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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