I’ve got a story to tell you. It takes a few twists and turns, but stick with me; it’ll make sense in a minute.
In the summer of 2003, I began work at the Seattle Times’ New Media division. The newspaper’s headquarters was a campus of several buildings in the city’s Cascade neighborhood, a hilly area just north of Seattle’s downtown core and just south of picturesque Lake Union.
Cascade’s acres of empty warehouses and shuttered businesses were overrun with drunks and prostitutes, one of whom was brazen enough to proposition me in broad daylight as I walked to my car. The neighborhood was a bit raw, to put it kindly. But I also loved certain things about it. My office was one block away from Kapow, a terrific coffee joint in what was technically a storage shed. The streets and alleys were lined with great-looking old buildings: Craftsman-style homes, funky 1950s industrial structures and one of the prettiest mosques I’ve seen. And the pleasures of the Eastlake neighborhood—including the late, great Café Venus, home to the best damn mac and cheese I’ve ever had—were within walking distance.
But almost immediately, the neighborhood began to change. Our office building was sold to make way for senior apartments, so we moved into an eight-story office building a block away, right at the edge of a huge chunk of land belonging to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and his investment company, Vulcan Inc. Vulcan had a vision of transforming the area into a hub for biotech companies, and constructed several buildings for that purpose. City officials even directed the creation of a streetcar line from the downtown core to the new buildings on Westlake Avenue, reasoning that those medical professionals would want to run downtown for lunch but leave their cars parked at work. And to indicate that this was indeed a fresh start, the Cascade neighborhood was renamed South Lake Union.
At first, it didn’t look like Allen’s gamble would pay off. Only a few biotech firms moved in. A chorus of locals called out the streetcar as a boondoggle; many took to calling it “The S.L.U.T.,” short for “South Lake Union Trolley.” (Its official name is “South Lake Union Streetcar,” but the derogatory name has largely supplanted it.) Some called for a re-examination of Allen’s redevelopment plans, invoking the specter of the never-built Seattle Commons—a massive project that would have re-centered the Cascade neighborhood around a 61,000-acre park. The Stranger, the city’s flame-throwing alternative weekly, even suggested making the area a legal red-light district.
And then, one fine day, Amazon came calling. The online retailer, which was fast outgrowing its headquarters in a former Marine hospital in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, announced its intent to move its entire Seattle operation, including some 15,000 employees, to South Lake Union.
Shortly after Amazon moved in, I lost my job at the Times in a round of layoffs. After that, I had few reasons to visit South Lake Union. But whenever I did return, I was shocked by how quickly it had changed. Mid-rise apartment buildings were going up everywhere. My garage coffee joint was gone; in its place was a score of upscale cafés. And the corner where a prostitute approached me is now home to a Whole Foods.
But nothing is more disorienting than walking around this once-failing neighborhood and seeing young, fresh-faced Amazon employees everywhere—walking dogs, pushing strollers, eyeballing the new roadsters at the recently opened Tesla dealership. They have taken over to such a degree that once, as I walked into a neighborhood restaurant full of Amazonians, a friend of mine who works for the company spotted me, greeted me with a hug and asked, “Geoff, how did you get in here?”
I’ve told that story to several friends who are, in one way or another, tethered to the fortunes of Downtown Las Vegas—either as part of the Downtown Project, or as residents or business owners unaffiliated with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s $350 million urban redevelopment initiative. And I usually get the same response: “Yeah, it’s coming here.”
One group of friends is smiling when they say it; the expressions of the others are grim.
I have been the editor of DTLV.com, a sibling to this publication, for a little more than a year. As befits a website devoted to covering Downtown Las Vegas, my office is in the middle of the Fremont East Entertainment District—a neighborhood that, like Cascade, is in the midst of transformation. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll call it the Fremont East corridor, so I can include the Ogden—a high-rise apartment building and, for all practical intents, Hsieh’s Downtown base—and the Gold Spike, a small hotel/casino that the Downtown Project purchased earlier this year.
Walking the Fremont East corridor isn’t that dissimilar from walking in South Lake Union. There are handsome historic buildings, including the art deco-faced Las Vegas High School (circa 1931) and the El Cortez Hotel & Casino, built in 1941 and recently added to the National Register of Historic Places. There are fine eateries in the neighborhood, serving up dishes I’ve come to crave: I can pretty much taste Le Thai’s spicy Three Color Curry with my eyes, and the Shrimp Grits at Eat are heaven’s own chosen. And the reputation of Fremont East’s bars is fast growing beyond Las Vegas; more and more tourists are drinking here every week.
And the retail component of the neighborhood is growing, as well. The Downtown Project’s Container Park—a retail complex created largely from repurposed shipping containers—has opened at the corner of Fremont and Seventh streets. Container Park is as friendly and inviting a space as has even been built in this town; think Town Square, only on a more intimate scale and with only local vendors. It boasts alfresco dining and cocktails, underneath trees festooned with twinkling lights; it has a sprawling playground with interactive electronic games; and bands play there daily. It’s a terrific spot, and I can walk there from my Downtown office in less than five minutes. It also has a giant, metal, flame-shooting praying mantis at its entrance.
