I had an epiphany last week. I was at the soft opening of Commonwealth—a new downtown bar partially owned by the people who own this publication, just so you know—standing on the rooftop patio with drink in hand and relishing the view of Fremont East, when a thought popped into my head: OK, we’re done here. Fremont East is built out. What’s next?
That’s not actually true, of course; anyone who’s been to Fremont East knows that the entertainment and dining district has a long way to go. Radio City Pizzeria, Backstage Bar & Billiards, Park on Fremont, the Container Park retail plaza, the remodeled Atomic Liquors, Michael Morton’s upcoming restaurant, La Comida, and the still-nameless Downtown Project-funded lecture hall and espresso bar remain in various stages of planning and construction. (And even Commonwealth doesn’t open officially until Dec. 12.) The street has a long way to go.
And yet, looking down from Commonwealth’s patio, all I could see was an acute lack of vacancies. All the establishments mentioned above should be up and running by this time next year. Zappos will have moved into its new City Hall headquarters. The empty lots and abandoned properties farther down the street will either be purchased, or priced too high by longtime owners who think that Tony Hsieh will eventually be forced to buy them out. Even Neonopolis might be creeping toward full occupancy by then.
This realization has doubtless already occurred to many of Fremont East’s big players—the Hsiehs, the Michael Mortons. What I can’t help but wonder is what they plan to do next, if anything. And I’m not sure if these downtown players quite realize that much of downtown—especially Charleston and Maryland, and Las Vegas Boulevard from Oakey to Bridger—remains blighted and ripe for redevelopment.
Some areas already have the help they need. Fifth Street Gaming has Third and Ogden pretty well covered. Thanks to Sam Cherry, Wesley Myles, Brett Sperry and many others, I don’t worry what will become of the Arts District. Main Street has its many boosters, including Corner Store’s Cima Mizrachi, Retro Vegas’ Bill Johnson and Velveteen Rabbit’s Christina and Pamela Dylag.
But that’s only a small portion of downtown Vegas. My fear is that many of downtown’s investors and entrepreneurs—both present and future—won’t touch the trouble spots. And it’s tough to argue with them. That Oakey-to-Bridger stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard is lined with too many dead storefronts and ratty motels. Maryland and Charleston has two immense holes in it: a closed grocery store that would make a dandy Trader Joe’s location, and the Huntridge Theater, whose unknowable future I won’t go into here.
Downtown is bigger than the Arts District, bigger than Fremont East—and we need to keep that in mind as we celebrate every new gallery and every new bar that opens in those neighborhoods. We’re trying to build a city center here—a real one, not a city-themed casino and retail complex. And if it seems like I’m trying to rush things along, it’s because there are lots of cities—Raleigh-Durham, Austin, Seattle—that are trying to do the exact thing we’re doing. The idea of turning a depressed area into a tech hub isn’t exactly a fresh one, and if we can’t offer more than a block of bars and a gallery district, we won’t make it happen.
Fremont East is wonderful. I love going there. But I look forward to the day when it’s just one lively downtown spot out of a dozen. The great expanse of downtown Las Vegas is out there, past the bars and restaurants and galleries. And we have to go there next. We have to.
Follow all of Geoff Carter’s downtown reporting and commentary at DTLV.com.