Can the Urban Dream Work in the Suburbs?

The rise of Downtown Summerlin forces a local architect to rethink just what “downtown” means—and how new definitions just might change the face of the Valley

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

There’s a distinct difference between charisma and character. Character is earned, not instantaneously created. Charisma is charming, but often fleeting. Downtown Summerlin aims to blend both qualities with an ambitious plan to create a culturally vibrant center in an otherwise manicured HOA-driven sprawl.

Summerlin, and now Downtown Summerlin, certainly do not lack in vision. The Summerlin community at-large has always had a master plan; this latest offering is one of the last critical developments in completing that plan. But this completion could also be seen as a new beginning. It’s a testament to the rebounding Las Vegas economy and the tenacity of the developer and local residents. The steel frame of the project’s early, recession-stunted incarnation loomed over the western Valley for years, a lasting sign of the boom and bust of the millennium’s first decade. Today, the vibrant array of shops is a welcome change, not only for those who live in Summerlin, but for the entire Valley. It combines the convenience of freeway access, the scenic backdrop of Red Rock Canyon and an interesting attempt at urbanism to create what could be an energetic new “urb” in a neighborhood that has been the very portrait of a bedroom community. What’s left to argue about?

But if we’re wondering whether Downtown Summerlin shows the way forward for our erstwhile suburban areas, the natural question that arises is: Can you really build a Downtown from scratch? Or is the title of “downtown” by its very nature earned rather than simply proclaimed? Should the word be reserved for locales that have endured, persevered and in turn defined a local or regional culture? Does the new approach create simply an outdoor mall—“We’ve got your fresh urbanism right here; just add water!”—or something more significant, a worthwhile approach to city building in the age of the master developer?

The Vegas Context

Las Vegas grew so fast that, by the 1980s, it was actually defined by a lack of a true center or downtown. The real center of our city, of course, is not Downtown at all, but the Strip. It’s the main artery of all that the world knows to be “Vegas.” It is as important to our city as Broadway is to New York City. But the Strip can never truly be “our” center. Everyday life—at least for most of us—would be impossible to sustain at that pace and intensity.

The historic center of town—Fremont Street—was and remains an attempt to provide a more traditional geographic focus for our civic lives. But for decades, the notion of Fremont as the center of the action was mostly wishful thinking. When the Fremont Street Experience opened on December 14, 1995, it hoped with its vast canopy and pedestrian promenade to create a metaphoric neon arrow proclaiming, essentially, that “the action is here.” Instead, the attraction had simply taken one of our most organic streets and turned it into a fabrication.

Over the past few years, Downtown Las Vegas has seen much national attention because of major investments from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s brainchild, the Downtown Project. Hsieh and his partners have replaced the Fremont Street Experience strategy of trying to revive Downtown with that single, showy neon expanse; instead they’ve planted dozens of small seeds, hoping to hit the right spots and spur wider economic and cultural growth. But if this bohemian, semi-decentralized effort, with its lack of a master plan and gestures toward organic growth, works, it will be a phenomenon with limited boundaries.

For several years, the retail component of Downtown Summerlin existed only as a steel frame—and a depressing reminder of the Valley’s economic plight. Today, it is alive and well, and it just might light the way to a new way of Las Vegas living. | Photo by Jon Estrada

For several years, the retail component of Downtown Summerlin existed only as a steel frame—and a depressing reminder of the Valley’s economic plight. Today, it is alive and well, and it just might light the way to a new way of Las Vegas living. | Photo by Jon Estrada

The latest wave of change has created much-needed energy in the historic city center, but it has yet to resolve crucial issues about urban density and critical mass. And while the Downtown Project is a welcome experiment in the urban core, its principles would be difficult to apply to areas farther from the city center. So, how do we turn those areas into denser, more sensible and rewarding neighborhoods that limit driving and foster interaction? In other words, how do we go about crafting workable “edge cities”?

First of all, it’s reasonable to ask whether there can even be legitimate edge cities or “second cities” in the Valley. I believe the “edge city” would be not only possible here, but valuable. It’s become fashionable to dismiss the edge as, at best, a necessary evil for a housing-hungry population—an ecologically and culturally unhealthy blemish on the city. But while we can make it a priority to better manage future growth, today’s suburbs are not going away. And the health of the Valley depends on their continued evolution into more than bedroom communities.

The world is rapidly urbanizing. The days of a singular downtown as the center are fading quickly. In more established areas—good examples are West Hartford, Connecticut, and Tysons Corner, Virginia—we see the collision of populations on the outskirts of town beginning to coalesce into viable retail centers, lifestyle centers and entertainment hubs. In this day of instantaneous technology and instant gratification, culture itself seems always poised to happen. The real chore falls to the developers, architects and visionaries to create a viable physical framework for it to grow.

