I haven’t yet met Tony Hsieh. I’ve meant to, and we have communicated with each other, but his schedule hasn’t favored a meeting. I’ve toured the current Zappos offices in Green Valley and been within feet of his (empty) desk. I’ve toured the Downtown Project offices on the 23rd floor of the Ogden, a stone’s throw from Zappos’ soon-to-be new headquarters in the former City Hall. Hsieh and I have even shared an elevator once or twice, but he’s always talking to someone.
I have to admit that I’m beginning to feel self-conscious about this. The original reason for my wanting to speak to Hsieh—his plans for the former 7-Eleven space at Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street—is now background to a full-blown curiosity about the scope and nature of his entire downtown vision. I want to know his five-year plan, and that curiosity only doubles every time I’m shown a new schematic or told of a new plan. If his intention is to build suspense, he’s doing an excellent job.
But here’s what I learned from the Downtown Project tour: In approximately nine months, the 7-Eleven will be transformed into an international newsstand and espresso bar. As a downtown resident, I’m excited about that. A good portion of the space, meanwhile, will become a lecture hall to host TED talks (if you’re unfamiliar with those, visit TED.com and be prepared to lose an hour). I got a glimpse of some artists’ renderings, which looked terrific, and Downtown Cocktail Room owner Michael Cornthwaite is riding herd on the project—a great choice, because the DCR is arguably the most original build-out on Fremont East.
That’s it; that’s all I know right now. But I’m bursting with questions, and when I do finally sit down with Hsieh—assuming I do get an audience with him after this—I’ll probably talk the man’s ear off. What kind of message does Hsieh hope to send by putting a TED lecture hall in Fremont East’s most visible space? Will the lecture hall be usable by anyone—church groups, My Little Pony aficionados—or is it solely intended for the tech crowd Hsieh intends to lead downtown by the thousands? And my big question: Is the Downtown Project’s plan to remake downtown, or to build another downtown inside of it?
I want to step carefully here, because I like most everything the Downtown Project is doing or plans to do. I can’t wait to see the shipping-container park planned for Fremont and Seventh, and I’m dying to eat at Natalie Young’s new brunch spot Eat, now building at Seventh and Carson. And anyone who sinks as much money into educational programs as Hsieh has is all right in my book. But in looking at the plans for his container park, which now include a geodesic dome, I got a weird feeling, like I was looking at a world’s fair exhibit: Tony Hsieh’s take on Walt Disney’s original Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow, only hipper. It looks like a HEPCOT—more a playful model for a future city than a concrete plan for an existing one.
Downtown is a sprawling, messy business, and it needs a compound fix. Most of what the Downtown Project seems to be doing is concentrated around Fremont East and Zappos’ new headquarters. But Main Street needs an infusion of lifeblood, too, as does my neighborhood, the Huntridge. Symphony Park remains a big empty. Neonopolis is operating piecemeal. And having taken the buses around town for two months, I can tell you that Las Vegans are nowhere close to accepting public transit—a vital piece of the puzzle if you want to achieve urban density. Hsieh’s long-term goal downtown is to have 100 people living on every acre of land, and that doesn’t happen if every one of those people has a car.
So, I guess my first question for Tony Hsieh will be whether he feels that many people—including me—have crucially misunderstood what he’s attempting to do in downtown Las Vegas. Some see him as wielding mayoral power, but he’s not the mayor; he’s a businessman, a shrewd one, making a calculated investment in an opportunity zone. And as cool as the newsstand/TED space looks, the downtown core still has many unaddressed needs—transportation, a full-service grocery store, basic services to help the homeless—that are not his to provide. How will he react when people begin clamoring for them?
As I said, this isn’t meant to be a slam. The Downtown Project’s aims are sound, and great things are happening on Fremont East even now. I only hope that we can ask these questions without provoking the wrath of the 23rd floor. Mr. Hsieh, I’m very interested in what you’re doing, and I look forward to talking about it—two downtowners drinking coffee at The Beat, peering into the possible future.