How Cool Comes of Age

Fremont East has planted the seeds of something special. How can we keep it growing?

Pull up a chair inside the lively but not too-crowded Beat coffeehouse if you want to enjoy what the city and a handful of brave entrepreneurs have crafted in turning East Fremont Street into downtown’s entertainment district.

In front of me, a sweet mocha latte. Behind me, a guy explaining to his friends the girl he can’t get out of his mind: “This girl troubled my little brain and I don’t know why.” And on the warm street outside, through the large corner window, a parade of passersby: black and white, single and married, young and old—not many kids, though, just one tyke pushing at the crosswalk button—people with cameras around necks, or with beers in hand, or dressed up, or dressed down.

It’s damn nice sight, this urban appetizer, our little taste of regular city living. Fremont has great retro-looking neon signs, smart and stylish bars like the Beauty Bar and the Griffin. But leave it to Vegas to have the chutzpah to call a few blocks of signs and a handful of bars and night spots a full-fledged “entertainment district”—Fremont East. Now, if you go to the city’s website it will tell you that the district runs three blocks east of Las Vegas Boulevard and takes in Ogden Avenue, one block north, and Carson Avenue, one block south. But go there yourself and you’ll realize that Fremont East is, at best, a two-block concoction—and really it packs almost its entire punch on one block.

Look, you gotta start somewhere, and seeing Fremont East lit up at night is one of the city’s best treats. But let’s not get carried away. A block or two does not a district make. We’ll need more if we want Fremont East to help solidify downtown Las Vegas as a place that matters.

“I want what exists in every other city,” says Michael Cornthwaite, who operates The Beat and the nearby Downtown Cocktail Room. Cornthwaite is one of the most visible faces of downtown’s ongoing rejuvenation, and he runs off a list of amenities still missing: “We’re missing cinema, both mainstream and art cinema. We’re missing theater. We’re missing a good amount of shopping. A wine and cheese store. A gym. It would be nice to have someplace where you didn’t have to drive three miles to work out. Pool halls and various forms of entertainment. More offices.” Cornthwaite also suggests small-business incubators.

We wouldn’t expect all of that to go in and around Fremont, but for Fremont to do a better job leading the downtown revitalization charge, it will need to provide more uses for more kinds of people. Single-use districts tend to draw certain people only on special occasions. Having more uses not only brings more people into the area, it brings the same people in on a more regular basis. Consider the Gaslamp District in San Diego, or Lower Downtown in Denver: Both offer—spread across many city blocks, admittedly—a variety of entertainment, housing and retail. There’s always something different to see. We don’t want Fremont East to be only a hipster hangout, but a place everyone has a reason to come enjoy.

It’s a worthy goal, and a difficult one to reach. One problem, Cornthwaite says, is city bureaucracy. “Even to this day I deal with little permitting issues that they make into a big deal. It causes time delays and it’s expensive.” The best thing the city can do, he says, is “get out of the way and make things easier for businesses looking to open.”

Ric Truesdell, who has served nearly seven years on the city’s planning commission, agrees. “The city, over the last year, has been recrafting its entire development code. I’m a developer, a broker. I am the most pro-business person sitting on the commission. I understand what Michael is concerned about.”

The city did pour $5.5 million in 2007 for streetscape improvements, including those tremendous signs. The city’s redevelopment agency can also reimburse businesses up to $95,000 for renovations to facades or installation of signs. For the last year, the city has also waived its $20,000 tavern license to help businesses get started (the waiver has been renewed through February 2012). Downtown has established beachheads at Fremont East and on Charleston Boulevard.

But now is the time to think more creatively along Fremont. How about a jazz club? A poetry slam venue? A comic book shop? The El Cortez has hosted two storytelling events (presented by Vegas Seven) that drew large crowds and suggested there’s plenty of untapped appetite for the urban lifestyle. The Neon Reverb music fest is a hit, but perhaps we can go further. Downtown Realtor Steve Franklin suggests Fremont could use a “serious live music venue,” a small 500-to-1,000-seat venue that could bring in the sort of quality national acts that can’t fill the large music venues on the Strip but could help “program” downtown as the hip alternative to mainstream Strip glitz. Grammy-winning jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding, anyone? Downtown Las Vegas will always have to confront the Strip, because the Strip will always have a claim on being the real downtown of Las Vegas, insofar as we measure downtown as the place with the most people, most jobs and most energy—the place that represents a city’s ambitions most clearly, the place we take our friends from out of town.

But everyone knows that the real heartbeat of a city is in its neighborhoods. Want to know the real New York? Leave Midtown—better yet, get over to Queens or Brooklyn. Want to know the real Chicago? Get off Michigan Avenue and out of the Loop. Sure, if downtown is just a neighborhood, why make a big deal out of it? Because, frankly, we don’t have many neighborhoods in Las Vegas. We have subdivisions, we have anonymous gated communities near long, anonymous commercial streets anchored by large, anonymous supermarket chains. Maybe one kick-ass neighborhood will give us a taste for more.

So I’m OK with a downtown Las Vegas that feels more like a great city neighborhood than the bustling center of a region. Whatever we do downtown, let’s not feel obligated to look for big, signature projects. Instead, let’s encourage developers to come downtown with small-scale but visionary dreams; let’s encourage residents to move downtown and provide a base for local businesses. Achieving critical mass downtown will require determined, smart and small steps. Lots of them.

That approach may produce a downtown that balances vitality and livability, density with room to breathe. “When you get into an urban setting,” Truesdell notes, “you have to plant a lot of seeds and pour a lot of water.” The first seeds have been planted on Fremont East. The true harvest is still to come.