The End of the Future?

A few short years ago, New Urbanism looked like the wave of tomorrow. Thanks for the memories.

A moment’s silence, please. We’ve come to bury the New Urbanism.

The Valley’s most ambitious live/work/play project, Henderson’s Inspirada, was bum-rushed by the economic crisis and lingers as an unfulfilled promise of what might have been. The scaffolding of Summerlin Centre’s mall looms hard along the western reaches of Interstate 215 like some kind of postmodern concept art. The New Urbanist-inspired Town Square has faced the prospect of foreclosure for half a year. And last week The District at Green Valley Ranch, the $85 million signature New Urbanist project of the early 2000s, was auctioned off for $50 million after struggling to pay its debts.

In the wake of the sale, real estate expert John Restrepo’s comments to the Las Vegas Review-Journal suggested that the last decade’s ambitious plans for mixed-use, semi-urban lifestyle centers were accidents of history—and unsustainable ones at that. New Urbanism, he said, was the “flavor of the month” in the booming mid-2000s, the offspring of fashionable ideas, high land prices and easy access to money. “In a normal capital market, when you try to create an urban environment in a suburban location, it probably would not have been funded,” he said. “The District was a product of its time.”

It was a bold statement: The dreamy, walkable future we’d been promised by such projects had been a mistake from the start! We’d been all wrong about the shape of things to come—even Restrepo himself, who told the Review-Journal in 2005 that the time had come for New Urbanist projects because developers “recognize the need to provide a different type of housing for a changing population.” When I called Restrepo to chat about it, he didn’t back off either his old thoughts or the new ones: What has changed—drastically—is the economic context. “What I was trying to say was that when we all thought we had a permanent up cycle in land prices, in real estate prices, [when] it appeared on the surface that single-family homes were not going to be affordable to large segments of the population, the alternative was to build these high-density projects to produce more affordable housing,” he said. “So we went toward this New Urbanist model that says we need to mix all these uses together and we could in a sense manufacture urbanized living.” But the urban experience was an expensive thing to manufacture, which resulted in high rents and upscale stores and all the market challenges this implies, especially after an economic downturn.

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New Urbanism, which came to national prominence in the mid-1990s, advocates walkable, mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhoods as an antidote to soulless, resource-consuming suburban sprawl. It has been successful in reprioritizing politicians and city planners toward the virtues of smart growth. (One of these emerging priorities, alternative transit, has been largely overlooked in Las Vegas projects.) New Urbanist ideas drew upon the past—one of the bibles of the movement is Jane Jacobs’ 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities—but they also looked a whole lot like the future.

New Urbanist projects have flourished across the country, and Las Vegas seemed to be a particularly fitting market for the “manufacture” of urban experience. Isn’t that what we’re best at around here—manufacturing experience? There are a few spots in town where we can shepherd along the organic growth of old urbanism, but for the most part, if we want urbanism of any kind, we need to make it from scratch.

The District was one of the Valley’s maiden efforts, and it had its drawbacks from the start: retail rents were high; some shop spaces were too large for the urban village concept. And the residential element of the New Urbanist trinity was doomed by The District’s decision to make its units into condos—many of which were kept empty by absentee investors—instead of apartments. But The District has also been a worthy laboratory for creating a new kind of space for Valley suburbanites—and with its carousel and Christmas tree and summertime family films, it has become the heart of its neighborhood.

There’s a reasonable argument to be made that The District’s difficulties say little about the viability of New Urbanism and everything about the international economic meltdown. The project was planned in an era of high land, material and construction prices, and the bursting of the bubble left it with expenses out of line with the new economic realities. The past few years have been undiscriminating in their appetite for destruction, and there are a whole lot of old-school suburban shopping centers and office buildings sitting half-empty in the Vegas desert. Nonetheless, one wonders if the New Urbanist model will suffer most of all here in the coming years: Land has become cheap again, and the temptation among developers and buyers will be to save dollars and return to business-as-usual, single-story suburbanism.

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My guess, though, is that New Urbanism is not dead in Las Vegas. The District will restructure its financing and soldier on. Town Square remains popular. Perhaps the Summerlin Centre project will be completed someday. Meanwhile, Majestic Realty’s proposed stadium-and-village project at UNLV may transform the campus into an attractive space for living, study, play and commerce. And urbanism in Las Vegas—the old-fashioned kind, built one block at a time rather than in massive master-planned chunks—still has a shot downtown or on busy strips along Paradise Road, Charleston Boulevard, Maryland Parkway and Sahara Avenue.

As for the fate of the suburbs, let’s not forget that they weren’t built in a day. It took more than 50 years to get where we are, and it’s going to take time to transform them. Along the way, there are bound to be imperfect steps and financial failures. But with gas prices on the rise again, land prices bound to increase and environmental challenges looming, we can’t use the setbacks as an excuse to return to old-style suburban planning.

Right now it may be fashionable to smirk at the New Urbanist projects of the last decade as laughable, fashionable hubris. But when the economy picks up again—and I can already see the earth-movers at work in my southwestern corner of town—we’d better spend some time imagining what we want our city to look like.