Call it a tale of two cities. One has been the recipient of governmental and civic love and money; the other, a stepsister that’s been a bit overlooked. Divided by one of Las Vegas’ most important east-west roadways, Charleston Boulevard, the 18b Arts District has been a study in the success of New Urbanism. The north side of Charleston has seen various developments established, including the Arts Factory and Arts Square, while the south side has been the funky precinct of mechanics, upholstery outfits, a few second-hand shops and low-priced furniture stores.
That’s changing, and changing fast.
The south-side investors of the 18b, who can use the same redevelopment tax diversions that their northern neighbors use, have over the last three years invested in bars, restaurants, art galleries, tattoo shops and stores peddling collectibles of all kinds. South Main Street isn’t just diversified, it’s positively hip.
One of the first pioneers of the area was Pamela Dylag. She and her sister, Christina, opened Velveteen Rabbit on Main Street in May 2013. The bar, which features live music and DJs alongside signature cocktails, brings an Edwardian vibe to a neighborhood that (aside from First Friday parties) had largely gone unnoticed.
In the past two years, the neighborhood has changed so much, Dylag says. When it opened, Velveteen Rabbit depended on people driving in. Now, “foot traffic, day or night, has increased significantly,” she says.
A half block north of Velveteen Rabbit is Hop Nuts, a craft beer joint, which, paired with the Makers & Finders coffeehouse next door, seems like a little slice of Portland plopped into the neighborhood.
There’s the nucleus of drinking establishments to bring people into the south side of the Arts District—and of course, there are bars such as Mingo, Artifice and the anticipated Crown & Anchor on the north side just a short walk away. Shopping for art or antiques at nearby galleries and stores also pairs well with a crisp chardonnay, Dylag notes.
Those who love the neighborhood for its low-down chic need not worry about gentrification, at least not yet. Despite the changes in the surrounding commercial development, the demographic makeup has not changed much in the last 13 years. In 2000, the U.S. Census reported that the 89104 ZIP code, where the majority of these new businesses reside, contained mostly white, 25-to-44-year-olds who work in the arts, entertainment and service industries. Although there were a few percentage point ticks in either direction, the 2013 Census data shows the same mix.
Alongside the art galleries, tattoo parlors and quirky specialty boutiques, one will still find the auto shops, upholstery joints and furniture stores that have called the area home for decades. The overall vibe, though, is different.“It’s just this wonderful sense of community,” Dylag says. “[Velveteen Rabbit] doesn’t feel like an island any more.”
“There’s a vibrancy to Main Street right now that we haven’t had in a while,” says Marc Abelman, president of the 18b Arts District Neighborhood Association and owner of interior-design business Inside Style on Main just south of Charleston. “The future is pretty bright for this community.”
Although new development is moving in, there are some components of the existing area that have to be maintained, Abelman says. One of those components: keeping the arts in the “arts district,” which means having good quality, affordable housing.
The starkest change that’s come in the past decade is the boom in rent. In 2000, 55 percent of tenants in the area ponied up $500 to $749 in rent, according to the U.S. Census. In 2013, 55 percent are now paying $750 to $1,499. Unlike the northern part of the Arts District, the southern part has some existing housing—but it is older and, according to residents of the area, at least somewhat dilapidated. More than two-thirds of the available housing was built in 1979 or before which can lead to maintenance issues for tenants. (To learn more about your rights as a tenant or landlord, see sidebar.) Some of the urban pioneers who have moved into the area are not happy with the conditions that they have found.
New housing is a possibility down the road, according to Las Vegas Councilman Bob Coffin, who represents the area. He said developers are beginning to look for opportunities for residential building, and he’s happy to see the changes in a neighborhood in which he used to deliver newspapers as a boy. He recalls patronizing the Milky Way “greasy spoon” diner, now the site of Casa Don Juan, decades ago. At one time, there was more residential property in the Arts District, but it began a transition to industrial and commercial properties decades ago.
“A lot of people lived there,” Coffin says, “but of course they moved out as it changed.”
Now it’s changing again. City planners are preparing to make the area more walkable and conducive for the type of businesses and art galleries that are moving into the area. Main Street, now a two-way street, will become one-way, north, while a block west, Commerce Street will be all southbound. Landscaping and cosmetic changes as well as dedicated bike lanes are also slated for the neighborhood.
“Main Street is really jumping,” Coffin says. “All the stores are getting a new look. It’s not all art, but it’s cool.”
Cindy Funkhouser, who has owned antique store The Funkhouse for 15 years and has lived in and near the Arts District for just as long, can’t think of any negatives resulting from the changes that have come to the neighborhood. She likes being able to walk to Makers & Finders for a coffee and lunch, or dinner at Rock’N’oodles, a block north of her shop on Third Street.
Some things still need to be worked out, however. Pedestrian traffic has increased, but cars still speed on Main Street and fail to stop for people in the marked crosswalks.
As those challenges are addressed, Funkhouser believes the appeal of the south side of the 18b district will increase. “I’m very pleased with the changes,” she says.