Big Plan On Campus

The minds behind UNLV Now hope to reshape the college experience in Las Vegas. But is the project really what the university needs now?

The goal has always been very simple,” UNLV President Neal Smatresk says. “We want a football stadium on campus. We’d like to host other events there. We’d hope a build-out of campus could really enhance the campus experience for our students and create a destination.”

Everyone seems to know that while UNLV doesn’t lack for heart, it does lack a heart, a physical embodiment of its character. Only about 1,000 of the university’s 26,000 students live on campus. The school is bounded by four busy arterials. You can’t quite call its neighborhood a neighborhood. None of this is helped by the fact that the university’s football stadium is in the desert seven miles east, near Russell Road and Boulder Highway. Sam Boyd Stadium seats 40,000, but rarely have 40,000 sat there.

Smatresk says an on-campus stadium can help change all that. It will, he says, help the university’s reputation and lure students nationwide: The university received a record number of applications after its men’s basketball team made the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 in 2007. “If I announce I’m going to search for a provost of the university, nobody pays any attention,” he says. “If I say we’re going to hire a new athletic director or football or basketball coach, the entire world is calling me.” So UNLV’s stadium dream is about a lot more than football—it’s about fueling university growth and fundraising in an age when public universities can no longer sustain themselves on public funds.

The potentially good news for Smatresk is that an on-campus stadium—and much more—is also the dream of a local executive who is determined to make it come true.

The name of the dream is UNLV Now. The project was announced Feb. 1, stalled in May by a recalcitrant Legislature and energetically revised in September. Behind it is the muscle and money of Majestic Realty—developers of the Staples Center in Los Angeles and Las Vegas’ Silverton Casino and Lodge—and the enthusiasm of Silverton President Craig Cavileer. The stadium itself is the centerpiece of a large retail and residential development that would ultimately occupy 150 acres at the campus’ southwest corner. The project envisions a 60,000-seat stadium, a renovated Thomas & Mack Center and 3,000 units of on-campus housing on land currently occupied, for the most part, by parking lots. (Garages would be built to recapture the lost parking.) The glue holding these pieces together is a 600,000-square-foot retail, restaurant and entertainment complex along a pedestrian street. Imagine Town Square at the edge of the UNLV campus—with a football stadium—and you get the idea. UNLV Now, says Smatresk, would create “a complete campus experience and build the quality and reputation of the university.”

The funding mechanism was supposed to be straightforward. Earlier this year, the university and Majestic supported a bill in Carson City that would have established a Tax Increment Financing district for the project. Under the tax district, projected tax revenue from the project would underwrite financing. Once the Board of Regents approved the plan to pursue the tax increment legislation in February, the actual passage of the legislation was seen as a given.

Instead, the bill proposed in Carson City, SB 501, turned into a train wreck. Legislation that was supposed to be centered squarely on the university got weighed down into a free-for-all sports-district bill that covered two other, unrelated stadium proposals in the Valley. The Legislature, already overwhelmed trying to close a massive budget deficit, bailed.

And so—now what?

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Cavileer grew up in Austin, in the shadow of the University of Texas. The campus was a central fact of civic life. He went to every home football game, hung out on the campus and roller-skated around. “That was a big day to drive down there and hang out on the UT campus.” When he was appointed in 2007 to the board of the UNLV Foundation, the university’s fundraising arm, Cavileer became more focused on improvements the university needed to stay competitive. On-campus housing, a new stadium—these ideas had been floating around the school for years. When Caesars Entertainment began discussing building an arena near the campus—a venue that could take a big chunk of revenue from Thomas & Mack—Cavileer sprang into action. But at the root of the plan he pushed was a vision of his old Texas stomping grounds. Although Cavileer only attended UT for a few years (he graduated from nearby Southwest Texas State), the liveliness of Austin—the tight relationship, both physical and emotional, between town and gown—is still in his blood.

He misses the feeling—and he wants Las Vegas to have it. He wants kids growing up here to go catch a Rebel football game on the campus and proudly decide that’s where they want to go to school. And he wants the people who call Las Vegas home 80 years from now to wander a very different campus and say to themselves, “Somebody made this happen, and it changed the complexion of the entire state.”

The defeat of SB501 seemed to spike that vision. But Cavileer and his boss, Ed Roski, didn’t return to business as usual. Instead they returned to the drawing board. The February plan had featured a 40,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof; the new, 60,000-seat version lacks the roof but has the space to accommodate big-time events, giving not only the Rebels, but the annual Maaco Bowl, room to grow, and providing a potential home for Major League Soccer and other professional leagues. While backers say a pro franchise isn’t a requirement to make the project a go, the larger stadium and the Thomas & Mack renovation should make it easier to keep marquee events such as the National Finals Rodeo. This all makes sense, because if the new stadium is meant to transform the campus into a more complete live-study-play environment, it must do more than host a handful of UNLV football games. Majestic’s exclusive relationship with the university runs through December, when the parties will present another report to the Board of Regents, which will decide whether to move forward with UNLV Now.

