Downtown Las Vegas goes big

A band of visionaries is pushing past the glitz and looking toward the future. There’s this thing called downtown. And it’s blowing up

Wayne Curtis

The hostess shows me to my table at Eat, a new breakfast-and-lunch spot on an unlovely corner of downtown Las Vegas. Customers huddle inside the door, along a low wall crafted from wooden pallets that once held the restaurant’s kitchen equipment. With lime green banquettes and clean midcentury lines, it’s the kind of place where I half-expect to see the Rat Pack drop by for black coffee and some verbal towel-snapping.

Chef Natalie Young walks through the dining room, greeting old friends and fielding congratulations on her new opening, before stopping by my table to make sure I’m enjoying my breakfast burrito of cage-free eggs, bacon, and pico de gallo. We get to chatting and she sits down to tell me her story. About how after a dozen years of working Vegas’ high-volume casino kitchens, she was burned out, done, bags packed, and ready to move back to New Mexico. Then someone introduced her to Tony Hsieh.

The Zappos CEO—and early investor in the company before Amazon gobbled it up for $1.2 billion—was starting an ambitious new project: revitalizing a threadbare downtown and using $350 million of his own money to do it. Hsieh’s Downtown Project has seeded investments in real estate, education, and small business: retail shops, bars, restaurants.

“First question Tony asks me is, ‘What size restaurant do you envision?’ ” says Young, laughing now at the absurdity of it all. She was a talented cook but had no real experience running a restaurant. So she took accounting classes and got help finding a suitable space and outfitting the restaurant. When she opened her doors last September, folks poured in. “It’s unbelievable,” she says to me, beaming. “I’m sitting in my own restaurant.”

Can you build a new downtown around a breakfast burrito? Las Vegas is betting that you can.

That the opening of a single breakfast joint warrants any attention at all speaks volumes about where Vegas has been and where it seeks to go. Few American cities have been hit as hard by the real estate collapse as Las Vegas has over the last half-decade. Hotels have shuttered, major construction projects have been halted, and foreclosure rates remain among the highest in the country. And nowhere have the shock waves been felt as deeply as downtown. A snarky headline in a Canadian newspaper captured the gloom of recent times: “Downtown Vegas is great for $2 Coronas and persistent feelings of sadness.”

“Businesses catered to the lowest common denominator,” says Michael Cornthwaite, who in 2010 opened the Beat Coffeehouse in the corner of a 1950s-era JC Penney’s department store that now houses a used-record shop and dozens of artist studios and retail nooks—a hangout for 20- and 30-somethings punching keys on their laptops. “It was about selling cigarettes and phone cards and booze by the single. It was about the cheapest junk food you could possibly buy.”

Even during Vegas’ boom years, downtown struggled to gain notice in the shadow of the billion-watt-glare of the Strip. The last big push was in 1995, with the Fremont Street Experience, four city blocks draped in a barrel-shaped canopy embedded with a light show, a cross between a pedestrian mall and a hallucinatory trip. It worked, luring visitors north from the Strip. But for the most part, downtown has always been a terrier chasing after a semi.

The current revival is vastly different. The emphasis isn’t on competing with the Strip for the fickle attention of tourists chasing shiny bits of foil, but to create a world-class downtown to lure businesses and residents who want to put down roots and stay awhile. The Strip isn’t viewed as the competition these days; Portland and Austin are.

I spent a few days wandering downtown recently and was struck by the sight of a more durable city springing up from the dusty lots. Last March, the $465 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts opened its doors, an anchor for Symphony Park, Las Vegas’ answer to the wearying refrain that this city lacks high culture. Nearby is Frank Gehry’s swirling-steel Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, which conducts research on neurocognitive diseases—and also shows world-class works by artists like Robert Rauschenberg. Coming soon: a big-money rehab of a downtown arts center, the new home of the Las Vegas Shakespeare Company.

In a city obsessed with tearing down and building anew, it’s surprising to see Las Vegas embracing what’s left of its past. The stately 1933 neoclassical federal building has become an interactive Mob Museum. Just up Las Vegas Boulevard, the Jetsons-like La Concha Motel’s parabolic lobby, relocated piece by piece from the Strip, opened its doors as a visitor center for the Neon Museum, where people can gawk at a coffee-table book’s worth of decommissioned signs.

Then there’s the rebirth of city hall. In early 2012, the city moved its employees out of the late-modernist concrete complex into a soaring structure not far from Symphony Park. The environmentally friendly, strikingly angular glass-fronted new building is itself an attraction; at night it glimmers with a mesmerizing LED waterfall.

The old city hall was already vacant when Hsieh decided to make it Zappos headquarters, which for the past decade had been housed in a bland suburban office park a dozen miles south of the city. Now, instead of building a new corporate campus, he’ll march his 1,400 employees right into the city. The move is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2013.