Thinking Outside the Big Box

Las Vegans have long dreamed of a local IKEA, but one UNLV graduate student dreamed up a whole different kind of IKEA—designed just for downtown

Downtown is gradually coming back to life, but it still lacks the quality retailers we take for granted in the ’burbs. And since a livable place means a shoppable place, it’s a problem the area will have to address if it wants to lure residents from the Valley’s margins.

Ryan Allord, a graduate student in the UNLV School of Architecture, has been thinking about how to solve that, and his exhibit at Emergency Arts showcases what he’s come up with—a novel concept that just might be a catalyst for urban retail development.

He envisions luring a giant IKEA home-furnishing store to downtown—and then blowing it up. Well, more precisely, he calls on the store to think about its physical plant in a whole new way, breaking the big box into several smaller stores—one for kitchenware, say, another for the living room, another for the bedroom—and scattering them among empty downtown storefronts.

“I’m no longer navigating aisles,” he says, describing a potential customer. “I’m navigating streets.” It’s no longer park once, buy an item, and get back in your car. In Allord’s scheme, it’s park once and spend the afternoon, walking among many stores, some of them run by IKEA, some of them local shops and restaurants that would be lured by the giant retailer. You get all the square footage of an IKEA and all the customers without losing the fine weave of businesses that marks a first-rate commercial district.

Why IKEA? It’s both stylish and rare; there are only 38 of them in the entire country. This means IKEA is less big-box retailer and more big-box destination, with home-furnishing mavens making long treks across town—or in our case, to Covina, Calif.—to buy the Swedish manufacturer’s low-cost, mod DIY wares.

There’s a valuable lesson for us here. Big-box retailers can work downtown—but only if we (and they) think beyond the box. This should be no surprise to anyone who’s been to our country’s best downtowns: What are the great department stores but big-box retailers that go up instead of out? Large retail can work downtown—and it is working again elsewhere, as retailers such as the Home Depot and Target and Best Buy continue to move into urban neighborhoods.

The trick is not to turn downtown into a suburban mall but rather find ways to activate the latent urbanism that exists in even the most resolutely exurban retailer. Classic downtowns weren’t just gallery and café districts—they were the place to gather your daily needs and make the occasional special purchase. The rise of the mid-century suburban mall shattered that old synthesis, but the recent American interest in urban density (spurred in part by concerns about climate change, revulsion at endless commutes and boredom with the ’burbs) has made downtowns relevant again as places to live, work and shop. Allord’s plan attempts to engage a major anchor business while maintaining the integrity of the downtown street grid. It’s at once big and small—a deft urban development rather than a shock-and-awe planet-flattening suburban-style superproject.

There are challenges, though. One danger is that a whole chunk of downtown gets branded as the IKEA sector—one can imagine, in these cash-starved times, IKEA ads adorning every square inch of downtown. What is meant to be a cool urban move could end up as an IKEA theme park. Allord believes subtle signage could guide customers around the IKEA blocks without it becoming a blatant “IKEA this way” tourist zone. Another concern is whether the shattered-big-box conception relies too heavily on one big-name business. Splashy projects get all the attention, but maybe we’d all be better focusing on the day when the city announces five small storefronts opening that you’ve never heard of but that you can only find downtown.

By now you might be thinking I’ve left out the most important question mark of all: Why would IKEA ever go for something like this? IKEA usually situates its enormous blue-and-yellow warehouse stores on the metropolitan fringe, near major freeways. Allord still envisions IKEA operating the warehouse portion of such a store in a Las Vegas hinterland near the interstate—maybe something on the vacant land near the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, or off U.S. 95 in Henderson. This begs the question why IKEA would go to the trouble of building a more traditional warehouse and a series of risky storefronts in downtown Las Vegas.

Allord is tweaking his boards and proposal to send something to IKEA, soon. Who knows? IKEA may swoon. The young architect may get a job. Or the bean counters may politely file it in the “Sounds Great, We’ll Let You Know” file—which one imagines is a big drawer at IKEA HQ.

That’s out of Allord’s hands, and ours. But what we can do is encourage city officials to seriously consider innovative ideas like this. A push from the Mayors Goodman (Sorry, Mayor Goodman and new Promoter-in-Chief Oscar Goodman) just may help lure a retailer like IKEA to try something new.

It’s good to see Las Vegas’ creative class actually creating new ideas—now it’s up to the city, which has tried so hard to court them, to listen.

Models and illustrations of Allord’s project are on display through September at Architect Studio in Emergency Arts, 520 Fremont St. For more information, or to make an appointment, contact Ryan Allord at