Since it opened in 2004, the District at Green Valley Ranch has been a popular spot to stroll in the late-capitalist, New Urbanist village square—the kind of place that merges the aesthetic of the courthouse clock tower and the suburban Pottery Barn. As such, it has invited a relaxed approach to the serious business of shopping: You could come without a consumer goal and wind up spending money all the same—take a walk with the dog; grab a meal at Elephant Bar; fill a cup of frozen yogurt at Josie’s. All in an environment almost entirely alien to Las Vegans: a street without cars.
The problem was that, despite the street-level liveliness on Saturday concert nights, the property was bankrupt by 2010. And its owner, Phoenix’s Vestar Development, which acquired the property in 2011, did several studies before deciding that the way to bring prosperity to the center was to tear out the stone promenade, pave it and open it to cars. The move could give businesses more visibility: The owners of Rachel’s Kitchen, for instance, were concerned that people walking down the middle of the broad promenade never saw their signage. By offering storefront parking, it could also solve the curse of Southern Nevada summer: Daytime strolling is a lot less appealing when it’s 110 degrees out there.
So, in February, Vestar took its plan to the Henderson City Council and, despite protests from community members, won a unanimous blessing. It was hard to argue with the deep American logic of the decision: A private landowner won the right to use its land as it saw fit. And the plan—construction began in late June and is expected to be completed by October—doesn’t exactly turn the District into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But it does bring traffic into one of the town’s rare pedestrian sanctuaries and creates about 50 curbside parking spaces. It also creates irony: The property was built with a paved road and curbside parking spaces, but never opened to traffic. Pedestrians enjoyed the walking space so much that then-owners American Nevada decided to resurface it with stone.
The Valley, for better or worse, runs on four wheels; shopping here has always been more about convenience than interaction. As one of the first local attempts to create a live-work-play development, the District sought to augment business with the pleasures of the public sphere, and it acknowledged that those pleasures feel somehow different when we are separated (even by a couple of hundred feet) from the all-saturating automotive reality of our lives.
Commercial spaces are not only a site for exchanging money for goods; they’re also our chief detour from the work-home nexus into the wider world of neighbors and strangers. In our Valley, this interaction generally takes place at the level of the parking lot and the superstore. The District has some pretty big parking lots, but its pedestrian promenade offered at least the illusion of a different way of life. Even one of the construction workers digging out the walkway lamented the change: “It’s a shame. I liked it the way it was.”
In the end, though, we have only the bottom line: Did the neighbors and strangers enjoying a stroll on the District’s stone walkway spend enough money in its stores? Vestar, which has acquired more than $700 million in open-air shopping areas in the Western U.S. since 2010, is asserting with bulldozers that they did not.