Downtown Enthusiast Uri Vaknin on What Las Vegas Needs to Be a True World-Class City

The condo real estate magnate stresses the importance of continuing to evolve the art scene.

Uri Vaknin, partner at KRE Capital, which owns The Ogden and Juhl among other properties, has quickly become an ardent Downtown Las Vegas advocate. And there’s plenty of reason why. A former art dealer and gallery owner, the native east coaster relocated here in 2014 when his company decided to invest in the local condo market. Since his arrival, he’s been successfully convincing locals and outsiders alike to buy in Downtown. And he’s especially taken an interest in championing the art scene, from serving on the board of the future Art Museum at Symphony Park to launching the Juhl Artist in Residence program. He spoke to Vegas Seven about what makes the city great, why DTLV is a “reimagining” not so much a “revitalization” and how Las Vegas needs one more box to check off to keep that world-class city designation.

“Some of my earliest childhood memories, my most indelible memories, are of my mom—when we moved to New York—taking me, my brother, my sister by the hand to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And then we moved to Atlanta, taking us to the High Museum of Art. When I go around the world, I’m a museum junkie. But I credit a lot of my success to the creativity, to the infusion of arts. I think anyone can build a condo building, but without the creativity and the art history … you’re not creating a sense of place. And that to me is about place-making. And I think art does that.

Right now without the museum, as a young kid in this city you’re not being exposed to the arts. I mean, we have a certain type of arts. We have the performance arts, which is great. We have great dance studios; we have acrobatic studios; we have trapeze studios. I love all that, and I love that that’s also very unique in Las Vegas; very few cities have that to the degree we have it.

But we need the visual arts. While I’m calling Las Vegas a world-class city, we still have that one little box to go, which is the art museum.

Uri VakninKrystal Ramirez

I’ve worked in cities all over the country. And you look at cities where there are Fortune 500, Fortune 100 companies—whether it’s their headquarters or regional headquarters, when they look to relocate to a city they have to check certain boxes. Usually number one is infrastructure, great airports, great highways, ease of movement.

[Las Vegas] has that. McCarran [Airport] can get you anywhere. I think Las Vegas and San Diego have the most accessible airports to where people live. …

You have to have affordable housing. It’s been said that Las Vegas is the largest American city with affordable housing. At least, the largest American city that people would want to live in. There’s some rust belt cities that may be less expensive but they don’t have jobs.

You also have to have a good education. We have an excellent higher education. UNLV is really coming to a world of its own. We have phenomenal private schools. And we are getting some great public schools. [Las Vegas Academy] just a few blocks away [from the Juhl]—they’ve won Grammys. There are high school kids that won Grammys, and that’s part of the school system here in Las Vegas.

You have to have recreation … and you have to have culture. People forget that we have more shows on any given night than New York City has. And it might not be Broadway musicals or performances at Carnegie Hall or opera at the Lincoln Center, but it’s a different kind of culture. There’s no place in the world where you can see as many major singing stars on any given night than in Las Vegas. One night you could see J Lo, you can see Cher and Britney Spears, and Wayne Newton from back in the day—and then hundreds of other shows whether it’s comedians or whatever else it is.

Uri VakninKrystal Ramirez

We also have all the outdoor recreation. A [few] weeks ago I went on an eight-hour river kayaking trip that was lead off at the base of Hoover Dam all the way down to Willow Beach. And that’s just 20 minutes away.

One of the things that we were missing to make a world-class city is professional sports. What’s really exciting to me is that [we’re able] to check the box to make us a world-class city.

The one thing that we are missing is the art museum. When I first moved here, I wasn’t aware that there wasn’t an art museum here and it literally pained me. We’re a city of 2 million people and I couldn’t imagine that the children of the Valley, like, where do they go? Where can they learn about the arts and creativity? …

I’ve really believed in this vision of Downtown, and I think Symphony Park is this kind of jewel that’s waiting to be shined. [Editor’s Note: We agree.]

Symphony Park is the greatest potential for Downtown because it’s a blank slate. The city is really trying to do it right. The Smith Center is there, the Children’s Museum, the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health designed by Frank Gehry is there, the World Market Center’s there and they’re working on making that a 365-day facility. But the museum will also be there, where in Symphony Park is not fully determined yet, but you’re going to have this incredible location of all these great cultural institutions but then filled in with whether it’s residential, retail, grocery stores.”

To hear more from Vaknin, check out Moving Portraits, our video series with local movers and shakers, below.