Life May Be Beautiful, But Fremont is Ugly

Why our ‘it’ street needs a makeover

(Photos by Geoff Carter)

The next time you’re driving around the city core, take a look at three of the best-looking streets in Las Vegas. First, check out Valley View Boulevard, between U.S. 95 and Charleston Boulevard; what was once a typically desolated city street is now landscaped to match the Springs Preserve. Then double back to Alta Drive and take it east to Rancho, enjoying its swooping chicanes and (in my friend Pj Perez’s words) “real estate porn.”

Finally, take a drive on the stretch of First Street that runs behind Art Square and admire its planters, its old-style streetlights, its brick crosswalks, its benches and its shade trees. The street was remade under the Complete Streets initiative of the Regional Transportation Commission and the City of Las Vegas, and it looks absolutely terrific.

Then, take a good look at Fremont Street, from Las Vegas Boulevard down to Eighth Street—ostensibly the beginning and end of the Fremont East Entertainment District, which despite the name is really more about drinking than “entertainment.” (At present, Fremont East has one dedicated concert venue in Fremont Country Club, and will soon welcome Inspire Theater, which will be used for TED Talks. The rest of the Entertainment District’s venues are mostly bars with benefits.)

It’s a real contrast with those other streets. This part of Fremont has no brick crosswalks, ornate streetlights or shade trees worth the mention. By night, Fremont East is lit by neon signs that cover a multitude of sins. But by day, it’s impossible to see this broiling-hot concrete and asphalt ravine—with its clip-art style neon signs, jaundiced banners and clusters of gangly palm trees—as anything but a missed opportunity.

Look at First Street again. When the time comes for First Street to welcome cafés, clubs, dining and retail, it will have trees to shade bistro tables, crosswalks that tell drivers to slow down and planters for drunks to throw up in. Just imagine if leafy trees shaded the sidewalk seating at Radio City or Le Thai, and you’ll begin to see why Fremont falls short.

I’m not an urban planner or landscape architect, but I can think of several ways Fremont can be remade with a minimum of disruption to the businesses that give it life. Firstly, we should move the sign art pieces in the center of the street to a new home under the Fremont Street Experience. Replace them with genuine vintage signs—like, say, the Blue Angel, who looks good at any time of day.

Next, take down the old light poles that are currently being used to hang those god-awful Fremont East banners and replace them with shade trees, or kiosks on which event posters and fliers can be tacked up. And let’s rip out those useless palm trees and replace them with trees that produce real shade.

We should paint diagonal crosswalks at Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont. They’re more intuitive given the all-stop signal at that intersection, and besides, they look better. And to take it a step further, those crosswalks should be painted in offbeat colors and/or with zigzag patterns. Drivers seem to be accustomed to ignoring the regular piano-key variety, and again, it’s a cheap fix that looks good.

Finally, let’s create a permanent taxi queue lane that is clearly marked by signs. Line the sidewalk alongside it with benches and planters so the drunks have something to lean on as they wait.

This winter, Zappos will move into its new headquarters at the former City Hall, and Fremont’s durability as a daytime street will be tested as hundreds of workers, perhaps bored with Zappos’ kick-ass cafeteria, pour into Fremont East at lunchtime. I don’t think you need to be an urban planner to see the appeal of enjoying a sandwich or a slice of pizza on a park bench in the shade of a tall tree, watching as the city grows and changes around you.