The Long Shadows of Vegas Hubris

Even if the Fontainebleau and Harmon are imploded, we should always remember them

There’s been a lot of talk over the past year about what should be done with the Harmon and Fontainebleau. The former, the subject of litigation, has been decried as a public-safety hazard that should be demolished. The latter, since its purchase by Carl Ichan in February 2010, has been rumored to be slated for disassembly and implosion.

That might seem an ignominious end to two of the most hyped remnants of an era chock full of hype, but most agree that it would be for the best. After all, Las Vegas isn’t a city that likes reminders even of its triumphs cluttering the landscape. Why should it tolerate monuments to failure darkening the skyline?

But maybe it should. Because if there’s one thing that can save Las Vegas, it’s a reality check.

Bear with me. The Great Recession was—and remains—a dark time for Las Vegas. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost; lives were permanently altered. But in the long run, it might have been the only thing that could spike a destructive boomtown mentality. Before the recession, there really was no brake on the city’s irrational exuberance, at least within the resort corridor. One condo-hotel project, Signature at MGM Grand, was seeing good returns in its first phase, so before the third building was even completed, plans for condo-hotel components all down the Strip were being rushed through. If things had broken differently, you’d be able to buy units at the Venetian, Mandalay Bay, Plaza Las Vegas (on the former Frontier site) and take your pick from four residential projects at CityCenter. And before the ink was dry on those closing papers, a dozen other projects would have gotten the green light.

But, thanks to the recession, that’s not what happened. The Strip learned that it has limits, and the past five years have seen various explorations of what it means to live within boundaries. It’s the same process that Downtown casinos went through in the early 1990s, culminating in the Fremont Street Experience. Back then, it was the success of The Mirage and the subsequent wave of Strip development that sparked the crisis.

Strip casinos are good at masking their failures (and even successes that have outstayed their welcome). Of course, there are the high-profile implosions, but there are smaller changes that are nonetheless significant. Restaurant concepts that fizzle and shows that bomb disappear as if beneath the waves, never to be seen again. Even casino identities can be swapped out: San Remo/Hooters, Aladdin/Planet Hollywood, Fitzgeralds/The D and Imperial Palace/The Quad are a few recent examples.

The truly successful places are always evolving; after all, they want to stay on top of the game. And those with potential upside will always find owners willing to invest new money to rebuild. In Las Vegas, only the most abject failures will be left alone.

So why not think of these two megaliths as permanent civic monuments?

The Harmon could serve daily notice that the big picture is meaningless if the details are neglected. This was a project that should have been a guaranteed win: one of the world’s biggest hospitality/gaming companies partnering with a prominent nightlife operator (the Light Group); a design by a world-renowned architect (Sir Norman Foster); and one of the largest contractors in the nation (Tutor Perini), with a score of well-built resorts to its credit.

Yet that’s not what happened. Whoever was at fault for the building’s structural defects, it’s a case study of what happens when people don’t sweat the small stuff. A few inches of rebar might seem insignificant in a $9 billion project, but they are far more important to the stability of the actual structure than all of the PR superlatives in the world.

The Fontainebleau is a different kind of reminder. It’s a victim not of inattention to detail but of bad timing. On paper, this was the perfect addition to the Strip: the return of former Mandalay Resort Group chief Glenn Schaeffer, combined with one of Miami Beach’s iconic names, seemed to be the perfect fusion of insider know-how and outside inspiration. Combining condos, convention space, retail and the traditional casino resort, the Fontainebleau would have been the next logical step for the Strip.

Here, too, however, a sure thing misfired. This time, it’s because of bigger changes that altered the national economic landscape. The lender was no longer convinced that the Fontainebleau would earn back its investment and pulled the plug, leading the way to bankruptcy court and Icahn’s purchase. (The owners of Downtown’s Plaza bought the property’s room furnishings for pennies on the dollar, and Plaza guests can now get a sense of what it would have been like to stay at a Strip hotel that was never finished.)

Dominating the north Strip and visibly decaying, the Fontainebleau has become the proverbial sore spot we can’t help but poke. And we should poke, because even though the message the Fontainebleau sends isn’t pretty, it’s one we need to hear: Las Vegas isn’t bulletproof, and it’s not the center of the world. When the rest of the world shifts, you’d better be able to adjust, or you’ll end up stranded when the tide goes back out.

If seeing these two monuments every day doesn’t inoculate us against the hubris that will inevitably follow a few good quarters, nothing will. So even if both buildings are one day imploded, they should never really leave our hearts and minds. The headquarters of each major Strip operator should replace their bland corporate art with twisted pieces of their wreckage. It wouldn’t be worse than any of the faux abstractions that often pass for sculpture, and it would send the message that we sometimes place the wrong bets at the wrong time—and we have to live with their consequences.

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