The project’s fate will depend on costs and financing. If not a tax district, then what? What are the projected revenue streams? How will the Majestic-university relationship work in practice? Neither Cavileer nor university officials are saying—they might not know yet—though Smatresk says $300 million would make the project happen. (Vanderbilt sports economist John Vrooman says that stadiums comparable in size to the original 40,000-seat version are running $250 million—$350 million with the retractable roof.) The university could hold a major fundraising drive. (The last one, completed two years ago, raised more than $500 million.) Cavileer talks about corporate sponsorship. Naming rights are practically a given. “It’s rare to find an example in the U.S. where they’re able to finance [a major stadium] without an enormous corporate sponsorship,” says Gerry Bomotti, UNLV’s senior vice president of finance and business.

Still, the tax district was the simplest plan. With that option seemingly dead, other funding ideas won’t be easy to come by. “At least according to the analysis I’ve seen, I have yet to see a project that pencils out in absence of public funding,” says Jeremy Aguero, principal with local consulting firm Applied Analysis. “I think it’s very, very difficult to do.”

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It’s not terribly controversial to put a football stadium at the edge of campus. More intriguing, and potentially worrisome, is the retail plan. That shopping center, says Cavileer, is “highly designed, it [has] appropriate scale; it’s a feels-good-to-be-there kind of place.”

The mix at UNLV Now is likely to have fewer “soft goods” retailers like clothing and more food and beverage. There will be lots of entertainment—movie theaters, maybe cosmic bowling. Smatresk asks us to envision an edgier Town Square, but he also notes that he’d like to see something a little bit more upscale than the usual suspects that surround college campuses—tattoo parlors, used bookstores, fast-food joints, copy stores and the like. He imagines something that would “attract not just college students but people from across the region.”

In other words, edgy but not too edgy. The vague descriptions raise plenty of questions. Will students be able to shop in the relatively upscale stores Majestic would line up? Vanderbilt’s Vrooman cautions against counting on students to lead the way. “Most campuses are surrounded by retail space that meets the meager needs of college students: bookstores, coffee houses, beer bars and fast-food restaurants,” he says. “Think about it: Most major universities have one small strip of marginal economic activity that is not connected to the urban economic grid”—a scenario he says holds true even for “the drag” at the University of Texas, where Vrooman, like Cavileer, was a student. “Students have surprisingly little buying power and are a demographic to avoid when a business is thinking about location.” Clearly there’s a market in Las Vegas for a centrally located, semi-walkable shopping and entertainment experience. But is there a market for two such experiences only a few miles apart? Will locals or even out-of-towners visit UNLV Now on days when no event is planned when they can visit Town Square just 10 minutes away? And is another Banana Republic or Yard House really what UNLV wants if it’s trying to create an authentic sense of community that will inspire students during their years at the school?

There’s also the question of whether even a well-wrought retail district is a smart financial bet. While Town Square has been popular, it is hardly immune to broader economic forces. Empty retail space in a private development seems to be the ordinary course of business these days. But empty retail space on a university campus is a dead spot in what should be a living public space, the intellectual heart of our community.

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UNLV Now is not the first large-scale effort to transform UNLV into a more pedestrian-oriented urban center. In the middle of the last decade, there was Midtown UNLV. Spearheaded by former university president Carol Harter and developer Michael Saltman, that plan was meant to transform the underwhelming streetscape on Maryland Parkway into a lively retail row. But the plan stalled in 2007 when a proposal to narrow Maryland Parkway to create a more pedestrian friendly enclave was brushed aside by the County Commission. Meanwhile, even during good economic times, it was no easy task to lure capital to the traditionally (and some say appropriately) grungy retail stretch across from UNLV. The plan remains alive, but the recession hasn’t helped.

In the past decade, the university has spruced up its own side of Maryland Parkway with a handful of quality buildings—from the new student center to Greenspun Hall. Those buildings now stand like a well-dressed dancer awaiting a partner. So, what would Midtown UNLV look like? Harter envisioned the commercial east side of Maryland Parkway as a place where you could grab a glass of wine at a bistro, then walk over to Ham Hall or the Beam Music Center to catch a play or concert or lecture. David Saltman, general counsel for his father’s development company, Vista Group, imagines something a little more beer than wine: Gordon Biersch-type places surrounded by used bookstores and funky secondhand clothing stores.

Maybe the delay was the best thing for Midtown UNLV. “There wasn’t enough critical mass on Maryland Parkway,” Cavileer says. “You couldn’t sustain retail there. Everybody leaves at 5. Maryland Parkway was only going to be possible if there was an entire transformation to the area. If no one lives on the campus, how can you do retail?”

