The Mayor of Downtown

Oscar Goodman bet his legacy on an urban renaissance. Did he pull it off?

A dozen years ago, when he was a rookie Las Vegas mayoral candidate, the mob lawyer Oscar Goodman—who had once flicked away FBI agents and federal prosecutors like lint from a smoking jacket—decided that he wanted to be loved. So the first thing he did was tell the city how much he loved it. The 1990s perception that Sin City had sinned enough, he said, was all wrong: He went the Gospels one better and told us that he loved both the sinner and the sin. He was elected by a landslide. For three terms, Goodman celebrated the city’s mob heritage, its adoration of women in feathers and its civic bar tab. But he knew that while image can bring infatuation, love requires deeds. And already in 1999, he had chosen the task on which he’d gamble his legacy: When Steve Wynn floated the notion of building a downtown arena, Goodman’s imagination took five steps forward to what he really wanted. “This,” he told The New Yorker, “could be the beginning of transforming downtown into the city of the millennium.”

The arena, of course, was never built. But what’s telling in the comment is Goodman’s outsize vision and seemingly naive elation about the prospects of downtown Las Vegas. For more than 30 years, as the legend of “Vegas” and the wealth of the Las Vegas Valley grew, downtown had remained both a civic embarrassment and an insoluble riddle for the city’s leaders. Newly minted mayors, of course, often make the sort of comment Goodman made to The New Yorker—it’s what they’re paid to do, and, in Las Vegas, where the mayor is a nearly ceremonial presence in a council-manager form of government, it’s nearly all they’re paid to do. But Oscar was different—a seasoned expert in the art of making words matter. When your star client is fondly known as Tony the Ant, all you’ve got, besides the dubious facts, is the power of rhetoric and gesture.

The very fact that every previous mayor had failed to save downtown made the task one to savor. In its rowdy wisdom, Las Vegas had chosen a man who lived to find the biggest barricade and drive through it. Early in his City Hall tenure, Goodman narrowed the scope of his goals and took dead aim at the one that mattered most to him. In the 1999 campaign, he had spoken about elevating education and reviving the perennially downtrodden (and routinely forgotten) Westside. But he became neither the “education mayor” nor a tireless fighter for the city’s African-American community.

What he became was the mayor of downtown—or rather, part of downtown, a pizza slice bounded by Interstate 15 to the west, U.S. 95 to the north, Charleston to the south and Seventh Street to the east. That’s not to say he didn’t care about other areas or broader issues—one of the quiet triumphs of his tenure was his firm but collegial management of the City Council, which dealt with all sorts of issues. But Goodman understood that the real power of the Vegas mayor is the power of the pulpit, and that his best chance for a lasting legacy was to turn downtown into his revival tent. This man, with his hard-earned reputation for gin-swilling and shooting from the lip, was formidable in his narrative discipline. Sure, he spent plenty of breath as an international ambassador for the very idea of Vegas—a happy-go-lucky troubadour for the virtues of wine, women, song and business growth. But when he spoke directly to the home crowd, he spun a more concrete yarn. It was the story of Manhattan-on-the-Mojave, and he was determined to keep telling it until it came true.

Even at the end of Goodman’s long tenure, the tale is still far from finished. Downtown remains home to its traditional mix of vacant stores, well-tagged walls, faceless government buildings and unkempt weekly motels, not to mention the jarring transitions from new-found vibrancy to seedy desperation. (Try the intersection of Fremont and Seventh.) But consider this: In 1999, there was no Fremont East, no Symphony Park, no World Market Center, no high-rise residential development, no Las Vegas Premium Outlets, no Gehry-built Cleveland Clinic, no performing arts center and no impending arrival of an online-shoe-dealer-philosopher-king with dreams of underwriting the birth of the Vegas creative class. There was only the Fremont Street Experience and the construction site that was slowly and sadly growing into Neonopolis.

The Beauty of Small

In any city, says Robert Dorgan, the soon-to-depart director of UNLV’s Downtown Design Center, the mayor is the real chief urban planner. And in downtown Las Vegas, which by 1999 had nowhere to go but up and no agreed-upon plan for getting there, mayoral leadership could be particularly potent. As it evolved—with the sharp input of the Downtown Redevelopment Agency—Goodman’s downtown strategy had three elements: beautification, baby steps and big bang.