Living on the Edge

Edge cities have been around for a while; they can generally be found on the margins of larger downtown areas and along connected spines of public transit. What turns “the edge” into an “edge city” is the collation of just enough amenities, jobs and interconnected layers of society that the area can thrive on its own. Edge cities rise when the original urban context becomes undesirable and people seek more space, more solitude and less congestion. The irony is that most people still crave the fundamental offerings of a city: vibrancy, culture, the idea of a pedestrian promenade—a place to see and be seen. It is a natural phenomenon, one that grows organically around human interest, investment and societal influences.

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

Most of Las Vegas’ mixed-use developments have sold themselves as “lifestyle centers”—these spots, such as Town Square, offer an enriched variety of offerings to cater to families and myriad activities. At Town Square, one can spend ample time in a town-like enclave, but the experience is decidedly inwardly focused, with a pastiche treatment of facades and styles that can feel less like a town and more like a caricature of the one it had hoped to be.

Town Square and Tivoli Village promote the now-romantic idea of a pedestrian streetscape, but the offerings are more about quick transactions set against a stage-set of foreign style and surrounded by parking. But I don’t think anyone is complaining about these experiences versus the “strip” mall: The developments work as pleasant alternatives to their dismal predecessors and to a traditional mall. But they are neither a “downtown” nor a true center of community.

Downtown Summerlin is indeed on the edge of town, nestled against the far western reaches of the Interstate 215 and Red Rock Canyon. It’s an attempt to create a center for an emerging edge city, and it’s particularly ambitious in scale and scope. It will take years to find out whether the project can evolve into a true downtown, but it already promotes a sense of urban scale, with plenty of space for pedestrians and functional roadways for cars. Of course, Downtown Summerlin also relies heavily on large parking lots, inviting the big question about whether the area can ultimately engage people in more sustainable methods of travel such as a dedicated rail, bus or other system that could link with nearby neighborhoods, the Strip and beyond. If not, the sense of downtown could be lost.

The Lowdown on a “Downtown”

You might be surprised to learn that the Las Vegas Valley is actually a vast suburban expanse with surprising density. Compare Summerlin with most established suburban communities in the U.S. Northeast, and you’ll find that it’s at least four times more densely populated. The problem here is not a lack of density but rather that, despite our proximity to one another, we live in a decidedly closed-off environment.

The issue is really about connectivity: Most people enter their home from the garage as the door rolls down behind them, and that’s the last they see of their neighbors each day. So for our community—accepting it for all it is and isn’t—the question is whether Downtown Summerlin hits the right notes and creates a new center and inspiration for more interesting growth. Can it live up to its moniker from the onset, and will it perform its duty to be a catalyst for the continued growth and evolution of the area? To look at the development in this light is to see it as part of a greater, still-evolving whole.

Downtown Summerlin is a robust hybrid of retailers and restaurants; it’s a local project, but it draws many of its core tenants from ubiquitous national chains. Formally, the property turns its back to the edges. And, like both our 1990s-style big-box strip malls and our 2000s mixed-use lifestyle centers such as Town Square and The District at Green Valley Ranch, Downtown Summerlin is an island in a sea of parking-striped blacktop. So, what can save this and future edge-city attempts at urbanism from the lifestyle-center trap?

One idea that would both help Downtown Summerlin reach its full potential and spur smart development elsewhere is a fixed-route public transit system. These kind of big transportation ideas are the framework for interconnected growth, and for promoting a balance of car versus pedestrian.

To Las Vegans, this might seem farfetched, but it once seemed farfetched to the residents of Phoenix, too. Consider Tempe in the Phoenix area. The home of Arizona State University, Tempe is connected via rail, with a robust collection of shops, entertainment and residential along the route. The community is affiliated with Phoenix in many ways, but it is clearly its own enclave, with its own identity. On the East Coast, the Burlington, Massachusetts, area has rapidly developed along one of Boston’s critical highways. Ironically, the initial catalyst was a large indoor mall built in 1968. Only recently has the area catapulted beyond a large retail center to now include residential, medical and office spaces. Burlington is now a legitimate edge city.

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

But even without the Hail Mary of smart public transit, Downtown Summerlin might just have a chance: The architectural character is purposefully varied. While there are some excessively dramatic moves, such as the enormous tent-style shade structures, the overall feel is vanilla. But it’s a good vanilla—the one you are glad to taste.

By comparison, the multitude of flavors in other areas—remember that Town Square visage that winds up simply feeling fake?—often yields a far less desirable taste. The office tower at the development’s center has simple, clean lines and just enough neon flair with the top edge lighting bands. The connection at the base level between the new streets is very successful, and the curbside parking on the long blocks feels legitimate and useful—it’s not just a fussy nod toward an “urban look.”

For the streetscapes and common areas, the master planners—ELS Architects and Urban Design from Berkeley, California—took no groundbreaking aesthetic risks. But it’s precisely the simplicity of the design that gives it a decidedly urban and urbane feel compared with Town Square—or even parts of Downtown.

