How Can We Transform Our City’s Asphalt Wastelands?

Urban Land Institute has a plan to make a village of the dying intersection at Sahara and Decatur

Photo by Geoff Carter

Photo by Geoff Carter

If you go there right now, you won’t see it. There’s very little at the intersection of Sahara Avenue and Decatur Boulevard that indicates the area could become a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood; currently, it’s nothing but giant, half-empty strip malls and car dealerships swimming in massive parking lots. Plus, Sahara and Decatur are 10 lanes across when they meet up, resulting in an ocean-size intersection that even the heartiest pedestrians are reluctant to cross. It’s an asphalt wasteland.

But the Urban Land Institute, a global nonprofit that encourages responsible land use, would like to make a village from it. It only sounds crazy until Bob Fielden, a longtime Las Vegas architect and chairman of the institute’s Smart Growth Committee, and Richard Serfas, the institute’s district chairman, begin to describe their idea to tame the intersection and the neighborhood around it, for roughly a half-mile in each direction. The two men are part of a small, 20-person team (“Quality, not quantity,” Serfas says) that is creating a land-use “tool kit” for the area—one that will help both public agencies and private developers work together to reclaim this desert-within-a-desert.

“Sahara and Decatur is what I call an ‘urburb,’” Fielden says, meaning an older urban area outside the Downtown core. “At one time, it was an area where everyone wanted to live, or live near.” He speaks appreciatively of its proximity to shopping and to the Strip, and describes a revived Sahara/Decatur that takes fuller advantage of that proximity as well as RTC’s recently added dedicated express transit lanes on Sahara—now used by buses, and perhaps someday devoted to light rail.

After conducting an exhaustive “audit of resources” (both housing and commercial), the team has envisioned a series of “hamlets”—walkable, bike-friendly mini-neighborhoods with their own shopping, parks and community centers. And they would all surround a “village center” at Sahara and Decatur, a denser urban environment that could include mixed-use apartment buildings and, hopefully, a north-south transit hub. (Serfas says that the RTC’s recent work on Sahara is a cornerstone of the project.) In 20 years or so, Sahara and Decatur could be its own Downtown-like neighborhood with its own parks and schools, populated with mid-level workers and young families.

It seems like a wild dream—especially given the fact that Sahara marks the dividing line between the city and county, and that, as Fielden points out, the county doesn’t have a redevelopment agency like the city does. But Serfas is confident: “We’ve seen an excellent effort in bringing public agencies together with private development companies,” he says. In other words, both sides can see the potential in transforming a blighted area into a modern yet traditional cityscape … and the Urban Land Institute’s planning may well provide the blueprint.

The only unfortunate thing about the Sahara/Decatur plan is that it might take up to 20 years to reach fruition. Serfas and Fielden say it could happen sooner (and some “benchmark” builds could occur in as little as three years), but for this thing to really take, it needs to be a long, concerted effort. “We don’t want it to look like one of these master-developed projects that always ultimately fail,” Fielden says. Like, say, the four dying strip malls that are currently occupying the four corners of Las Vegas’ next great urb.

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What do you envision for the “‘urbs” near you? Share your ideas in the comments below.