David Bolton

Did you know that the Las Vegas Strip isn’t in Las Vegas? The casual observer might think that the 4-mile agglomeration of hotels and casinos comprises the city’s downtown, but the Strip in fact lies outside the city limits, in the unincorporated towns of Paradise and Winchester. The actual, historic downtown of the actual city of Las Vegas sits 3 miles north of the Strip, and it is decidedly downmarket by comparison. While many U.S. cities have enjoyed a downtown revival over the past decade or so, Las Vegas unfortunately isn’t one of them, and local leadership appears hungry for solutions. So it was an honor to be included in an urban design symposium in February that the mayor’s office sponsored and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) organized.

Five years back, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh raised hopes and made headlines by relocating the online retailer’s headquarters from Henderson, Nev., to downtown Las Vegas and pledging to personally invest $350 million in nearby property and area businesses. In 2014, building on the momentum, the city government commissioned a downtown master plan [PDF] from RTKL (now CallisonRTKL). “The City as a Startup” was Hsieh’s ambitious pitch, but the billionaire’s effort seems to have stalled: Media coverage now focuses ominously on his “regrets” and “lessons learned.” The master plan, too, reportedly has failed to gain traction.

Courtesy City of Las Vegas

Denizens of downtown Vegas do have Hsieh to thank for amenities such as a nonprofit bookstore and an open-air shopping mall made of shipping containers. But downtown has yet to attain a critical mass of tourists, residents, workers, businesses, and institutions. The UNLV symposium’s moderator, Reed Kroloff, asked at least a dozen audience members to name their favorite thing about Las Vegas. To a person they praised the natural surroundings—the desert, the mountains—and said almost nothing about the city itself. When pressed, participants bemoaned the lack of activities, the lack of urban life, beyond the Strip. “I wish you could go to a museum without having to walk through a casino first,” one man said, neatly illustrating the point.

Despite palpable dissatisfaction with the status quo, the mood of the symposium was upbeat. Las Vegas doesn’t lack for boosters, and rightly so. After a day and two nights of conversation with speakers and attendees, a kind of manifesto for downtown began to emerge, at least in my mind. We set nothing in stone, there being no mandate to do so, but it seems worthwhile to record some key ideas, as I recall them.

As a guiding principle, consensus held that planning, development, and design should respect the strong spirit of the place. Downtown Las Vegas isn’t the Strip, and shouldn’t try to be. It’s smaller and more relatable in scale, more authentically quirky in character, richer in history, less corporate, and more rooted in local life. These qualities are assets; they should be cultivated. The comparatively tight street grid and many remaining small lots suggest that new construction be less gargantuan than the typical casino. The desert climate, in turn, should encourage density in zoning and infrastructure and radical innovation in building performance. And perhaps most importantly, the needs and desires of residents, rather than tourists, should be the overwhelming priority.