Downtown, Unbuttoned

The city wanted to keep the homeless from sleeping in a downtown plaza. So it ruined the plaza.

The best urban space in downtown Las Vegas is the Lewis Avenue Corridor, the walking path just north of the Historic Fifth Street School. The $2.36 million pedestrian path, which opened in 2002, links the Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse with the school and leads toward the Regional Justice Center a few blocks away. With its water wall, subdued desert vegetation, famous quotes engraved in the ground and quality materials, it is proof the city can create effective public spaces.

Immediately south of the pedestrian parkway is Centennial Plaza, which forms the northwestern edge of the block occupied by the school. This is a serviceable space—it’s the site of the city’s annual book festival—but it’s mostly forgettable, an indifferent assemblage of blocky planters and ugly benches.

Earlier this year, the city ruined both spaces. Workers affixed more than 200 hard white plastic “buttons” onto the benches of the corridor and the planters of the adjacent plaza. These new square buttons, shaped like ziggurats, measure about 5 inches by 5 inches and are about 4 inches high. Each of the plaza’s 24 tree planters has eight buttons, two per side. That’s 192 white buttons studding the plaza, plus two per bench on the benches lining Lewis Avenue. The buttons cost $2,800 to install.

“The buttons were installed to prevent sleeping on the planters and benches, as these areas are not designed for sleeping, and there could be liability issues for the city if someone were to hurt themselves.” That’s the official explanation from city spokesman Jace Radke.

Here’s another take, from Rick, a homeless man I spoke with at the plaza last week: “The idea was aimed at homeless people. They do it to keep us from being comfortable.” With respect to the city, Rick’s take is spot on.

And make no mistake: Outside of a handful of city events, the bland plaza is largely the home of the homeless. While deputy city marshals try to roust those sleeping in the plaza a few times a day, you can still expect to find the same dozen or so regulars down there. Everyone else, office workers and lawyers and government employees nearby are more apt to just keep on walking than stop in for a visit. In a follow-up e-mail last week, Radke told me that city crews “have not noticed people sleeping on the tree wells since the buttons were installed.”

So the city’s liability is covered. That’s a relief. (Keep in mind, though, that homeless men I spoke with say that people still do sleep on the planters when they want to.) Either way, regardless of what one thinks of the city’s decision as social (or legal) policy, as urban design it’s terrible. Against the sandstone benches and mauve planters, the white buttons look ludicrous. They’re normally used as roadway traffic devices, Radke told me.

Needless to say, roadway traffic devices are neither an intelligent solution to homelessness nor a way to craft quality public space. While the city is basking in the opening of The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Mob Museum and a new City Hall, its treatment of Centennial Plaza is an indication of how far Las Vegas has to go if it wants to create a truly special downtown.

It’s easy enough to throw out words like vibrant or dense or walkable—any first-year architecture student doubtless can talk about the need for mixed-use developments and pedestrian scale. But it’s all a bunch of empty blather until we put it into practice on challenging spaces. That’s where we find out what happens when our ideals of metropolitan life meet reality. We have this opportunity at Centennial Plaza.

Now, to be fair, as long as the plaza has a perception as a dead space used only by the homeless, the space will fail to fulfill its civic potential. Few people will continue to stop and enjoy their lunch, catch their breath, read a book, meet a date or any of a dozen other functions we expect our public spaces to serve. But the answer isn’t to try to push out the homeless, who, at any rate, are still there.

The solution is to remake the plaza so that it is far more inviting to everyone else. We have the talent in town to make it happen—we should set it loose with a design competition to turn this mediocre and neglected space into one where office workers, tourists, downtown residents and, yes, the homeless, can peacefully co-exist.

In the meantime, let’s start by removing those stupid buttons.