It’s 3 p.m. on a Monday, and all is quiet in downtown Henderson save the rumble of earthmovers leveling the southeast corner of Water Street and Lake Mead Parkway. Several years ago, this prime bit of real estate bore a large sign declaring it the future home of City Tower, an ambitious mixed-use project spanning 2.2 acres that would include gleaming towers boasting tens of thousands of square feet of retail, office and luxury residential space. That was before the Great Recession stomped its way through Southern Nevada, leaving the land—which had already been cleared of its old buildings and the businesses occupying them—indefinitely vacant.
Looking southwest across Water Street, a similar barrenness stretches from the corner at Victory Road. Half a decade ago, the low-slung storefronts along this 4-acre lot were home to artists and photographers whose low-rent studios and galleries were tentpoles of the city’s now-defunct Third Thursday art walk. But those buildings were razed in 2007 to make way for a large-scale, mixed-use development that never happened. Marking their passing like a gravestone is a sign:
LOOKING FOR THE RIGHT PARTNER—FUNDING AVAILABLE FOR SITE DEVELOPMENT.
The story of downtown Henderson’s rise and fall is the same story of suburban flight repeated time and again across the United States. The city was born from the townsite for the Basic Magnesium plant that opened in 1942, and provided essential raw material for America’s military needs throughout World War II. After the war, the burgeoning community became known as a major industrial center. Churches, parks, schools, stores, a theater and more joined the thousands of houses built on and near the Basic Townsite. By 1954, Water Street—named for the pipeline used to pump water to the Basic plant—was the thriving commercial and civic core of the fast-growing city of Henderson, which was incorporated a year earlier.
As the city outgrew its original 13-square-mile footprint to become the second-largest city in Nevada (at 103 square miles with a population of more than 250,000), the residential and commercial density moved away from the town’s center, first along Boulder Highway to the southeast, and then to the northwest with American Nevada Company’s development of Green Valley beginning in the late 1970s. A similar fate consumed Downtown Las Vegas, but unlike Fremont Street’s adaptive transformation from Main Street USA to Bourbon Street West, Water Street simply faded.
As Henderson turns 60 this year, its historic main drag is at once dormant and strangely picturesque. It’s clear at a glance that—shuttered storefronts and hollowed-out bistros notwithstanding—this place has been the recipient of considerable love and attention. In fact, few streets in the Valley have received more care and feeding from the public sector. As the core of the City of Henderson’s Downtown Redevelopment Plan—originally adopted in 1995—the Water Street District has been meticulously curated. A 2004 update to the plan—timed to coincide with the city’s 50th birthday—kicked things into high gear, including the widening of sidewalks, the construction of new mixed-use buildings and public spaces such as the Henderson Events Plaza, and the development of grant programs designed to entice business owners and residents to renovate their properties to meet the new design standards. By 2006, downtown Henderson was on its way to a dramatic revitalization, thanks to the city’s aggressive investment strategy, a soaring economic climate, an appetite for New Urbanism and a seemingly unstoppable housing market.
The Great Recession brought that progress to a halt. Today, as the economy slowly recovers, the many-million-dollar question is whether the doused hopes of a half-decade ago can be rekindled. The infrastructure is in place for a vibrant townscape, and some stubbornly hopeful businesses are trying to seed the future. This is their story.
I. The Promise of Small
The red walls of the Coffee House on Water Street are lit softly by table lamps and track lights. A mélange of musical instruments and amplifiers occupies a corner of the room. There are secondhand sofas, end tables, bookshelves. A young female-male duo called Waiting for Zombies performs a serviceable acoustic version of CeeLo Green’s “Fuck You.” Soon they are joined by a middle-aged man in a Grateful Dead T-shirt and cowboy hat playing tenor saxophone and another older gentleman wielding a tambourine.
It’s Wednesday evening, which means open-mic night at the Coffee House, a bohemian-style java joint that opened last fall in the space previously known as Mocha Joe’s. About 10 people are watching, mainly other musicians waiting for their turn to jam. But there’s a warm, inviting vibe, and the participants span generations, races and styles. That’s just how owner Don Watkins wants his little slice of caffeinated heaven to be: a place everyone can come to feel welcome while enjoying music, art and good coffee. Watkins admits the location may be challenging, but he believes the programming makes the Coffee House a “destination.”