Being this close to my subject has its advantages and disadvantages, both of which I was made keenly aware of on Container Park’s opening day, November 25. In a little less than 20 minutes, I was exposed to two radically differing opinions of Container Park, both of which I agreed with.
First, I ran into an artist friend who loved Container Park at first sight: “This is really nice. It’s very chill, and I love that they’ve got real sod planted by the stage,” he said. “And it’s a lot better than having an empty lot here, or a motel full of meth addicts.”
Then I turned a corner and collided with another friend who, while stopping short of advocating the return of an empty lot, didn’t have much love for what replaced it. “This is a mall,” my friend said. “It’s a pretty mall, but it’s a mall. It’s not what this neighborhood needed, but they built it anyway, because they don’t really understand what this neighborhood needs.”
These comments are the most benign examples of an argument that’s been going on for a while now. One side tirelessly beats the pro-revitalization drum; these are usually the same people who call Downtown “a blank slate” and celebrate the Downtown Project’s efforts to “build a city within a city.” They’re predominately young people, and many of them are new to Las Vegas, brought here by Hsieh’s vision of making Fremont East into some sort of tech startup/Burning Man art utopia: “The co-working capital of the world,” as Hsieh succinctly puts it.
The dissenting opinion is perhaps best expressed by a piece of graffiti I saw written on the wall of the men’s room at a venerable Downtown dive bar: “FUCK ZAPPOS,” it screams. (“NOT WELCOME,” says an unnecessary addendum.) This side believes that the Downtown Project is bringing on the same kind of gentrification that’s come to South Lake Union. While they don’t necessarily want Fremont to go back to being empty lots and meth addicts, they are distrustful of Downtown Project’s intentions, and would like to see some restraint and humility introduced to the redevelopment process. And an end to that “blank slate” meme would probably help, too.
I’ve been hearing from both sides of this fight since before I left Seattle in May 2012 to take the DTLV gig. But something has changed, and only recently: Over the course of these past six months, the two dissenting parties have finally been given concrete examples to work with. Zappos finally moved into its new Downtown headquarters in September. The Downtown Project “clubhouse” at the Gold Spike has been active since late May. The Project-sponsored 9th Bridge School is teaching classes. And Container Park, some 18 months in the making, is open. These things are real.
Practically speaking, the next 12 months are the Downtown Project’s Year One. The “Zappos Invasion” that has been foretold in countless Facebook posts and on bathroom walls has finally arrived. That means two things: It’s time for the Downtown Project to prove that its plan for Fremont East works, and it’s time for this reductive pro-and-con discussion to mature. Now that everyone has taken their seats at the table, it’s time for us to discuss the particulars of how this ambitious remake of the city core can be made to work for both sides.
Here are the facts: According to Downtown Project spokeswoman Kim Schaefer, the Project owns more than 80 properties in and surrounding the Fremont East corridor, amounting to some 60 acres of Downtown. And while that’s quite a bit of land, it’s worth noting that many of the businesses that have opened in Fremont East over the past few years—including Commonwealth, Atomic Liquors and the Downtown Grand—have no Downtown Project money in them at all. But I’ve heard people assuming that they do, simply because Hsieh owns a hell of a lot of real estate.
The discussion that should be happening right now is what’s to be done with it. Thus far, the Downtown Project has invested heavily in some of the things that it’s nice for a neighborhood to have—a preschool, a medical center, an off-leash dog park—but not the thing that a city neighborhood really needs: While Hsieh has purchased several already-occupied apartment buildings, he has yet to build any housing from the ground up. And if you want to move your billion-dollar online retailer’s entire workforce to within a mile of the workplace, you need apartments that workers can afford on the company’s average salary: $39,000 annually, according to job search website Indeed.com.
(Even the FAQ section of the Zappos Insights website admits that the company’s pay isn’t great: “While the Zappos Family tends to pay on the low-average to average side of the scale, the relaxed environment and potential for advancement both add value that cannot be counted on a paycheck.” It also boasts of the “above-average” benefits package and a companywide 70 percent retention rate.)
This worries me, because I want Downtown to succeed, and, judging from a meeting I had with Hsieh in the summer of 2012, he’s as stymied by the housing question as I am. (“Will there be housing for all the employees you’re bringing to the neighborhood?” I asked. His response was bracingly honest: “Yeah, we’re wondering about that ourselves.”)
To be fair, it’s entirely possible that Hsieh could have changed his mind over the past year, and that the Downtown Project could be planning to build some apartments of its own. (The Project website even hints at it: “… We aim to create dense residential that’s accessible to all types of people.”) But here’s where things get weird:
Let’s assume that Downtown Project will continue to build jazzy new properties in Fremont East over the next few years: bars, restaurants, a boutique Airstream trailer park hotel (yes, that’s really being planned). The more Downtown Project works to build a perfect neighborhood, the more likely it is to drive up property values. By the time they get around to building those apartments, their employees won’t be able to afford to live in them, unless rent control comes to the new Downtown—which seems unlikely, considering that demand for Fremont East housing is already rising outside of the Zappos family. If this isn’t a bull real estate market yet, it soon will be, as people hungry for urban living overrun the Ogden and whatever comes next.
