Cultivating a Dream District

An architect redraws an urban neighborhood as the Las Vegas Food District—and reminds us of the power of thinking big

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When David Baird thinks about revitalizing central Las Vegas, he doesn’t have the usual visions of shiny condos or craft breweries filled with hipsters. Instead, he thinks farming. As in growing food to create jobs, foster a sense of community and feed people.

Baird’s no bar-stool philosopher, nor is he simply espousing a community garden on an empty Downtown lot. He’s an architect and the leader of a team that has proposed a massive speculative project that would—if approved, funded and built—replace a faltering area with a high-density, transit-oriented, walkable, eco-friendly and socially conscious development that has food-cultivation at its core.

The multibillion-dollar vision, dubbed the Las Vegas Food District, would cover 110 acres just north of the Las Vegas Country Club that the Clark County Redevelopment Agency has declared a blighted, underutilized area. It’s dotted with old, low-rise apartment buildings, the Commercial Center District, fast-food outlets and a smattering of empty lots.

The project was born a year ago when Nevada Community Foundation President Gian Brosco visited several nonprofits clustered in the area and was struck by the transformative possibilities of the space. “There has to be a paradigm shift in community giving,” says Brosco, whose organization houses approximately 150 charitable funds created by local philanthropists.

In a lightbulb moment, he thought of Baird, the director of UNLV’s School of Architecture and a neighbor whose private practice specializes in innovative green architecture. Brosco asked Baird to generate a proposal to address not only redevelopment, but also social needs.

“David’s a blank canvas, without preconceived notions,” Brosco says. “He doesn’t come from a social services background.”

With funding from JP Morgan Chase, Baird’s team completed the Food District proposal this summer. The plan includes one long, four-story building that angles its way through the site, creating park and open spaces, bicycle and pedestrian pathways, courtyards and a marketplace. The first floor is designed for retail and civic spaces, the second for a mix of office and residential, and the third and fourth floors for residential units. Parking and service areas are tucked below ground. Solar arrays, geothermal systems, natural ventilation and lighting strategies, and passive solar design are part of the package.

The plan’s most remarkable element, though, is its 750,000-square-foot rooftop farm. It would address both Downtown’s food desert (lack of easily available fresh foods), and residents’ need for social engagement, learning and jobs. Baird envisions residents both volunteering and being paid to grow food on the farm, and food being shared or sold to the community, or even marketed to restaurants on the Strip. “Food and farming provide a range of job and training opportunities,” Baird says. “You can employ skilled and non-skilled workers.”

The rooftop farm is far more than a handful of tomato and pepper plants. The designers envision a 21st-century, climate-sensitive, regenerative operation, complete with aquaponics, tilapia ponds, water harvesting and composting.

Baird sees the Food District as more than just a green development; to him, it’s a social experiment. Standing staunchly against gentrification, he prefers instead to fold the existing population into the project. The housing component mixes market-rate and subsidized units side by side to avoid pockets of high-end or cheap spaces. The units are flexible, allowing simple construction to morph studios into multi-bedroom dwellings. Baird describes it as the only place in Las Vegas where he could imagine the elderly, UNLV students, returning veterans and those who want the urban experience living together. In addition, the retail and office spaces would include social services already available in that neighborhood. In the proposal, the most prominent retail space belongs to the Goodwill store.

Before the proposal was even complete, the project won an American Institute of Architects Nevada chapter Unbuilt Design Award. Now that the design is done, it’s in the hands of Brosco and the Nevada Community Foundation, which will begin presenting it to private and governmental entities. At present, there is no funding to build the project. Brosco says the real victory was getting the proposal done so that it can spark community discussions. “If lightning strikes, and one of our donors says they’ll give us the money to build this,” he says, “then of course we’ll do it. But it’s not about the building per se; it’s about looking at every community project through this lens: How do we help the whole community?”

Baird acknowledges his ambitious dream may never be realized, but he’s happy to expand the bounds of the community’s imagination and provide a template to borrow from and build upon. “This is not that far-fetched, though,” he adds, “and, of course, we’d love to see it built. But then, again, we have to think, ‘What is possible?’”

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