The broader issue for this development and others like it is how the notion of a “downtown” can be imposed rather than organically grown. Master plans are great, and I certainly would never discourage fresh ideas. What’s ironic about this project, though, is that the developers—and those who crafted their branding strategy—believed that a vacant plot could be instantly turned into something meriting the moniker “Downtown.” So it should be no surprise that the authenticity and earned character of a downtown are lacking.

There are two ways of looking at this: The first is to throw up our hands and say, “If sipping a $7 latte while strolling past Old Navy and another Wolfgang Puck restaurant is the best we can do for this ‘downtown,’ we’re in trouble.” The second is to acknowledge a few unavoidable facts of living in a young city in the 21st century:

• Talented planners and designers can deploy traditional concepts and aesthetics, but age itself cannot be faked.

• Modern development does not necessarily progress in the same small, barnacle-like accretions that created great historic downtowns. New development (and redevelopment)—especially on the edges—usually needs a major catalyst to fill landlocked empty lots or bring together a series of disconnected, shuttered relics.

• Smart urbanism is still possible in a master-planned suburban setting.

• Over time, even master-planned places can earn a patina of authenticity—the aesthetic variation, historical context and emotional associations that come with being truly “lived in.” Certainly, Paris, Washington, D.C., and Chicago are stunning examples of master-planned urban conditions. It generally takes a bit of time to be timeless.

In this context, the idea of turning an island of already-graded land in the middle of a sprawling bedroom community into a pedestrian-oriented mixed-use district is not a terrible proposition.

From the point of view of an architect, I can take issue with some of Downtown Summerlin’s aesthetics: The surrounding streetscape is largely the unadorned block facades of the ‘back of house’ areas of the shops. The southern parcel gives us a very traditional strip mall environment. And that sea of parking buffers the development from existing and future planned development. At the moment, this “downtown” feels knitted only to itself, rather than to the secondary community streets. In other words, it hasn’t yet put the “city” in “edge city.”

But these missed opportunities and false moves don’t get in the way of the real source of Downtown Summerlin’s potential energy: the new streetscape and the people within that realm. The proposed stadium for the Las Vegas 51s would pull in real energy and distribute it back onto the sidewalks of Downtown Summerlin. So would the area’s planned residential components—the first of them, the Constellation, is set to begin construction before year’s end. If Downtown Summerlin can ultimately engage its surrounding neighborhoods, it may even earn its name.

Real Life, Real Trade-offs

My wife and I have joked that with this new development, we’re “never leaving Summerlin.” I’m hesitant to admit to it, as part of me still longs to live in a “real” downtown, where there is more history, urban grit, edginess and variety. I’ve lived in those environments—in Boston, Chicago, New York City and even Shanghai—and each is exhilarating. I’ve even lived in the Arts District in Las Vegas, and that was fun, too.

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

But there’s something alluring about the immediate backdrop of Red Rock Canyon, the manicured streetscapes and the amazing ease of traffic (you can’t complain about it here until you’ve experienced real traffic elsewhere). I’ve lived in areas where “character” is omnipresent, and I think of areas where there is unmistakable character—where the buildings and sidewalks tell stories and show the wear of centuries of life. But these places come with a price tag, too: That price is often a public realm that is more filled with confrontation. Yes, the character of such areas is “earned,” but growing up through it isn’t always pleasant. Can a new California Pizza Kitchen change my life? Probably not, but I think I’ve lost my urban edge enough to be mildly excited about it.

Las Vegas is a tear-it-down, “clean slate” kind of town. The legacy of our city is present in its endless newness. But for the city to grow out of its perpetual adolescence, it needs to have some sense of permanence. And everything was “new” once. Maybe Downtown Summerlin can take its place in history as a pivotal development that helped give our sprawl a center—many centers—pulling us out of our cars for a moment and inviting us to take a stroll in the city.

When I weigh the value of these new conceptions of what “downtown” can mean, I think of the lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown”: Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores; seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more. Even 30 years after the song was written, the words ring true for many communities: There are far too many examples of shuttered storefronts and downtrodden traditional downtowns. The irony here is this historically earned character, while beautiful, didn’t survive the social, economic and architectural changes that shook cities in the late 20th century. But, even in an age of instant gratification, the strip mall fails to satisfy. We like convenience, but we also like the feeling of urban connectedness, with the varied experiences it offers. So the idea of a downtown is evolving, with many new developments attempting to fuse old-fashioned urban character with contemporary ease and energy.

With its attempt to blend the right mix of pedestrian and automobile, office and retail, entertainment and dining, celebration and simplicity, Downtown Summerlin just might be a step toward finding the “right fit” for our “right here” and “right now.”


Brett Robillard is a Las Vegas-based architect with more than two decades of experience. Robillard is currently the design director for Gensler’s Las Vegas office and an adjunct faculty member at the UNLV School of Architecture.

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