And that begs another question: When the number of Fremont East residents equals the number of visitors, will the Downtown Project be able to accommodate their needs and wants? At present, it’s fairly easy for Zappos to indulge itself—like, say, to completely close off Fremont East for a company party, like it did last August—because, for the most part, it has only dirt lots and transient motels to challenge its whims. What happens when a Fremont East resident tries to walk from his apartment to the corner market and is told to walk several blocks out of his way?
More importantly: What if he doesn’t have a market to walk to? Let’s say a developer builds a 100-unit midrise apartment building on a plot of land that Hsieh doesn’t own. These new Downtowners will need places to shop for groceries, do their dry cleaning, get their cars repaired, heal their ailing pets and eat meals within a budget. These are all basic urban needs that places like Container Park simply cannot address.
Judging by the Downtown Project’s first few brick-and-mortar steps, I have some doubt that its immediate plans include things like auto repair and hardware shops. After all, these are 20th-century businesses; no doubt there are those who think we can gin up 21st-century smartphone apps to replace them.
But cities don’t work that way. Someone has to actually get under your sink to fix the plumbing, and if you want him to be someone you can afford, he’ll need a place to live nearby and a restaurant where his family can eat for less than $40. These are the people who make up a city, and as long as we’re having a zero-sum dialogue—either drinking the metaphorical Kool-Aid or screaming that these dot-com kids should be run out of town—we’ll never be able to figure out how in the hell we’re supposed to make a place for them.
Recently, I went back to Seattle to visit with friends and to poke around my old neighborhoods: Ballard, where I lived, and South Lake Union, where I worked. Once a sleepy neighborhood largely populated by older Scandinavian folks, Ballard is now one of the city’s hottest locales; boutique hotels and five-star restaurants are beginning to crowd out the dive bars of Ballard Avenue, as a young, moneyed tech crowd slowly and steadily replaces the lutefisk set and drives up property values. Huge apartment buildings are going up at 15th Avenue and Market Street, and they’re charging rental prices no sane person should pay. That’s real gentrification, and I hate to think of what old Ballard will be like in another 10 years.
South Lake Union is something else. Unlike Ballard, SLU still had some room to grow; it has those old, defunct warehouses, and a few rare-for-Seattle plots of empty land. And though Amazon has claimed much of it, there’s still opportunity for SLU to become something more than a corporate campus.
Walking around the former Cascade, I was reminded of Fremont East in dozens of ways, but one stuck out: I was fascinated, and not displeased, by how much new stuff had gone up. Amazon’s presence has brought some good restaurants to the neighborhood. The Museum of History and Industry has moved into a rehabilitated Navy building at lakeside. Extensive roadwork is being done to alleviate area traffic; the so-called “Mercer Mess,” an SLU traffic bottleneck of some renown, will soon be no more. And the streetcar, once ridiculed as a civic extravagance, is operating at capacity. There’s even talk of extending the line.
Halfway through my stroll, I instinctively began walking toward Kapow, only to remember that the tiny, ramshackle coffeehouse has been closed for many years. I suspect the building it occupied has been demolished and replaced with midrise condos, but I haven’t the heart to go back and look.
South Lake Union is an object lesson that both the Downtown Project and the rest of us could stand to examine. It’s taken a long time for SLU to get to where it is now, but every step of that transformation has been marked by intense, yet thoughtful, discussion and occasional compromise. The City of Seattle listened to its residents—no more Mercer Mess!—and Paul Allen worked with city planners, not in parallel to them.
That’s the kind of conversation we should be having. Zappos is here to stay, and it has the potential to do some real good in the years to come. Downtown Las Vegas is not a blank slate to be rewritten, and the Downtown Project should be sensitive to the existing ecosystem. And the City of Las Vegas has a greater role than simply showing up to the ribbon-cuttings, and it needs to start acting that way.
There’s a passage in the introduction to Jane Jacobs’ 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities that’s been running through my mind lately. In it, she decries the “wistful myth” that we could fix our slums, solve our traffic problems and “anchor the wandering middle class” if we only “had enough money to spend.” That naïve wish is addressed on Page 4 and debunked over the course of the next 444 pages. Money alone can’t make Downtown Las Vegas new again, even $350 million of it. You need respect and understanding between the old guard and the new—and you need to temper your ideals with reality.
We have to get everyone back into the same room together, so to speak. And we need to quit asking our neighbors, “How did you get in here?” Everybody belongs in Downtown Las Vegas. Coming to an understanding of that should be our project in the year ahead.
Senior writer Geoff Carter shares details about Downtown’s renaissance on 97.1 FM The Point. Listen to the broadcast below.