Development without planning: Downtown Project LV - TransitCenter
Governance Innovation Planning Policy
February 26, 2014
Development without planning: Downtown Project LV
Photo by Shin-pei Tsay

Photo by Shin-pei Tsay

This past weekend I had the privilege of visiting friends and meeting some folks heavily involved with the Downtown Project in Las Vegas, the urban redevelopment project spearheaded and funded by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. It’s one of those stories that’s hard to grasp because the scale and site are so unusual. Hsieh committed investments of $350 million in the city, with $200 million in real estate, $50 million in small businesses, $50 million in education, and $50 million in tech start-ups, with the intent of doing so in five years (though everyone reassures me that he won’t suddenly divest at the end of this period.)

The Downtown folks took me around their version of Las Vegas – not the J.G. Ballardian Strip but the actual city where you can imagine cars cruising slowly through the streets, people gawking at the lights on their way to their motel and where families walked on the sidewalks and bought ice cream from street vendors. It’s the part of Las Vegas that actually feels like a place, even if it’s shabby right now compared to its mid-century self. I ate at EAT., a restaurant opened by a long-time Strip employee whose lifelong dream was to open a mid-price eatery and who as of 2014, paid off the last installment of her loan from the Hsieh’s Downtown Project small business fund. I met one half of the folks behind the soon-to-be opened bookstore and who currently staffs the newsstand at Inspire, the newsstand-theatre-espresso bar-cocktail lounge community center. And I hung out at the private school that is a catalyst for its education program early Saturday morning to cheer on the thousands of runners for the Color Run.

With the infusion of significant private funding and the philosophical approach of a tech entrepreneur, it’s easy to see how the Downtown Project could launch and execute many new civic/business models that the rest of the United States can only tentatively discuss. It already has a subscription service medical center for preventive care, Turntable Health, which so far seems to be delivering on its promise of no wait, immediate 24/7 access. It has launched Project 100, its subscription model transportation service company, where a Downtown resident can have access to all forms of transportation without any of the headaches of ownership. (As a banner decision, it has purchased 100 Teslas for its car share. Studies do show that high quality vehicles can change behavior but…)

Other experiments I’d like to see Downtown Las Vegas try: turning U.S. post offices into community banks that provide financial services with bill payment, wire transfers, and other typically costly fees per transaction including a small business loan fund with easy to access lines of credit and low interest rates; vocational training for local Las Vegans in conjunction with the community colleges and small business development services to embed their job development in the city’s existing population; branch libraries that are community public spaces with evening and weekend programs for families (none of this closing at 5 PM and on weekends, when everyone is actually home and can go to the library!); a University of Neveda-Las Vegas partnership to explore substantive Town and Gown collaborations, (perhaps to start with a data collection/analysis and infographics/communications project or a city greening/sustainability project?); and more activation of the sidewalks and streets a la Tactical Urbanism, because those areas interestingly experience very little traffic and could do a lot more to connect people to the many destinations being developed and programmed by the Downtown Project. Who knows – given the energy, smarts and enthusiasm of the few Downtown Las Vegas people I met, they’re likely pursuing these things already.

Many questions remain though: it’s not clear what the population trends for this Downtown district are. Other than the people who directly receive financing from the Downtown Project, where are the other people coming from? Are they staying? What’s keeping them here? Where do they work and where do they live? Interestingly, these are questions that urban planners typically answer before embarking on a big redevelopment project. The Downtown Project is “doing” first. There’s an opportunity to design an iterative data collection, analysis, and evaluation process as the project goes.

Also, what is the role of the city government in maintaining this dynamism? There is no formal partnership with the city since Hsieh and the Downtown Project act as a private real estate developer. Still, the public orientation of the project should be hard for city officials to ignore. What could they do to continue to foster innovation and progress without a Tony Hsieh? Defining the role for governance will be important.

It’s more and more likely these days that cities (or vast, emptying urban neighborhoods) on the down-and-out will need some kind of injection of outside and likely private funding and financing in order to reinvent themselves. Municipal governments will seek out hybrid business models to fund and finance public services. Hopefully local governments can steward these structures to maximize public benefit and the jump-start of positive economic activity means that the city will then be able to identify sustainable means of existence. On a project by project basis, the very notion of private involvement for public good is wrought with unintended consequences – but in this case, it does seem that the ramifications – anticipated and unexpected – are positive for now.

[A quick note on Las Vegas for the uninitiated – Downtown Las Vegas is within the city limits proper with a city government, but many of its services such as transportation and education are provided by the State of Nevada. Its primary tax base seems to be property taxes and some sales taxes. There are no income taxes in Nevada. Also, it receives no revenues from the activity from the Strip (which is outside the city limits, I believe, in unincorporated Clark County) or from the airport. In sum, the City of Las Vegas has very little public funds on which to depend. This is evidenced in nearly every public sector: for example, the City’s average spend per student in the City of Las Vegas is $3500 whereas the national average is something like $16,000 per student.]

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