The Overture Of Symphony Park

Is it possible to master-plan the urban dream?

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On a chilly Friday morning in downtown Las Vegas, workers aboard five outstretched cranes are finishing the new parking structure at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts. It’s bizarre: A few years ago, construction was the white-noise backdrop against which everything else happened in Las Vegas. Now it’s noteworthy—even refreshing—to see the frenzy of hard hats and orange vests, hear the rumbling of machinery. The Smith Center is impressive, stately—a building well aware (perhaps too aware) of its own dignity. It features a 17-story bell tower and feels solid in a way that some Las Vegas architecture doesn’t—cultural tradition seems to be built right into the bricks and mortar.

Set to open in March, the center will bring Broadway shows to its 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall and provide a new home for the Las Vegas Philharmonic and Nevada Ballet Theatre. The concentration of cultural offerings won’t end there, though: The Smith Center sits in Symphony Park, a 61-acre master-planned community site marketed as “the first modern-day city neighborhood in Las Vegas.”

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Conceived nearly a decade ago, the idea behind Symphony Park (originally called Union Park—a nod to the lot’s history as a Union Pacific rail yard) was to turn this vacant city-owned brownfield behind the Plaza Hotel and east of Interstate 15 into an urban mega development. It would be an instant live/work/play metropolis that didn’t suffer from the ailments of the existing, down-at-the-heels downtown across the railroad tracks to the east. Here, rising from the chemically cleansed dirt, would be the centerpiece of a new era in Las Vegas—one of urbanism, fine arts and economic growth.

Plans included the performing arts center, the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Charlie Palmer’s 400-suite boutique hotel, Forest City’s 1,000-room hotel-casino, a park, retail space and more than 3,000 residences. Now the residential units lay in wait, depending on a real estate rebound and negotiations for a sports arena. Nevertheless, the city and its private partners expect Symphony Park to be built out within a decade.

In 2005, under the leadership of then-Mayor Oscar Goodman, the city hired Newland Real Estate Group, the nation’s largest master-planned community developer, to manage the project and build the residential units. In 2009, the twisty, silver Frank Gehry-designed Lou Ruvo building was completed. That year, ground was broken on the David M. Schwarz-designed Smith Center, and as it nears completion, a question of urban theory dominates discussion: Is it possible to make a sophisticated, urban lifestyle suddenly appear in a city’s downtown core?

• • •

The Symphony Park model for urban revitalization is in some ways unprecedented. Most cities grow block by block, over time, a mix of the planned and unplanned, with different landowners building different things according to their own business goals. The master-planning of a space as large as 61 acres is more commonly seen in the suburbs, primarily because it’s pretty much unheard-of for a downtown area to have a vacant parcel so vast.

Newland Real Estate Group has developed 140 communities and 20 million square-feet of retail space nationwide, but it has never done a high-density, multi-use development like this one.

“Most of our other projects are heavy master-planned communities,” says Rita Brandin, Newland senior vice president and development director, “but within each of them we have our urban town centers. It’s different in scale, but it’s the same in concept.” She points to a project southwest of Phoenix, called Estrella, that’s 10,000 acres, features 3,700 single-family homes and a retail center—a plan similar to Summerlin.

“We develop the land, the backbone infrastructure, and we bring developers in who do what they do best,” she says. “So, from a scale perspective, [Symphony Park] is different, but from a concept perspective it’s not. We tried to create the size of the parcels to mimic a more traditional downtown environment”—that is, higher density.

Residential units will ultimately be built in the park, but it’s uncertain how many. The build-out will depend in part on the city’s negotiations with the Cordish Company for a sports arena, which would replace Newland’s original residential parcel plans. Those lots would have demonstrated a commitment to urban density right away: 325 units split among a 17-story tower and three mid-rise buildings, with 15,000 square feet of retail, all on a 2-acre area in the northwest portion of the park. Now, Newland plans to first develop a smaller residential space kitty-corner from The Smith Center and adjacent to the Charlie Palmer site. Even that project probably won’t launch its initial phase until 2016.

• • •

The idea of a master-planned community is still at odds with what some diehard urbanists believe a downtown should be: eclectic, reliant on the organic convergence of different developers, a wide array of businesses and a diverse mix of people.

In Las Vegas, as across the nation, complaints about the suburbs cover a broad and familiar swath of contemporary American life: the homogeneity of the houses; the blandness of strip-malls; the lack of historic character; the dearth of business and lifestyle diversity; the exclusionary feel of gated communities; the lack of interaction among neighbors. The list goes on and on.