The beautification approach brought the renovation of the Historic Fifth Street School and the Lewis Street Corridor, where the city took significant steps—including the much-maligned but not unlovely “Oscar’s River”—to create a walking avenue from the federal courthouse to … the jail. (It’s not such an impractical walk, after all.) Meanwhile, Goodman famously—and, it’s fair to say, single-handedly—willed the renovation of one of Las Vegas’ most beautiful buildings, the 1933 federal courthouse and U.S. post office, into the Mob Museum, a nod to his wiseguy past and a linchpin of his mayoral legacy.

The baby-steps approach, meanwhile, is most evident at Fremont East, where the pioneering spirit of entrepreneurs has begun to transform not only the face of the area, but its soul. During his first campaign, Goodman said he’d like to see a corridor of bookshops, coffeehouses and music venues; he hasn’t gotten that, but he’s wound up with a sweet little block of bars. The stretch of Fremont between Las Vegas Boulevard and Sixth Street is one of the unambiguous successes of the Goodman years. And it’s an instructive one, in which city government didn’t attempt to create vibrancy out of whole cloth, but instead fostered the conditions for success and then did its level best to get out of the way and let small-business owners spin their idiosyncratic dreams.

The Fremont East District was officially created in 2002, but it was not until 2007 that the city hit its stride in helping the pioneers along: That year’s $5.5 million street redesign gave the block the old-time, rough-hewn neon sheen that the Fremont Street canopy had robbed from the neighboring casinos; suddenly a modest avenue of bars was more Vegas than Binion’s. In 2010, the city doubled down on its Fremont East bet by instituting a (long-overdue) moratorium on tavern license fees in the district. Meanwhile, the area may have benefited from the recession; when the phantom promise of big money faded, landlords liberated space at reasonable rents for small-scale business.

Step into the Downtown Cocktail Room or the Griffin or the Vanguard Lounge today and you’ll see clusters of young, smartly dressed and somewhat overeducated people—fancy drinks in hand, of course—speaking conspiratorially about anything from the latest book to the latest business deal. There’s a certain clubbiness among the pioneers that marks a crucial moment in the area’s evolution: For 40 years, downtown Las Vegas has been waiting for a critical mass of non-casino folk to claim ownership, proclaim itself the in-crowd and create the kind of mystique that everyone wants to get in on. The Fremont East District is tiny; if you’re staring at your smartphone as you walk by, you might miss it entirely. But this is where the revolution is happening, one bar at a time.

Further evidence of the baby-steps approach is scattered all across downtown: Goodman helped transform what once was a small bohemian redoubt on Charleston—sustained largely on the vision of a single photographer/activist, Wes Myles—into a full-fledged Arts District, complete with a crowd and a soul of its own. Goodman’s energetic championing of the district’s First Friday celebration lent a Valley-wide buzz to what could have wound up a modest monthly gathering of like-minded souls.

Goodman also championed downtown residential space, and although the cycle of boom and bust left downtown with canceled projects and plenty of empty units, it’s hard to argue with his belief that a successful downtown is one where people actually live. At the right scale (and, admittedly, the scale wasn’t always right during the boom), dense residential development is a crucial box on the baby-steps flow chart. Eyes on the street mean safety. Kitchens in the loft give birth to the corner store and the farmers market.

When the young Las Vegas developer Sam Cherry went out on a very long limb in 2003 to build Soho Lofts, downtown’s first residential high-rise, he admittedly had an eye on the luxury market. But his larger vision was to create the critical residential mass for a thriving neighborhood. This was before the mid-2000s hothouse phase of “Manhattanization,” when scores of luxury “skyscrapers” were proposed and swiftly scuttled all across the Valley. Cherry wasn’t trying to get in on an ongoing gold rush; he was proposing something that simply didn’t exist.

“I always thought it was amazing that we had this city with 1.5 million people and no real downtown area,” he says. “And with the mayor being a cheerleader and constantly talking about downtown, it really piqued our interest.” Cherry was 25 years old when he went to City Hall to share his vision with Goodman. “He looked at me like I was a maniac,” he says. “But in the same breath, he said, ‘I’m so excited that someone is coming into my office with a concept. If you can get this going …’”

Goodman didn’t offer anything more than encouragement, but Cherry left inspired. Soho Lofts opened in 2006, with the mayor toasting Cherry as a “pioneer.” Today it’s at 90 percent occupancy. Goodman seemed particularly approving this year when the young builder thumbed his nose at the recession and started cobbling together the elements of a neighborhood on his own: The first floor of Soho is now home to a small grocery store, Resnicks; a bar, Lady Silvia (both owned by Cherry); and Globe Salon. But Cherry’s not looking to create a master-planned block on Hoover Street, populated by Sam Cherry businesses: The dream is for one pioneering act to lure another, until the downtown club is big enough, and diverse enough, for all of us.

