Downtown Revitalization – The Role Of A Billionaire

Monopoly BoardwalkIn downtown Las Vegas Nevada recently I visited a small business that is the opposite of everything we normally associate with Sin City. The small business made me think about the role of both visionary billionaires and geography to city revitalization.

The small, serious, bookstore The Writer’s Block opened last year as part of The Downtown Project, entrepreneur Tony Hsieh’s plan for bringing tech startups, small businesses, and a sense of community back to Las Vegas’s downtown.

How does this even exist?

The Writer’s Block is the type of business that is hard to believe even exists in 2015. Not to mention, it exists within shouting distance of the Las Vegas casino monoculture madness. While Amazon.com swallows up entire multiverses of retail shops – slaying Barnes and Noble and every other bricks-and-mortar shop in its path – how does an independent anachronism like The Writer’s Block dare to open?

The free market alone would never support this.

I’m just spitballing here but I suspect not enough Las Vegas residents live close enough to The Fremont Experience to need a quickie Dom Delillo White Noise discussion in person, while picking up their Kierkegaard paperback.

The crazy irony is that a precious, almost twee, bookstore like The Writer’s Block only exists because Hsieh, who sold Zappos for $1.2 Billion to Amazon, makes it exist.

Without Hsieh’s vision and investment, the free market does not, could not, create a bookstore like this. The free market in Las Vegas supports the casino monoculture.

Just like the “free market” in downtown San Antonio supports more tourism and hotels.

So places like The Writer’s Block need a financial thumb on the scale to overcome what the pure “free market” would produce all on its own.

So who provides the thumb on the scale?

Monopoly rich guy

It seems to take a big money capitalist like Hsieh to defend the small money capitalist growth of businesses like The Writer’s Block against the city monoculture.  It’s all very strange and ironic, but I feel like it’s important for San Antonians to consider.

On the role of the well-heeled visionary in making this happen

In my hometown San Antonio, we count one very successful urban infill development – called The Pearl – which originally depended greatly on the vision and investment of a single investor. It wouldn’t have happened without his purchase of real estate and investment in curating the businesses to fill The Pearl development.

Subsequent entrepreneurial investment and development has followed up this lead. The result is the rebirth of an entire section of the formerly neglected area just north of downtown.

With very few exceptions (only the occasional ‘The Rent Is Too Damned High’ complaint) The Pearl has garnered huge praise and very little criticism. It works. It also appears to have enough momentum to succeed far beyond the scope of the original investor’s investment in The Pearl.

It’s too soon to say the same for Las Vegas’ downtown.

Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate
Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate

Shake It Off

As you might expect for an ambitious project funded by a singular visionary multi-millionaire, not everyone is happy with Tony Hsieh. As my good friend Taylor Swift so rightly sings, “Haters gonna hate (hate hate hate hate.)”

I would sum up this shade as suspicion about a wealthy person pushing their vision on a city, backed by his own funds to enact that vision, and the natural schadenfreude that whole hot mess engenders. Personally, I disagree with the haters, as I don’t see this as nightmare dressed like a daydream.

Yet the haters have a point, because taken as a whole, the Las Vegas Downtown Project does not feel, yet, like a real downtown city. Huge gaps remain.

For this to work, I assume Hsieh’s catalytic investments have to be followed up in the next ten years by many more times the volume of independent investments, by other entrepreneurs, to actually make downtown Las Vegas come alive as a real place, for real people who live there. But you can see the outlines of a real place there, and that feels exciting.

taylor swift daydream

Geography in Downtown San Antonio

Another well-heeled visionary in San Antonio has taken on downtown proper as his canvas for urban renewal, tech startups, and a sense of community. Like the Downtown Project in Las Vegas, the rebirth of downtown San Antonio shows promising signs from a low starting point, but has a very long way to go to feel like a real, live, urban downtown attractive to residents rather than tourists.

One challenge is that the geography of downtown San Antonio is bigger than The Pearl. Also unlike the Pearl – which started out in a pretty empty section of town – any new construction in downtown San Antonio has to compete geographically with the still-thriving tourist monoculture already in place.

Real Estate in downtown San Antonio isn’t actually that cheap. Real estate owners by reputation have a habit of holding on until the next hotel chain offers top dollar, so we get more hotels to replace the emptiness rather than something new.

Hsieh’s Downtown Project in Las Vegas has the advantage of focusing on relatively empty, dilapidated areas a few blocks removed from the casino monoculture of the Fremont Experience, which keeps it from competing directly with the awfully repetitive, but financially viable, casinos.

Folks focused on downtown San Antonio do not have the same luxury of empty space enjoyed by the Downtown Project, but must work with and around the existing tourist infrastructure.

We’re years away from knowing whether these experiments will succeed.

