It doesn’t matter that most of us arrived in cars; we were there to celebrate the City of Las Vegas’ commitment to walkability.
It doesn’t matter that the tribute-to-pedestrian-ism ceremony on May 30 took place in a giant parking lot, either. We—the media, assorted dignitaries, a small horn band, two ballerinas, a gaggle of uniformed school children and a scrum of rounded-up city employees—came in the spirit of strolling. We parked our cars and stood on the baking asphalt to cheer the opening of the long-awaited pedestrian bridge that stretches over the railroad tracks Downtown, marking a new era for Las Vegas.
The $4.5 million foot bridge is the first on which we can walk semi-directly from the Fremont side of Downtown to the Symphony Park side, from urban-ish to urbane-ish and back.
That makes the footbridge more than just a footbridge, an endless array of politicians told us before releasing blue and yellow balloons into the hot morning sky. The bridge denotes a cultural shift. A commitment to connectivity. To street-strolling. To a future in which Las Vegans casually ambulate all the way through a richly textured Downtown, face-to-face, freed of our automotive shells, able to have the kinds of serendipitous interactions that snowball into a buzzing center of culture and commerce. We stood there, shifting from hip to hip, some of us lingering under a single shade tree at the far edge of the parking lot, delighted at the prospect.
So what if the bridge connects two giant parking lots? An auto-dependent Western-sprawl city can’t change it’s parking-space stripes overnight. So what if the bridge starts in the back of a five-story parking garage on Main Street, next to City Hall and nothing, and deposits determined pedestrians into a Walmart-size lot adjacent to The Smith Center. Or vice versa. Either way you walk it, you go up a couple of flights of stairs, over three railroad tracks, and arrive in the optimistic urbanites’ bugaboo: another massive parking lot. In fact, on the Main Street side, first-timers may need a Sherpa to find the bridge, as its access is inside and at the back of the parking garage, with no street signage.
Nonetheless! Good intentions! A horn band! Prior to the opening of this pedestrian bridge, walkers intent on getting from The Smith Center to Fremont Street had to use the sidewalks through underpasses on either Ogden or Bonneville avenues to get past the tracks—a longer and not-so-scenic trip.
For years, city planners recognized that connectivity would be key for the success of Symphony Park—the former 61-acre brownfield that now holds The Smith Center, the Discovery Children’s Museum and Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health; and is supposed to have in the future a Charlie Palmer hotel and restaurant, mid-rise condo and commercial space, and, Mayor Carolyn Goodman swears, a sports arena.
Simultaneously, on the other side of the tracks, businesses hope to benefit from concert-goers leaving their cars in the lot and strolling eastward, perhaps ending up at Fremont East’s bars, or a Downtown restaurant or casino. Smith Center President Myron Martin told the crowd that the bridge would be used by visiting musicians who stay in hotels Downtown and prefer to walk to the concert hall.
After the gala in the west side’s parking lot, I stood on the bridge. Although mostly open-roofed, it’s fairly well encased in artistic steel walls dotted with open-air holes the size of quarters, making it safe and stylish. I looked down at the tracks, which long ago marked their new era for Las Vegas, and then I walked on over to the parking garage on Main, and back.
Then I got in my air-conditioned car to leave, heading out to the familiar traffic jams of Las Vegas—but not before thinking about the bridge: It’s a step in the right direction.