Cavileer and others think UNLV Now could wind up helping Midtown UNLV come to fruition—the new plan could be a complement to, rather than a replacement for, the old one. UNLV Now backers say the project could spur development along both the university’s southern flank as well as its eastern edge up Maryland all the way to Flamingo. If the new project’s plans for upscale retail go forward, it may free Maryland Parkway from being overplanned and overgentrified. Development there may be allowed to proceed more organically. But Harter—who now runs the university’s Black Mountain Institute—is concerned that UNLV Now “may take the focus off the original plan, [which] was much more involved in thinking abut culture and accessibility to the university. It wasn’t really focused on athletics and what you could do with athletics.”

While the fate of UNLV Now—and its ultimate impact on Midtown UNLV—remains in question, Michael Saltman is moving forward with another Vista Group proposal to add up to 5,000 beds just north of Cottage Grove Avenue at the north end of campus. Combined with the 1,800 beds now on campus and the 3,000 units of housing proposed in the UNLV Now plan, this could bring the on-campus population to more than 10,000, about a third of the student body. (Nationally, about 20 percent of college students live on campus.) Put that many kids in one place, and the college environment almost takes care of itself.

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If it’s well executed, UNLV Now has tremendous urban-design potential. The spaces around the Thomas & Mack off Paradise Road and Swenson Street are empty right now; UNLV Now could inject life into an underutilized corner of campus. And Harmon Avenue—right now little more than a backdoor to campus, may emerge as the university’s main gateway. The project is also perfectly sited to force a conversation about extending mass transit to the airport. A monorail line from the MGM Grand, through UNLV Now and onto McCarran International Airport would be a no-brainer. In the meantime, a network of park-and-rides to get people to big events at the stadium would be a necessity.

Most importantly, UNLV Now could create a real sense of community on campus. Imagine tailgating on Saturday mornings before a big game. Imagine a campus filled with activities throughout the day, a place Las Vegans recognize as a major hub of the cultural and intellectual life of the Valley, a project that gives the community a reason to want to spend time on campus, a civic gathering space. And if we consider campus housing, rather than the stadium, as the heart of the project, exciting possibilities come to mind. Designers might be able to coordinate zones of student housing with small, low-rent shops catering to students’ living needs. This might put the student housing, and the students themselves, at the center of mini-neighborhoods across the campus. The “regional draw” that supporters of the plan should desire is not the shopping center itself, but the students and the atmosphere they create.

A transformation of this magnitude must not lose sight of the university’s mission. UNLV once had the ambition of being a school on par with UCLA—one of America’s great public universities. What becomes of a university if a quarter of its footprint is given over to commercial interests? Cavileer says only 20 acres of the proposed 150 acres will be set toward retail. Still, if this ends up looking anything like the usual outdoor mall, students will be stuck with the kind of slickly generic environments most university districts studiously reject. And the rest of us will be stuck with yet another “lifestyle center.” If a retail district in the heart of a university is going to be palatable, the public spaces between shops and stadiums and dormitories will have to be extremely well wrought. (We can’t afford another Neonopolis.) These are the spaces where the future of UNLV—not only as an institution, but as a community—could be forged.

If the project goes forward, the university will require Majestic to foot the bill on a rewrite of the university’s master plan. “We’d have to figure out how we could adjust it,” Bomotti says, “so we wouldn’t end up in 10 years saying we have to go out and buy new land.” A new plan can more tightly integrate UNLV Now into the campus as a whole, as well as making strong links to Maryland Parkway and Vista Group’s proposed on-campus housing north of Cottage Grove.

The entire project has one main premise—that the university’s chief asset is its land. UNLV sits on just 335 acres. (A typical school of its enrollment sits on closer to 1,000.) UNLV Now comprises 150 acres, nearly half the campus. While UNLV does own parcels east of Maryland and south of Tropicana, and while it has put in place plans to operate satellite campuses in the north and southwest ends of the Valley, this still represents a huge commitment of limited university land. Once this space is taken up by UNLV Now, it will be difficult to put it to other use. “I’m always very concerned with using acreage and how we use it here,” Harter says. “It’s gold to us.”

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Majestic has the experience and expertise to pull off a successful development. And Cavileer is clearly motivated by something more than just making a buck. He calls UNLV Now a dream project that has “all the trappings” of a transformative urban space: It would create a neighborhood using all the tools in a planner’s arsenal: housing, retail, athletics, entertainment, public space and—yes—academics.

The university is wise to look to the future and to dream big. The region’s economy must diversify beyond tourism and conventions. Every major city in America that we would aspire to equal has as least one world-class university. UNLV Now may attract new vitality to the university and put the school on the right path. As the plan develops, we should keep our eyes on the architectural details; the university and Majestic should hold a lengthy public review of any design proposals and should also consider holding a competition to allow several design firms—including local firms—to bid on the project. The community should be able to look at several possible variations of UNLV Now.

And as we look, we should be thinking hard about what kind of university we want to be the flagbearer for our community’s aspirations. The football stadium could become one of the city’s iconic structures. A campus more open to the surrounding community could energize both. But the university must remember that a gleaming stadium, campus housing and a few bars and shops are only meaningful if they help attract the best students, teachers and researchers. At the end of the day, they are the people who will be the measure of UNLV’s greatness.