Symphony Park’s big challenge—how to master-plan the opposite, urban vibe—drew the interest of students at UNLV’s Downtown Design Center recently. “Students have gravitated toward the idea that it’s not going to come away feeling like Boston, that it may have that [shopping mall] feel,” says Glenn Nowak, a UNLV architecture professor and interim director of the center. The concern is that it will result in something more akin to Town Square or The District at Green Valley Ranch or CityCenter; all of which have their strengths and weaknesses but none of which have the multi-textured feel of a real city.

Newland took these concerns into consideration, Brandin says. The project has multiple purposes: It should appeal to the urban-minded, but also be a draw for the suburbanites. The idea is that people will drive from Summerlin and Henderson to go to The Smith Center and discover that downtown Las Vegas is more than they thought—vibrant, eclectic, but also clean, safe and upscale—and stay to roam. Or, perhaps, to live.

It’s a tricky mix, one that Brandin says Newland addresses in every phase of planning. While there are design standards for each developer’s parcel—144 pages of design standards that govern such things as roof lines, street signage, percentage of trees, “how the sidewalks express themselves,” glass in the storefronts—there is still creative freedom for each developer.

“If you compared it to a traditional downtown environment with block-by-block ownership of land, you’re going to have different approaches to architecture, and we’ll allow that,” Brandin says. “But we’ll have consistency with it being a larger master-planned development, knitting each block together with design standards. So, we’ll have the best of both worlds hopefully. The organic nature will come from each of the developers doing what they do best on different parcels.” For example, Charlie Palmer will choose the type of retail outlets on his parcel, and they might be wine or cigar stores, whereas retail on the residential lots may turn out to be banks or markets, and will likely change over time.

“These kind of streets take a little time to grow up. So you may see a Starbucks but you won’t see a Gap or an H&M [at first]. Those sorts of retail evolve over a longer term, once you’ve got the density, the residential, the daytime commercial use.”

It remains to be seen, though, whether there will be room in Symphony Park for the kind of independent businesses that arise in more organic urban areas. Ideally, small businesses that feed off of the major activities would arise: a musical instrument store near the music workshop space at The Smith Center, or mom-and-pop cafés and markets near the residential areas. Likely, Brandin says, that will be a function of rent levels, which will depend on the market. Additionally, there isn’t much available space surrounding Symphony Park for those types of businesses—the World Market Center, the Clark County Government Center and the Las Vegas Premium Outlets are all large structures dominating the adjacent land.

In any case, Newland has tried to keep in mind the specific character and demographics of Las Vegas. After watching other condo towers struggle to sell out when the investor pool dried up, the company changed its approach to focus more on local residents rather than investors—and that means considering the lifestyle that’s affordable on a service-economy salary.

“We’re not going to be the exclusive luxury high-rise approach,” Brandin says. “The service economy does affect how you design and price out your units. You don’t want to sell out a building to all investors and have all the lights off. That’s not to say you won’t have investors, and you can’t always keep that buyer out of your mix.” She cites downtown San Diego as an example of a good mix of investment properties and primary residences. “People live in those areas like Little Italy. They may not work in that downtown area, but they love the urban environment for living. That’s what we’re trying to create in Symphony Park.”

In the coming years, Newland will continue to research demand, types of units, lifestyle and amenities as it settles on designs for its residential parcels.

An essential component in those decisions, Brandin says, will be working with downtown players from (literally) the other side of the tracks to try to blend the growth between the sides. City planners don’t want the energy from the “new” downtown to be cut off from the “old,” fostering a compartmentalized, segregated feel. If downtown is going to thrive, both sides of the tracks will need to benefit from new development.

“It’s not going to be an either/or situation,” Brandin says. “I think you’re going to have a nice balance of new development coming in at Symphony Park over the next 10 years, but you’re going to see the existing downtown getting redeveloped in the shorter term. And I think that both are going to rise at the same time.”

• • •

Connectivity will be key to Symphony Park’s long-term success. The area will need to connect not only physically but socially and economically with the existing downtown. Efforts to develop the Fremont East entertainment district have drawn plenty of headlines recently, as has the ongoing energy of the arts community downtown, and especially, the planned relocation of Zappos to the old City Hall building on Stewart Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard.

Right now, business owners from Fremont East, developers of other high-rise condos and arts district activists seem to share a vision for downtown, Nowak says. They recognize that each is a puzzle piece that complements the other, and that what’s good for one is good for all.

But the possibility that Symphony Park will turn out to be a separate destination for suburbanites rather than a part of the renewed live-work-play downtown vitality remains a concern. As it is, the 61 acres feel separate and somewhat isolated. The parcel is pinned in by the freeways, the World Market Center, the outlet mall, the government center, the Molasky Corporate Center, the Plaza and the north-south railroad tracks.

