatty to Barcelona flocked to the CityCenter on the south Strip and penned love letters to the “eye-popping” (actual adjective used by a journalist) resort, I headed north. I already had CityCenter fatigue: key numbers memorized (67 acres, $8.5 billion, 12,000 employees); a working knowledge of artist Jenny Holzer; “pocket park” burned into my vocabulary. And Aria hadn’t even opened yet.

All the hype drove me back to the old City Center, where the adjectives are more along the lines of “modest,” “understated” and “below-the-radar.” Also, I was curious how this urban experiment had turned out.

A joint venture between the city of Las Vegas, the federal government and developer SDA Inc., City Center apartments opened in August 2003. The 300-unit middle-income complex sits on 1.5 acres, cost $28 million and employs 12 people. Designed to provide an affordable and convenient place for downtown casino workers to live, it was part of the city’s work-shop-and-live-here push. (Remember that?) It was a piece of the revitalization puzzle and came with its own hype.

I believed the hype. And though there was always action on the surrounding streets, City Center apartments proved to be safe and clean. (The coolest thing about living there: When I wanted to know the time or temperature, I simply looked out the window at the sign atop Binion’s.)

Entering the building for the first time since moving out, I had several questions. Has it lived up to the hype? What do staff and tenants think about the new CityCenter? Have the apartments been affected by the recession?

“We thought the recession would help us, because of all the foreclosed homes and the affordable rent here, but it hasn’t,” said Ray Orchard, general manager of City Center since it opened. “I guess a lot of people that lost their homes moved out of town and people that lived here at the complex lost their jobs and that affected us, too. We’ve gone down to 80 percent [occupancy].”

From 2003 to 2007, City Center was at or near 100 percent occupancy and oftentimes had a waiting list for one- and two-bedroom apartments, Orchard said. Things were so flush that SDA was planning to open another four-story complex down the street. Like most Las Vegas development projects, it’s on hold.

MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren has been quoted as saying the CityCenter resort needs to make $2.5 million a day to turn a profit. “What does City Center apartments need to make?” I asked Orchard, while sitting in his office.

“We have a number, but I don’t discuss it,” he said. “We’re breaking even right now.”

He added that the complex—which has had an occupancy rate as low as 74 percent—is fliering, advertising and offering referral fees and move-in specials to attract tenants.

“Has it fulfilled its promise?” I asked Orchard when he told me the retail space on the first floor was never leased out and now serves as storage.

“It’s allowed people to afford a brand-new apartment downtown. We’re within walking distance of the Fremont Street casinos. And about 30 percent of our residents are seniors and probably 30 to 35 percent work downtown.”

When asked about “soaring” (actual adjective used by a journalist) CityCenter resort, Orchard cracked a Mona Lisa smile and said SDA should’ve registered the name. But—though complimentary of the resort—he isn’t envious.

“Why pay a million and a half dollars for a condo when you can have a nice unit here for $710 a month, including utilities?”

He also noted that the apartments and resort are unique—but that hasn’t stopped people from confusing them. In the lobby of the apartments, leasing agent John Mitchell told me he gets one or two calls a day asking, “Can you connect me to the hotel?”

“Then they’re like, ‘Oh, how do you get away with using their name?’” Mitchell said. “And I’m like, ‘We were here first!’”

On the way out of City Center, I ran into Ricky Smith. He told me he’s a construction worker who hasn’t had a steady gig in three years and he’s lived at the apartments for a year. When I asked about the “polished” (another actual adjective) resort, he said he’d never heard of it.

I gasped, then filled him in.

He shrugged. “Sounds like it was built for rich people. If it’s not helping me or the community, I really don’t care about it.” Then he asked me for a smoke.

Perspective restored, I circled the building and approached my car, CityCenter resort’s media materials echoing in my head: “urban destination,” “public spaces,” “pedestrian corridors,” “diversity of experiences,” “evolutionary destination that aims to transform Las Vegas as a new symbol at its core.” All that—and the name—sounded awfully familiar.-