Is the Downtown Dream Losing Steam?

After a flurry of urban change, a letdown seems forgivable. But now's not the time.

praying_mantis_post_it_by_cierra_pedro_WEBTwo days after I moved back to Las Vegas from Seattle in May 2012, I was invited to a gathering at the complex that would later become the 9th Bridge School. This event was designed to figure out the best use for the buildings where the gathering was held—a former senior-services center and church. We broke off into groups and brainstormed; we wrote out plans on large sheets of paper; we scribbled wishes onto Post-its and stuck them to the windows. (As near as I can tell, almost everything being built Downtown at this point goes through this Post-it process.

To my mind, though, the best part of the gathering was the bit when some of us stepped forward (I was too shy) and simply talked about what was most important to us—what we would put in this Downtown building if we could have anything we wanted. In a broader sense, we were asked to share what we wanted from the Downtown core, period. The answers ranged from “a gym” to “a co-working space” to “a school” (we have a winner). It was a pure speculative discussion, and I was excited to witness it.

Two years later, many of those Post-it wishes have been fulfilled. The Downtown core now has a preschool (9th Bridge), a medical center (Turntable Health), dedicated bike lanes, a membership dog park, a newsstand, many new places to eat (some of them even vegan), a growing retail component and much, much more. The coffee has gotten better. Lawyers continue to invest in the area; several new office buildings have been constructed. There’s a bookstore on the way (Writer’s Block). And, hey, we had a city music and arts festival. We’re still waiting on affordable mid-rise housing, and it would be awfully nice to have a full-size supermarket, but we’re getting there. We went from zero to 45 in less than a decade, and that’s not me being snide; we Downtowners have accomplished a lot in a very short time, and we ought to be proud of that. At the very least, the bike lanes are terrific.

And yet, the people I talk to on Fremont Street every day seem weary, disheartened. The euphoria is wearing off. Some people are leaving town, frustrated with the slow growth of the district. The fate of the Cultural Corridor—the stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard located just north of U.S. 95 that ends at Cashman Field and includes the Neon Museum—hangs by a thread as the Las Vegas 51s threaten to decamp to Summerlin (see story, Page 12). We still haven’t made any real provisions for the homeless. And the housing issue has gone from a concern to a full-blown worry: Who will build it, and when? Can all of the businesses in the Downtown core survive without more people on the streets?

What I’m wondering is this: Looking at the Downtown core as it is today, with its ziplines and its giant preying mantis, what do you want it to be? If you thought there was a chance that your vision could be incorporated into what’s already here, what would you wish for the most? Would you want parks? More high-rises? More tech businesses, or more schools? What would you write on your Post-it?

Downtown is bigger than we give it credit for. It incorporates not only Fremont East, the Arts District and Symphony Park, but also a long piece of Las Vegas Boulevard, the virtual entirety of Main Street, a number of historic neighborhoods and this city’s entire legal infrastructure. And it’s still ours to write our dreams upon, whether those ambitions lean toward building websites or rebuilding transmissions. There’s room for all of it.

I’m just looking around me now and wondering, Where is this going?

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