His Own Private Neighborhood

theweek13113.jpgIt has been widely reported that Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh spent $45 million on Downtown property in 2012. That makes him a pretty big contributor of taxes to public coffers, so it would be wrong to say he doesn’t support local government. Nevertheless, Hsieh’s actions could have a detrimental effect on the public sector’s efforts Downtown.

Here’s why: The well-meaning Downtown Project—through which Hsieh reportedly plans to pump $350 million into the urban core—is providing a model for private ownership and management of the kind of facilities that are traditionally provided by municipal government.

The latest example is the dog park. Hsieh recruited Cathy Brooks, a communications consultant from San Francisco, to come to Las Vegas and get a dog park built under the auspices of the Downtown Project. Similar, earlier examples can be found in Hsieh’s persuading Zubin Damania and Connie Yeh to abandon their big-city jobs and set up, respectively, a private health clinic and a private school. Nothing too strange about that—except that the mantra of the Downtown Project makes everything sound as if it’s public: It’s all “for the community.”

This rhetoric positions Brooks, Damania and Yeh as quasi-public functionaries—like secretaries of parks, health and education. But their respective budgets are focused on private institutions. That makes it seem like what they’re actually building is a business … and a company town to support it. Again, not that unusual in the Valley: Quasi-town-building efforts led to Green Valley in the 1980s and Summerlin in the ’90s. But in those cases, land for parks and schools was reserved for the public sector.

As someone with a stake in the success of Downtown (I, too, own property there—my home), I’m grateful to Hsieh for his investment in the area and the economic boost it’s given. At the same time, I care deeply about the public institutions upon which our society is built. They provide a level playing field for people of all backgrounds to take advantage of the things that make life rich—things like parks, health care and education.

City and county government can’t compete with private enterprise in a race for efficiency. Many developers and entrepreneurs considering Downtown have complained about counterintuitive rules, overbearing inspectors and an overall process that is cumbersome and slow. But even if we don’t always trust our public leaders to efficiently carry out the duties we’ve charged them with, the answer—at least part of it—is to hold them accountable and fix the system. Circumventing the system to put “community” amenities in your own playground isn’t an example of public-private partnership. It’s private, period. And usually the private playing field isn’t a particularly level one.

Take the dog park: It reportedly will be membership-based and have certain barriers to entry. People who can’t afford to meet its criteria will be shut out.

Meanwhile, the Downtown Project’s dog park would decrease the city’s (and community’s) motivation to work with a grassroots group led by COLAB founder Amy Finchem that has been trying for months to get a municipal dog park in the high-rise condo neighborhood adjacent to the Arts District. My Hendersonian friends tell me they can’t throw a rock without hitting a public dog park—i.e., one open to everyone. As a Downtown-dweller with three dogs, I’d love to be able to say the same thing (right now, my only option is at Eastern and East St. Louis avenues). But will the City invest in a public dog park when the Downtown Project one is already on its way?

If Hsieh’s professed goal were simply to open a network of private businesses Downtown, I would be hard-pressed to take issue with his efforts. I understand the value of entrepreneurialism and innovation in our society. But if he is attempting to build more than a company town, he should keep in mind that great downtowns are built around great public gathering places, not private clubs.

The Downtown Project’s Twitter feed proclaims it is “helping transform Downtown Las Vegas into the most community-focused large city in the world.” My question is: What does “community” mean to them?

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topics: Downtown, Tony Hsieh
  • Gabe Pinkman

    All hail King Tony and his downtown hipster land.   Stay tuned for the Fixies only bike shop, the super tight jeans store,  the pub that only serves PBR, the eye glass shop with the super thick black frames, a store that sells retro stereo equipment like Boom boxes and cassette players.  Stay tuned for the enormous cloud of irony and cynasism that will form as this new Downtown hipster land takes shape.  If you don’t think your cool enough to be a part of it you probably aren’t.   Cop an attitude and find it all a bit passe and you’ll fit right in.  While we are at it lets import some trustafarians.

  • grimhogun

    I also live in downtown Las Vegas and have a vested interest in seeing the community thrive. I believe the entire premise of this article to be fundamentally flawed. The idea that private enterprise is based on restrictions and exclusions is completely contrary to reality. Instead of using a fictional image of a bubble city, why not use a real image of the city of Las Vegas?

    Virtually everything in Las Vegas that drives people here is a private enterprise. Restaurants, casinos, shows, bars, nightclubs, etc. All private. What do they all have in common? They exist to serve their patrons, not to exclude them.

    Apparently the entire basis of this misguided missive is the dog park:

    “Take the dog park: It reportedly will be membership-based and have
    certain barriers to entry. People who can’t afford to meet its criteria
    will be shut out.”

    I walk past the public parks and property everyday (the park by the courthouse) on my way down to Fremont East. I know I am getting close when the smell of urine and fecal matter becomes overwhelming. The only patrons ever in the park are homeless people. It is troubling when one views any attempt at setting standards for what makes an ideal community park as some sort of exclusionary effort to keep people out.

    The public sector’s efforts at creating parks accessible to all is quite exclusionary as well. I never find any parents or children in these areas. Setting 0 barriers to entry, in this case, created a pretty massive barrier to entry by excluding pretty much everyone but the homeless.

    I have no knowledge or affiliation with the Downtown Project and what they are trying to do. But I am quite comfortable in assuming their “certain barriers to entry” have much more to do with creating a desirable park for the community, than with creating some type of “wealthy-only” establishment.

    To the extent that this project pushes the public sector out of providing parks and related services, that would be a wonderful blessing. As you note, the public sector can not compete in terms of efficiency, and as evidenced by the public areas that do exist downtown currently, they absolutely can not produce a park of even basic viability. And yes, that includes having some barriers of entry such as not allowing people to go to use the park as their personal toilet.

    I also must take issue with your claim that “And usually the private playing field isn’t a particularly level one.” Government is the definition of a rigged playing field. I don’t think I need to delineate the nature of insider advantages, special perks to politically connected players, etc. that goes along with public projects. While the private sector isn’t perfect, its vastly closer to producing fair playing fields than the public. Simply because they aren’t playing with other people’s money.

    From what I have seen so far, community to this new Downtown Project seems to mean creating more livable areas, with vibrant bars/restaurants and the related jobs they provided, while indirectly creating a higher standard of living for the area as a whole. The last thing we should be doing is opposing this and calling for more involvement from the public sector which has produced nothing but decades of failure at considerable taxpayer expense.

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