Please see related posts:

Book Review: The Death and Life Of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

Las Vegas and San Antonio Downtown Monoculture Problems

Las Vegas Tourism and the Antidotes

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News

 

 

 

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Downtown Revitalization – The Limited Role of Government

touristy alamoI wrote previously about the Downtown Project for Las Vegas NV that I think folks in my hometown should pay attention to.

I enjoyed visiting the nascent Las Vegas Downtown Project because it made me reflect on my original questions: How do cities die? And how do cities renew themselves?

I’m a ‘market-based capitalism’ guy most of the time, but I’m convinced that cities can die through the natural ‘market-based capitalism’ process when a single industry or economic monoculture sucks all of the interesting real life out of a place, as casinos have done in downtown Las Vegas, and tourism has done for downtown San Antonio. When I say ‘die’ I don’t mean the death of all profit or even a scarcity of jobs, but rather the harder-to-define but nevertheless deeply felt way in which a city ceases to be a place we would enjoy spending more than one day in.

But if economic monoculture is the cause of certain type of blight, how do we solve that? It’s quite a problem.

As a ‘market-based capitalism’ guy, I see little evidence that municipal governments are good at spurring city turn-arounds. Few local political leaders would ever block the addition of another casino in Las Vegas, or the founding of another hotel in San Antonio, and who could blame them? When you’ve got a financially successful industry in an area, municipal entities and political leaders can’t be in the habit of squelching additions to that industry.

In addition, public entities don’t seem great catalysts for city turnarounds. I trust that public entities can create ‘safer’ places. They can encourage the tear-down of blighted buildings. They can penalize rule-breaking or negligence among property owners.

But despite being filled with good people and good intentions, city governments rarely create beauty, or delight. They don’t generally have a singular vision for a human-scaled rebirth. Governments can do a good job of removing “the bad,” but are more hamstrung at trying to add “the good.”

That’s where the first-to-act civic-minded billionaire seems to come in.

To renew themselves, Las Vegas and San Antonio needed someone with both a vision and the resources to enact that vision. And then that vision and early investment needs to inspire many multiples of follow-up investment from others who can build on the catalytic actions of the first-to-act. The Pearl in San Antonio seems to have achieved that.

The Downtown Project in Las Vegas and the San Antonio Downtown by contrast are happening in parts of the city very much in the earliest stages of rebirth. Downtown boosters and haters alike can each point to evidence of the success or failure of the experiments up until this point, and neither would be completely right or wrong. To the pedestrian visitor, the monocultures still dominate, almost completely.

container_park_las_vegas
Container Park design, Las Vegas

The few pockets of human-scale renovation in both places seem disconnected, fragile, nascent. They all need massive follow-up investments by other entrepreneurs to make it connected and viable. But hey, I see reasons for hope, despite the odds. I’m an optimist. I mean, you have to be willing to forget the odds in order to take a trip to Las Vegas in the first place.

 

Please see related posts:

The Downtown Monoculture Problem

Tourism and the Some Highlights of the Las Vegas Downtown Project

 

 

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Las Vegas Tourists And The Downtown Project Antidote

 Who Killed Las Vegas?

freemont_experience
I’m the one with the shirt on

I recently stayed at a hotel and lost money at the poker tables in Las Vegas[1] situated squarely in the downtown monoculture of the Fremont Experience.

The Fremont Experience is as you would expect – flashing lights, zip-lines, elderly men in Borat-style mankinis – and good for the 36 hours (maximum!) that you plan to be there.

Which is to say, after a short while, it’s impossible to enjoy. If I lived in Las Vegas, I would avoid this place at all costs.

Just a few blocks away from the Fremont Experience, the Tony Hsieh-led Downtown Project has curated, funded, and purchased real estate for a number of locally-oriented businesses. Businesses catering to actual, real live, Las Vegas residents.

Each of these locations independently represents a glorious reprieve, a gulp of oxygen, apart from The Las Vegas Strip or the Downtown Fremont Experience.

I visited the Downtown Project locations with two questions in mind.

First, how does part of a city die?

freemont_experience
It’s the tourists and conventioneers, dammit

Second, how do you revitalize a city downtown?
I already know what’s killed the popular parts of Las Vegas, just like I know what’s killed downtown San Antonio (where I live.) For all the money that it brings, it’s also what makes the place unlivable.

It’s the tourists and conventioneers, dammit.

Insect on a Dead Thing

David Foster Wallace most devastatingly explained the problem of tourism in places like The Strip or the Fremont Experience in Las Vegas, or in my hometown of downtown San Antonio, in a footnote to his essay “Consider The Lobster.”

“As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all…To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”

Obviously we’re not going to print DFW’s views about tourists on the buttons of San Antonio Ambassador Amigos anytime soon, but I feel his pain.

Since Las Vegas represents the ultimate monoculture problem, a problem many times bigger than San Antonio’s, I was intrigued to see what Tony Hsieh’s vision and money has wrought, despite the odds.