Those tracks have become the physical and metaphorical delineation between the two sides—old and new, organic and master-planned, gritty and pristine. A pedestrian walkway is planned over the tracks from Symphony Park to the new City Hall’s parking structure on Main Street. Another two or three pedestrian walkways are being considered at varying points along the tracks, but are not yet under construction. Right now, the connectors are streets: Bonneville and Ogden.

Walkability is essential to any thriving downtown; that means car-loving Las Vegans face a learning curve (and a challenge to their heat tolerance) in order to live a true downtown lifestyle. In some cities, Nowak says, it’s common to walk a half hour or 45 minutes to get from one side of a downtown to another. “That may sound crazy in Las Vegas, but in other cities you do that.” The problem isn’t just in our habits, though: People like to walk when there are worthwhile experiences and interesting sights along the way. That’s the case in most successful urban cores, where the streets are lined with storefronts and restaurants and, as Nowak puts it, “things to do.” It’s not yet the case in most of downtown Las Vegas.

Brandin agrees that connectivity will be important, and admits it will be a challenge. “The biggest future opportunity for Symphony Park to connect to the existing downtown is what the Plaza decides to do with all that property they own on the eastside of the railroad tracks,” she says. “As you go across, you’ve got parking lots and a Greyhound bus station. Once there is a future development plan for that significant parcel, you’ll start to see more connectivity.”

The Plaza now occupies a central spot between old and new development. The 40-year-old hotel has undergone room and lobby renovations, and recently opened Oscar Goodman’s new steak house—Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads—in the marquee spot overlooking Fremont Street Experience. But plans for its undeveloped 17 acres alongside the tracks have yet to be announced. In many ways, those plans will shape the connection between Symphony Park and Fremont Street—and thus the future of downtown itself.

“Connectivity is one of the biggest challenges we have downtown,” says Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos and a downtown investor and activist. “Over time, we need to figure out how to connect the Arts District, Fremont East, the Cashman Field area, Symphony Park and other areas of downtown.”

Hsieh says downtown activists, investors and planners are ultimately targeting 100 residents per acre, which he says has proven to be the density at which other cities have experienced “the magic” of a downtown coming alive.

Las Vegas, he says, is “not anywhere close to that.”

“The long-term goal is to help transform downtown into a truly walkable city,” says Hsieh, who has been giving out hundreds of copies of Harvard economist Edward Glaeser’s 2011 book, Triumph of the City, in an attempt to educate Las Vegans about urban life. “We also want to make downtown more bikeable and are exploring other ways to help with connectivity.”

Hsieh says we might ultimately see trams, or special bus routes, to connect the disparate parts of the urban core. But in the end, if you want a real downtown, the kind that’s become the dream of the next generation as they scorn the suburbs, you have to learn to walk.

• • •

To get from The Smith Center to Fremont East on foot, your journey begins on Bonneville Avenue. The sidewalk is narrow and downhill as it heads under the railroad tracks. Traffic rushes alongside you through the underpass. A metal rail separates you from the cars. There’s nothing much to see here, no benches, no murals, just concrete block walls.

The Bonneville underpass is not scenic. But it’s also not impassable. You emerge at Main Street, where there’s a 24-hour adult store and a bail bonds office, and construction on the slick new City Hall. Now you walk north, past the new multi-level parking garage for City Hall, on old sidewalks abutted by dirt and pocked with gum and grease, past a Chevron station and a small motel and another big parking lot—this one right next to the Greyhound Bus station, which is right next to the Plaza, which is attached to another big parking garage, across the street from the Golden Nugget’s garage.

Within a mile, you stand at the corner of Main and Fremont at the Fremont Street Experience. From here, you can walk under the canopy, an all-pedestrian area, to Fremont East, and your trip is less than two miles. Or you can take Main one more block north, to Ogden Avenue, where you’ll see another parking lot. Turn left, walk down a hill through another cement-block underpass, and you arrive back at Symphony Park, at the proposed site of Forest City Casino, which is now a dirt lot with a billboard: “We’re adding new life to Las Vegas nightlife.”

In all, the walk from The Smith Center to El Cortez and back is less than four miles on a variety of sidewalk routes, all currently dependent on underpasses.

But with the addition of a few pedestrian bridges across the railroad tracks, it seems feasible that people could move back and forth easily between the existing downtown—the Glitter Gulch kitsch-corridor, the recently minted bars and residential units of Fremont East, the urban realities of homeless people and bail-bondsmen—and Newland’s master-planned “first modern-day city neighborhood in Las Vegas.” Then, as Glaeser puts it, downtown would “magnify humanity’s strengths” by uniting more people. This critical mass of downtowners would create greater energy, foster bigger ideas, and fuel more diverse economic growth than the choreographed life of the suburbs. It’s an intriguing concept that will make the opening of The Smith Center much more than the debut of an entertainment venue.