Out of the Desert…

If you’ve ever been to Las Vegas, you’ll know that it is a new urbanist’s nightmare: streets 15 lanes wide, towering hotel casinos, concrete everywhere, cars filling every inch of roadway, with no walkable spaces to be seen; it’s the perfect distillation of everything about American excess and vanity that has upended the urban environment. It’s not unexpected, especially of a city that has based its international reputation on the old maxim that “a fool and his money are soon parted.” There is a certain amount of anonymity that that environment demands: people go to escape, and part of that escape demands that you remain unknown.

And whether or not you agree with that assessment or not, there is the possibility of something great happening in Las Vegas. Tony Hsieh (pronounced shay), founder and CEO of Zappos.com has a plan for revitalizing the downtown core of Las Vegas.


Fremont Street, Downtown Las Vegas

As I began reading the article, I was skeptical, and rightly so. When I hear the words “urban revitalization” coupled with funding coming from big corporations, it brings to mind images of smooth-talking real estate agents bulldozing the ghetto to make way for some antiseptic steel and glass monstrosity. There is no true revitalization that really happens, except in the esoteric economic sense: the company gets cheap land, builds a monstrosity and increases the property tax base, throwing out all the poor unfortunate souls that called this place home.

Not so Tony Hsieh. As I read the article, even I started to get excited about the possibilities that his project presented. His vision is to turn downtown Las Vegas into a community. Not a shiny bauble that has limited use and dwarfs human scale, but a place where people can live, work, walk, bike, and have, as he puts it, “serendipitous encounters” with one another.

Can this be transformed into an urban landscape worth caring about?

At the center of his plan is the Zappos headquarters, now located in the old Las Vegas city hall. When the company was looking for a place to relocate their headquarters, they initially considered building a campus like Google, Nike, or Apple, where anything the employees might need or want was available. A closed campus. One that didn’t interact with the community at all. Hsieh made the decision to locate his headquarters somewhere where it could be a part of a community. Where his employees could have those serendipitous encounters and enhance their own lives and the lives of the people in the surrounding community.

Take a look at the website for the Downtown Project for more info about what their plans are for Downtown Las Vegas.


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