What to do about a Blighted Downtown : Build a New One?

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According to an article in Wednesday’s New York Times, Las Vegas is doing something that experts are calling unprecedented. In an effort to stimulate economic vitality in the historic downtown, local leaders have lined up $6 billion in mostly private funds for five major projects in order to jump-start the development of a 61-acre brownfield site.

The featured projects are an Alzheimer’s research center, an international center for jewelry trading, a hotel by “celebrity chef” Charlie Palmer, a new casino-resort, and a $360 million performing arts center. The collateral development is anticipated to include thousands of square feet of office space and residential units, so get your free bets ready for cheltenham and start practicing your gambling strategies.

The new development is literally on the other side of the tracks. The Union Pacific Railroad separates the new urban core from the historic downtown.

The presence of the rail line may also be an opportunity for a future link. Pedestrian bridges over the railroad tracks are envisioned to connect the new development of the westside with the Amtrak Station on the eastside.

There are some people that aren’t yet convinced. They are concerned that the new development will lure businesses from east to west. Proponents point to courthouses, government offices and older casinos in the historic downtown as cornerstones of continued economic vitality.

The city went through five years of planning and design, and several failed deals with developers, before entering into an agreement with the current developer. They’re confident that present plans will address all concerns. They only challenge they believe may threaten their vision is the economic slowdown. Las Vegas has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country.

The desired positive impact seems to depend on proximity and connectivity. Perhaps Las Vegas’ bold gamble will illustrate how much of each is necessary for success.

4 thoughts on “What to do about a Blighted Downtown : Build a New One?”

  1. I’m wondering why we’re discussing Las Vegas when the city is facing a huge decision over the location of a new business park. It seems there are some very concrete issues that need to be addressed and a public hearing coming up Tuesday. It would be good to hear all sides of the issue and let people discuss them while there is time to have an impact…
    In fact, it has a parallel to Vegas in that the new space is to the west of the historic city.
    It seems that there are some good arguments for and against annexing land to the west, and some against. The positive would be that it could keep new truck traffic from adding to the congestion near downtown. The negative would be that it could keep new offices — and their workers — away from downtown and encourage a new pod of retail and service development that would draw business from that entire part of the city, hurting downtown.
    If retail and service business isn’t allowed, would the isolated site be attractive to new business?
    It’s a marvelously challenging and interesting decision…so why aren’t we talking about it?

  2. I would like to hear some of the arguments, from both sides, on why this is a good idea. The size of Las Vegas makes a big difference, but it would seem that all of these new destinations in one location, across the tracks, will lead to a bifurcated Biz district, and NOT to the revitalization of the older district.
    Just from the info that Ross provided here, it sounds like the Alzheimer Center could be outside the city proper, the international center for jewelry trading could be a draw to an underutilized area and the same for the new hotel.
    But if you want to revitalize the older part of the center, that’s where the performing arts center should be. That draws such a broad group of people that it’s a benefit to all the restaurants, and other businesses in the central district. If the entire project of these four large centers is 61 Acres, then I would imagine that a site could be found for the Performing Arts center.
    Rather than continuing to build in ever increasing wider circles, the idea of RE-vitalizing an area in the center is too often ignored.

  3. Kiffi, this is not an argument for why Las Vegas did the right thing, but let’s say Northfield could build a new downtown on the west side of Highway 3 on the Q block and surrounding land (assume that land is available and money no object – a huge and shaky assumption, of course).

    New Downtown would have new construction which is code-compliant, ADA-accessible, greener, lower maintenance, designed for 21st century business. Parking (perhaps underground) would be designed into New Downtown. Sidewalks would be wide enough for bicycle parking and outdoor dining, as well as street trees and other amenities. Perhaps the library could move from Downtown to New Downtown. Loading docks, trash receptacles and other service traffic ingress/egress would be thoughtfully designed. Pedestrian access from east and west would be fully developed.

    On the face of it, it appears to solve many of Downtown’s challenges.

    So, while I don’t think this is a good idea, I can appreciate that starting over rather than retrofitting and redeveloping could be highly seductive, at least at the conceptual phase.

    At the very least, the contrast with starting over can highlight a few of the challenges involved in the ongoing process of preserving and redeveloping Downtown. And maybe, the thought of simply replacing Downtown will stimulate thinking about other community values like avoiding waste, shopping locally, preserving historic buildings, and nurturing existing community.

  4. Betsey: I really like the drift of your proposal, especially the part about thinking of the goals of new development can illuminate the problems of the historic DT … You’re absolutely correct in all that you say; the problem lies in getting new development to incorporate all the good ideas you mentioned.

    That can of course happen, if the zoning and land use ords/regs are all geared to structure that sort of optimal development, and therein “lies the rub”. Some of the boards and commissions have had a devil of a time getting the words they wanted into the appropriate Comp Plan chapters. Right now I’m thinking of the EQC, and their struggle.

    Every time anyone discusses stringent (to use Tracy’s word) controls, in order to achieve a desired outcome, we hear “Northfield’s not business friendly”… How about instead having that expressed as “Northfield is a leader for the future” ?

    What does NF want to say about itself to be a leader for the future?

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