The Coffee House is not the only Water Street business with high hopes. Other recent additions to the mix are faring well despite the lack of traffic. Chef Flemming’s BakeShop has become one of Henderson’s favorites, and also provides pastries to the Coffee House, a few blocks away. Gold Casters Jewelry got a visual shot-in-the-arm from the redevelopment agency’s Facade Improvement Program. Tempting Treasures, which has been in business since 1984, fills a unique niche as the Valley’s only one-stop cake-decorating and candy-making supply shop.
Adjacent to the Coffee House, Robbin and Todd Sanford recently opened the doors to Henderson Vapor, a tasting lounge of sorts for electronic cigarette smokers. Farther south on Water Street, the Downtown Sewing Machine Company—a veteran of the mid-2000s revitalization effort—sells fabrics, quilting supplies and other tools of the textile arts, as well as offering classes and workshops in its quaint space. It’s one of two active tenants on the ground floor of the Meridian, a three-story retail-office-residential building that cuts an attractive figure on Water Street but has never lived up to its promise as the Next Big Thing.
II. The Problem With Big
The Meridian was meant to point to the future of Water Street, its contemporary-meets-Moderne visage providing the living model of New Urbanism: Live where you work, play where you live. It opened just before the Pinnacle, another three-story New Urbanist project on Water Street just across Atlantic Avenue. Although the offices on the upper levels of the buildings—including the RAFI Architecture Design Studio on the second floor of Meridian and government offices at the Pinnacle—have fared well, it’s been another story at street level. Pinnacle’s ground floor has remained vacant after the failure of three restaurants, and the Meridian’s residential spaces remain only about half occupied.
The Pinnacle was the first New Urbanist project financed under the redevelopment strategy, but by 2007 its original owner had filed bankruptcy, forcing the redevelopment agency to step in and buy the property. The City recently approved the building’s sale to Agua Street Gaming for $510,000—about a quarter of what it paid—with the stipulation that the new owners will make the $166,000 in repairs the 8-year-old building needs. Another part of the agreement is the understanding that Agua Street—a partnership that includes Tim and Mike Brooks, owners of the district’s Emerald Island Casino—will either operate or lease an “urban lounge” on its unoccupied ground floor.
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Of course, the city’s been through the ringer with other well-meaning property developers, such as the forces behind City Tower (which had been scheduled for first-phase completion in 2008) and the unnamed project at Victory and Water streets, both of which were unable to secure additional financing and saw their agreements with the redevelopment agency terminated. Parkline Lofts, an urban condominium project proposed for 2 acres along Basic Road, fell prey to the same housing bubble as the rest of the Valley, never amounting to more than cement slabs behind a chain-link fence.
Meanwhile, one of Water Street’s most vibrant office buildings will soon lose a key tenant: Nevada State College leases the bulk of Corley Center (formerly Water Street South) across from the courthouse on Basic Road. The building hosts NSC’s schools of nursing and education, as well as several administrative departments. But that will change when NSC consolidates all of its programs on its main campus at the southeast edge of Henderson in 2015.
Old Henderson may have narrowly averted even worse news when St. Rose Dominican Hospitals dropped out of the running to be the anchor tenant at Union Village, a proposed 171-acre “integrated health village” planned for the intersection of U.S. 95 and Galleria Drive a few miles northwest of Water Street. Had St. Rose gotten the contract, its plan was to close down the venerable St. Rose De Lima hospital at the corner of Boulder Highway and Lake Mead Parkway, just a few blocks east of Water Street, depriving downtown Henderson of an institution that has served the area since 1947.
When it comes to large-scale properties, only the casino hub between Atlantic and Pacific avenues has consistently thrived on Water Street. On any given day outside the Eldorado, Rainbow Club and Emerald Island casinos, the parking lots are packed. With its iconic vertical marquee, the Eldorado, which turned 50 last year, has become a symbol of the street’s endurance—and its hopes. It’s no coincidence that the signage at the Pinnacle emulated the Eldorado design.
