Still Banking on Downtown

Developer Cherry not discouraged despite ‘tough couple of years’

For developer Sam Cherry, it’s been “a tough couple of years, extremely tough.” Cherry was just 26 when he ushered in the short-lived era of condo living in downtown Las Vegas. He built two high-rises during the boom, Soho Lofts and Newport Lofts, and scotched a third as the economy was tanking. He admits that we’re not likely to see new condo projects of that scale for years to come.

But meeting in an unused ground-floor space at Soho Lofts, Cherry radiates laid-back confidence, dressed in jeans and sneakers while wearing a vintage Casio calculator wristwatch. Now a veteran developer at the age of 32, Cherry remains “hot” on downtown’s prospects. “There’s more going on in downtown right now than in the entire Valley,” he says. “That’s the feeling when I drive around. That’s encouraging.”

There are big projects targeted for the area and some new restaurants, but downtown is still more of a work in progress than a full-fledged neighborhood. And without the critical mass supplied by more people living downtown, it’ll take time to turn things around.

At the very least, excessive inventory at other condo projects, such as Juhl and Streamline, has to be absorbed first, and right now lending is tight. “One, the developers have been crushed; two, the lenders have been crushed, the contractors have been crushed; and most important, the people buying them have been crushed,” Cherry says. “There’s a lot of broken hearts and crushed dreams.”

Realtor “Downtown” Steve Franklin says he sees more people downtown, thanks in part to people buying homes nearby. But he agrees with Cherry that, as far as new residential construction, “We won’t see anything new there for the next five years easy.”

Instead, Cherry is moving ahead on two new fronts. One is a small 60-unit apartment complex, with financing through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, with market-rate one-bedroom rentals, ground-floor retail and the usual green accoutrements, such as solar panels and recycled water. If that project moves forward, ground could be broken by the end of the year. The other new direction is retail: Cherry plans a restaurant with a patio, as well as a lounge called the Lady Silvia—both planned for the large, empty space at Soho Lofts. The lounge is designed to feature 20-foot-tall bookcases and might be open by September.

Before the market crashed, Cherry was working on a third downtown high-rise, called the Stanhi. He had buyers who had put down deposits, a full set of construction documents and was preparing to go to the city for a building permit when he and his partners decided to pull the plug in late 2007. Despite abandoning the project early, though, millions of dollars still were lost.

To try to prime the pump for new development, the city of Las Vegas in February waived its $50,000 Urban Lounge Fee for new entertainment business downtown, which may help lure entrepreneurs to the area.

“Due to the market correction, there are some wonderful investment opportunities in residential and retail in the downtown market,” says Bill Arent, director of the city’s Office of Business Development.

Cherry says downtown needs “young people who have a vision” to enter the market. “We need 15 of those to jump in, get involved,” he says. “There are landlords that are willing to help, in this economy, get a business off the ground.”

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Neon Green

Neon Green

When land and resource economist Josef Marlow was preparing a study about Las Vegas earlier this year, the title of his report, “Growth and Sustainability in the Las Vegas Valley,” had his colleagues in the Tucson, Ariz., office of the nonprofit Sonoran Institute shaking their heads. “People were asking whether it was an oxymoron,” he says. It’s a fair question, even for those of us who live here. His answer? “On the surface it looks like one of the most unsustainable places on the planet. But there’s a lot of stuff under the surface.”