The Iffy Thrill of the Big

The problem with the perceived need to “fix” an entire section of a city is that it leads to the temptation to find “a fix.” There’s always some master-planned mega-project on urban drawing boards that will wash away the old and open the economic floodgates, complete with a multiplex and a Victoria’s Secret. Downtown Las Vegas has a monument to this kind of thinking. It is called Neonopolis. Some planners and architects are suspicious of the big-bang approach, with its promise of sweeping longstanding problems away with one magical swipe of the civic credit card. But Goodman’s record shows a nuanced—and perhaps instinctive—understanding of the need for interplay between baby-steps development and big-ticket dreams.

From the late 1960s until the mid-1990s, Las Vegas’ downtown-revival discussion was dominated by a single big-bang question: how to save the iconic but increasingly seedy Glitter Gulch stretch of Fremont Street. In 1995, Mayor Jan Jones settled the issue by putting a canopy over the street and closing it to traffic. The roof imposed a mall-like uniformity on the neon jungle, simultaneously saving and killing the place. Crucially for Goodman, it also removed the gulch from save-the-city deliberations. He was thus free to focus on blanker slates, and the first place he turned his attention was the old Union Pacific rail yard behind the Plaza Hotel. He called those 61 acres “the best piece of urban real estate in the country,” and in 2000 he obtained them in exchange for 97 acres in northwest Las Vegas. This became Goodman’s brownfield of dreams—the linchpin to the future not only of downtown, but of the entire metropolitan area.

The acreage—initially dubbed Union Park—never quite dislodged itself from Goodman’s longing for a big-time sports franchise. In August 2008, a month before Lehman Brothers short-circuited and took the world down with it, Goodman was talking up an 80,000-seat stadium that would house all Super Bowls and Monday Night Football games. “Believe me,” he told the Las Vegas Sun, “they need us more than we need them.” This, of course, followed years of trying to lure Major League Baseball’s Montreal Expos—who ultimately moved to Washington, D.C.—and the Florida Marlins, who, come to think of it, probably should have come to Las Vegas.

Goodman has tried so hard, for so long, to build stadiums and seduce teams that it’s easy for Las Vegans—schooled well in skepticism by the real-estate crash—to roll their eyes. But Goodman relished the dark art of the impossible. And in his stadium quests he was straightforward about the fact that he wasn’t trying to feed the city’s pocketbook, but its soul: “Other mayors see sports as a vehicle for economic vitality,” he told The New York Times in 2005. “But we’re booming. We’ve got a new person coming to town every six minutes. The missing part is a sense of belonging, a sense of self.” The problem was that in reaching outward for a sense of self, Goodman sometimes looked past the care and feeding of the gifts the city already had. The ceaseless courtship of a major league squad no doubt complicated efforts in the Valley to build a new home for the Las Vegas 51s. (It probably didn’t help that one of the most promising Triple-A stadium schemes would have moved the 51s to Henderson.)

For all the tenacity of his stadium pursuit, Goodman’s vision for the Union Pacific acreage was always multifaceted. Here again, it was clear he was after more than just economic growth—he loved Las Vegas but considered it incomplete, and he was determined to use his brownfield to fill in the blank spots in the civic collage. In the absence of a stadium, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts is the marquee project of the erstwhile Union Park, which has been renamed Symphony Park.

The rest of the park remains tantalizingly up for grabs. The Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health is a gleaming island, but it’s unknown whether it will ever be the center of the grand high-end medical cluster Goodman envisions. At the edge of the park, the World Market Center—which Goodman once loudly proclaimed as the new center of the American furniture trade—is struggling to redefine itself in the face of withering competition from High Point, N.C. And the early visions of a Charlie Palmer hotel and other sleek amenities have given way to the reality of recession.

The city’s partner in the Symphony Park design is Newland Communities, a firm that made its bones in the suburban master-planning game. It’s a curious marriage—especially when the neighboring examples of Neonopolis and Fremont East demonstrate the relative virtues of suburban-style big-bang planning and urban baby steps. The recession, though, may have done Symphony Park a favor by slowing the fulfillment of a grand design. Once The Smith Center blossoms, the best strategy may be to allow vitality to sprout organically around it. Sometimes the plan works best when the master loosens his grip.

