Unpacking Containerville

Walking through the Fremont East entertainment district is pleasant up to a point. That point is located precisely at the southeast corner of Seventh and Fremont streets, where a trash-strewn asphalt lot provides empirical proof of just how far downtown Las Vegas has yet to go before we can even begin to call this neighborhood “gentrified.”

This is an excellent place for the Downtown Project—the massively well-funded downtown-redevelopment concern run by Zappos.com owner Tony Hsieh—to show what $350 million worth of love and affection can do. But the Project’s plan for Seventh and Fremont, detailed on DowntownProject.com, doesn’t inspire confidence at first blush: They want to put a bunch of shipping containers on the lot and fashion them into shops and cafés. Shipping containers. Makes it easy to picture the place becoming a soulless industrial trailer park.

But intermodal shipping containers—those truck-size steel boxes used to transport our way of life from China—have their advantages. They’re durable, roomy and can stack a dozen high. And ,as it turns out, we’ve got a bunch: The cost of sending empty containers back overseas is higher than simply having new boxes made at the point of origin, which means that containers are piling up in shipyards. It was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to make these steel Legos into livable structures.

Shipping-container architecture has gained big-city currency over the past few years (check out ContainerCity.com if you want to see container structures in London and New York), but it may be a tough sell in Las Vegas, where the word “implosion” is chiseled into the city seal. Adaptive reuse has never really been our thing.

But the Downtown Project has good reason for wanting to employ this “flexible urbanism” at Seventh and Fremont. “The pop-up shipping container concept really came about because of the empty land scattered throughout downtown,” Joshua Bowden, a staffer on the container project, says. “How do we get all of the prospective entrepreneurs and small businesses with great ideas moving forward without an actual space?”

The container project—let’s call it “Containerville”—will provide spaces for those nascent businesses in a hurry. (Bowden predicts an early October debut for Containerville if all goes well.) The containers will have electricity, water and sewer connections (read: air conditioning and bathrooms), and can remain in use “until new buildings are completed or old ones renovated,” Bowden says.

And here’s the surprise: If all goes according to plan, the place may end up looking good. Containerville will feature greenery, outdoor seating and elevated decking. The containers will be arranged to create an interior plaza while presenting an attractive face to the street. One of downtown’s most desolate corners could become a destination in less than a year.

Whether it’ll actually be built that way—or whether the Planning Commission will allow it to be built at all—is yet to be seen. But one thing is certain: If we don’t like the way Containerville is set up, Hsieh will simply shift its pieces around, or move the whole thing to another empty lot. That’s the whole idea.