III. The Retail Riddle
The disappointing performance of Water Street District’s recent major projects doesn’t point to a lack of demand for shopping and services in downtown Henderson. Within a square mile of the heart of Water Street, 10,000 residents live in 3,800 households with a median income of more than $46,000. That’s not wealthy; but it is a vibrant potential market. Lake Mead Crossing, built just a few years ago on the northwest corner of Lake Mead Parkway and Water Street (just north of the historic main drag) is a sprawling, 780,000-square-foot strip mall in the mode of so many found in the Valley’s suburbs, and most of its pads are occupied by national chain tenants such as Target, Staples, Ross, PetSmart and Famous Footwear.
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But the Crossing—for which the old Titanium Field was removed with a promise of a mixed-use lifestyle center—seems to go out of its way to avoid everything that makes Old Henderson unique: Instead of a classic street grid, there is a monster parking lot; instead of midcentury style, there is turn-of-the-millennium strip-mall polish; instead of mom-and-pop, there is Big Retail. All that makes the development “mixed use” is the Gibson Library, moved to the parking lot from its former home on—you guessed it—old Water Street.
For Old Henderson, the good (and bad) news is that the big chains have no designs on Water Street proper.
“Most national retail chains have very specific location criteria that [Water Street] doesn’t meet at this time,” says redevelopment manager Michelle Romero. “Our street isn’t even designed to hold that capacity. Would we take somebody who has two or three other store locations and established their business? Absolutely. But the national ones? More than likely our traffic demographics and income requirements—we won’t meet those.”
But neither chain retailers nor big-box stores are appropriate for Water Street, nor are they what the residents want there. In an outreach meeting hosted by the redevelopment agency, residents of the “opportunity districts” plainly stated what they want to see in their immediate residential areas: a grocery store, dry cleaner, accountants, lawyers, restaurants.
The Water Street District has a chicken-and-egg problem. To attract viable businesses, the city has to prove there will be enough customer traffic to justify the risk. But to attract customers, those businesses have to be willing to take their chances first. The national-retail cavalry’s not coming anytime soon, so the revival is left to flinty locals such as Don Watkins, Chef Flemming and the other mavericks for whom the historic vibe and potential energy of Water Street outweighs the current economic doldrums.
IV. The Awakening?
Henderson’s redevelopment agency has taken great strides toward bulletproofing the recovery plan for Water Street. The City has learned from its overeagerness to kowtow to every developer waving around Monopoly money and, according to Romero, has strengthened its vetting process for development proposals. This is part of an overall reevaluation of the redevelopment process.
“We knew there were infrastructure things we had to do to prepare for when development picked up again,” Romero says. “So, while commercial development slowed down, we ramped up our infrastructure projects. We upgraded all our utilities so they are ready for development. We looked at our code to see what was needed to make development flexible and easy in downtown. We’re getting ready to do a sweeping code change that will allow for perhaps the greatest flexibility in the entire Valley.”
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One herald of this flexibility is the 2010 code amendment that allowed professional offices on the street level of Water Street buildings, opening up a new way to fill those empty storefronts. Another code change approved in 2011 might have a greater impact—it accommodates an “urban lounge,” which means someone could open up a tavern, but not pay the $60,000 origination fee that’s required elsewhere in Henderson. Moves like these, combined with the existing financial assistance programs—which doled out more than $300,000 just in 2011 and 2012 to help improve existing businesses in the city core—are similar to actions taken by the City of Las Vegas to create the Fremont East Entertainment District, which opened the floodgates to the renaissance that area is experiencing today. But the City of Henderson is being even more aggressive and flexible.
There’s no Tony Hsieh-like figure dropping in with millions of investment dollars in Henderson’s core. But as evidenced by the termination of projects such as City Tower, maybe the big-bang approach to urban development—whether generated by government or benefactors—isn’t what’s best here anyway.
In the end, government has done its part on Water Street—sometimes imperfectly but often admirably. Now it’s up to the city’s businesspeople and consumers to finish the job. It’s going to take reckless energy, civic pride and a thousand small-business dreams to get it done. But this is a World War II munitions outpost that has stubbornly outlived its original purpose by nearly seven decades. These people don’t give up easily. Don’t bet against them.