What’s Happening to Free Parking?

Examining why one of the great only-in-Vegas perks appears to be slowly coming to a stop

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

When it comes to automobile parking, Las Vegans and our 40 million annual visitors are a spoiled lot. For most of our city’s relatively brief history, not only has parking been plentiful, it has also been free—and boldly celebrated as such. Anyone who visits other destination cities knows that’s quite a trick—one that seems to be disappearing.

To understand why, one must start with an understanding of Las Vegas, past and future. In stark contrast to old, densely urbanized East Coast population centers (and similar West Coast cities like San Francisco), Las Vegas, like much of the Southwest, came of age during the post-war celebration of suburbia. Like Los Angeles, we’re spread far and wide, and our “suburban” sprawl took root just a short skip from Downtown. Neighborhoods that today qualify as “urban”—John S. Park, McNeil, Paradise Palms, and others built during the 1950s and 1960s—offer wide, car-friendly streets fronting bungalows lounging on expansive lots starting at a quarter-acre. Compare that to our suburban beltway cluster homes built 10 to an acre during the early 2000s.

Similarly, our city’s mid-century resorts were an homage to car culture, designed to entice California visitors fleeing up Interstate 15 on a weekend escape in the Buick. Check out any vintage Vegas Flickr collection and marvel at the casinos’ deep setbacks from the Strip; the long driveways, the expansive lawns, the massive Strip-front parking lots packed with hulking American iron. Exploiting the luxury of space has until recently been part of our ethos.

Compare, for instance, the low-slung, spread-out desert resort vibe of the Stardust—whose now-razed center-Strip parcel represents an orgy of space at 63 acres, much of it once used for parking—to the urban-styled Cosmopolitan, stacked-and-packed on less than nine acres and built on a six-layer underground garage. What’s more, compare our free hotel parking to the $30-$50 a night charged in downtown San Diego—the city former Mayor Oscar Goodman often held up as a model for our own Downtown redevelopment—and you can see where Las Vegas is headed.

It’s as if the Stardust and the Cosmopolitan existed in different places, and as each day passes, that becomes more true. The Strip is changing before our eyes. Record numbers of visitors are coming, driving ever more cars and demanding more experiences, but they are gambling less, if at all. Witness the Strip’s increasing urbanization—the pushing of resorts right up to the sidewalk, the capitalization of every square inch of land. An abundance of free parking, especially in resort areas, is getting harder to come by. To drive the point home: The Cosmopolitan’s nearly nine acres started life as the parking lot for the Jockey Club timeshare.

The most obvious way to manage a scarce resource is to make it more difficult or expensive to obtain. What started a few years ago as an increasing rash of “Valet Full” signs that could be bypassed with a smile and a well-folded $10 bill has escalated into valet attendants sternly requiring a guest key to obtain service. Thus, a high-end, casino-free property like Mandarin Oriental offers one type of parking: fee-based valet. That’s so San Diego.

Our Downtown casinos have always had to deal with parking differently. Instead of vast surface lots, they have long had multilevel garages. Instead of unlimited free parking, they make you validate your ticket at the casino cage, and even then there’s a time limit. Now, however, parking restrictions are increasing, a byproduct of the redevelopment of the casino properties and Downtown in general. On busy nights, for instance, El Cortez requires a players club card to receive free valet service. Main Street Station, the California and the Plaza each charge various fees for self-parking. And valet parking at the Downtown Grand is $12. All of this is said to help maintain parking availability for paying guests. The result, say some casino execs, is that each time a property implements parking control measures, cars then overwhelm a nearby property that lacks them, prompting those properties to implement controls as well.

One by one, the dominoes of Old Vegas fall. As they do, the perks of Old Vegas—once a remote desert city with space to spare—give way to managing the needs of tens of millions more visitors to the New Vegas. Neon gives way to LED; space gives way to density; the night sky gives way to towering architectural efforts. It is and has always been all about the money, and in the brave New Vegas, it is very possible the few will park for free. It’s one price we pay for always striving to stay relevant to those who pay our bills.



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