If you’re curious as I was about what’s there, here’s a quick guide to highlights of the Las Vegas Downtown Project.

The Las Vegas Downtown Project

Eat – After the oversized Las Vegas buffets and the bland celebrity chef chains, the palate cries out for better food. In the morning after a night of poker I wandered off Fremont Street, seemingly past empty or underutilized buildings. It felt like out of nowhere that I found this bustling breakfast/lunch place, and nobody in there gave off a tourist vibe.

You get the sense of a brunch place responding to the vision of a single person or chef.[2] For San Antonians, think Liberty Bar on Alamo Street, or Il Sogno in the Pearl. Real food, prepared fresh. Very un-Vegas.

Playground_fun_container_park
An awesome kids/adults game in Container Park

Eat was my first Downtown Project destination, and it set the right mood. I didn’t realize it until I finished eating, but I was around the corner from Container Park, the most completely integrated part of the Downtown Project.

preying_mantin_container_park
The Preying Mantis from Burning Man at the entrance to Container Park

In Container Park, reused shipping containers provide the architectural motif for a self-enclosed ‘shopping mall,’ with unique stores, a kid-friendly tree-fort, a playground with hula hoops and giant toy building blocks, and a performing arts stage.

Over the course of two days in Vegas I visited Container Park three times. At night, a country-music band played while children gamboled in front of the small stage and parents drank beer. The kid-friendly nighttime scene reminded me of a large-scale Friendly Spot in Southtown, if The Friendly Spot had a flame-throwing preying mantis straight from Burning Man out front.

During my first visit to Container Park, I wandered in to Kappa Toys.

kappa_toys
Kappa Toys in Container Park

The owner, Lizzy, (with dyed-purple hair, a Cosplay-dressing style, and named for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice heroine) comes from Austin by way of Brooklyn. She seemed to have carefully selected every item in her store. She knows where her items are manufactured and how they’re made. Like many owners who are part of the Downtown Project, she was recruited personally by Hsieh to bring her unique business to Las Vegas.

Lizzy – a compelling evangelist for the Downtown Project – recommended to me THE hangout place for a combination of coffee, cocktails, lawn games, and local party-scene – The Gold Spike.

Fully hooked on checking out the Downtown Project places, I headed that way immediately.

Here’s your first clue about how The Gold Spike differs from the casino monoculture: At the street level, the entrance has a blank, almost speakeasy type entrance.

I mean, I knew I was at the right address, and I had seen a large “Gold Spike” sign above the building from a distance, but the reflective doors to enter suddenly seemed forbidding. Was I allowed to go in? Will I need a special invitation? Is this even the place?

If I was a random tourist off The Strip or if I had wandered a few blocks from the Fremont Experience, nothing at the Street level of The Gold Spike made me welcome to come in.

Which. Is. Brilliant.

gold_spike_lawn_games
Gold Spike life-size chess set

Obviously this is a calculated move to attract local clientele, and break away from the tourist casino monoculture. Presumably that is the way you can get Las Vegans to go there.

In addition to the essential draws of caffeine and alcohol, The Gold Spike offers board games, and semi-curtained private spaces indoors for playing them. Outdoors, in a walled-garden area, there are bean bag toss games like cornhole, plus grown-up frat-style games like lawn-size Jenga, life-size Chess, and soccer-ball pool (which looks just like it sounds.)

At The Gold Spike I also saw my first Bitcoin Teller Machine (I do not approve!) and watched some young gentleman clearly in the drug trade make a withdrawal (I do not approve!) from this BTM.

bitcoin_teller_machine
I frown disapprovingly upon this BTM!

I spent many happy hours here. If I ever return to Las Vegas, I will only ever stay at The Gold Spike hotel.

For my last stop of the Downtown Experience, I walked down Fremont Street to The Writer’s Block, a quiet, serious, small-scale, bookstore. But not so serious that they don’t keep their fat pet bunny in the back room in a cage, and, on the day I visited, host a writer’s workshops for teens.

If you like books (I do!) and enjoy talking to hard-core readers (I do!) The Writer’s Block offers a little slice of heaven.

Downtown Project thus far

All of these Downtown Project businesses, by themselves, are worth visiting, although they are separated by emptyish city blocks and are not well integrated with one another. It’s not yet a vital urban core to the casual observer (me). But they form the outlines of a real place within Las Vegas. For a visitor to The Strip or the Fremont Experience who craves something beyond the flashing lights, I recommend each one highly.

 

Please see related posts:

Las Vegas Part I – Stock markets are like a casino, and the opposite of a casino.

Las Vegas Part III – Death by Monoculture, and Rebirth?

Las Vegas Part IV – The limited role of government in revitalization

Las Vegas Part V – Controversies and Elements of Downtown Revitalization (upcoming)

 

[1] At the Four Queens and The Golden Nugget, respectively.

[2] I read about that single person behind Eat later, as Natalie Young blogs about her struggles.

 

 

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