It’s All About the Connections

Paul Beard, who is the chief operating officer of The Smith Center, says it may be the last great performing arts center built in the U.S. for a long, long time. During construction, Beard is working from the renovated Holsum Lofts in the Arts District. A former bakery with a classic neon sign and an iconic clock out front, Holsum is one of the small victories of the baby-steps strategy. The renovation, by Las Vegas’ LaPour Partners, cost $6.5 million—all of it private money.

Small and big have not yet come together in Oscar’s downtown. The Arts District does not link up with Fremont East. Fremont East is separated from the Fremont Street Experience by the hollowed out Neonopolis. The Fremont Street Experience is separated from Symphony Park by the Plaza Hotel. The Plaza is undergoing a snazzy restoration, but its very position makes it—for the moment—a clog in the urban arteries. At some point, the city will need to create paths around the hotel and a bridge over the old railroad tracks; the route from Fremont Street to Symphony Park could become an attraction in its own right.

Meanwhile, in part because of Goodman’s intense focus on a slice of downtown, the area is not yet connected to others that once seemed crucial to the civic fabric. The “cultural corridor” on the far north end of Las Vegas Boulevard—home to Cashman Field, the Old Mormon Fort, Reed Whipple Cultural Center, Las Vegas Library, the Museum of Natural History and the Lied Children Discovery’s Museum—is not only geographically cut off from the action, but (with the exception of the Neon Boneyard) seemingly forgotten. The children’s museum is leaving for The Smith Center, and the 51s seem almost certain to move out of Cashman at some point. Meanwhile, Reed Whipple is facing closure: In March, Oscar Goodman—sounding very unlike Oscar Goodman—told the center’s supporters that the city just couldn’t afford the place: “This is a whole new world. We don’t have the money.”

Connectivity is a problem on the larger scale, as well. The Las Vegas Monorail once had an ambitious plan to extend to the airport in the south and to downtown in the north, but instead it is stranded at its last stop, at the shuttered Sahara, and looks increasingly like a refugee from the Island of Misfit Toys. Goodman was never exactly wild about the monorail, and the ACE Bus Rapid Transit line has created a palatable way to get from the Strip to downtown. But most great cosmopolitan walking neighborhoods arise along fixed transit paths that signify long-term investment, rather than bus routes that by their very nature can change overnight. For all his urban-dreamer audacity, Goodman never sang the virtues of light-rail. Maybe this was an odd emanation of his love of the Valley—the Philadelphia kid’s evolution into a proud and car-loving Southwesterner. Or maybe he was simply sharp enough not to spend his political capital on what seemed a nonstarter with Southern Nevadans.

Another kind of connection has been missing: How do you revive downtown without cutting entire classes of people from the bounty? Ideally, concentric circles of vibrancy and employment will make downtown better for everyone: City Hall moves to Symphony Park, Zappos moves to the old City Hall, its happy army of workers brings money downtown, new shops open to take their money. But others would be left out of even that rosy scenario: Graffiti artists will recall Goodman’s offer to remove their thumbs. And, to put it kindly, the mayor has never known quite how to deal with downtown’s homeless. At one point he suggested they be packed off to the former state prison in Jean, and later he shut down their gathering space at Frank Wright Plaza and made it a staging ground for construction of the Mob Museum. He did, however, build Centennial Plaza, adjacent to the Fifth Street School, and they’ve made themselves at home there on the banks of his river.

Love and Audacity

It’s fair to ask what Oscar really loved in Las Vegas. He was selective in his attentions toward its neighborhoods and its people. He celebrated the idea of urbanism without embracing the cosmopolitan connectivity that makes it work. He promoted the liquid euphoria of bars and neon and apology-free Vegas living by night, but in the cold light of day he felt we’d never come of age without a big-league ballclub, a destination medical clinic and a world-class place to catch the opera. He praised our sinfulness but tried to turn us on to the old middlebrow virtues. He was a cheerleader for private capital but used the power of government to spark his signature projects at Fremont East and Symphony Park. He adored the audacity of the lone entrepreneur but called upon downtowners to embrace a cooperative, collective identity.

What he loved was the urban dream and challenge. He loved the promise of pleasure—both highbrow and low—that is the hallmark of a great downtown. He loved the fundamental Vegas weirdness that allowed a socially libertarian, statutorily powerless mayor to evolve into the master planner of the urban core. He loved that we were open to all that was most intemperate in him—the hot air and booze and civic fever dreams. For 12 years he never gave up on taming the badlands of downtown. He loved it that we never gave up on him.

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