Downtown Project: A Community Driven Urban Plan for Las Vegas


It began with the relocation of the Zappos Headquarters, now owned by Amazon, from its offices in Henderson, Nevada, to the former city hall in downtown Las Vegas:  an idea to transform the struggling part of downtown Las Vegas into a vibrant community with economic opportunities for young professionals along with an incentive for a variety of companies to build their foundations providing jobs and income for the city.  Despite America’s association with the Las Vegas strip, the downtown has a metro area dominated by unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy. Zappos CEO Tony Hseih saw this area, filled with vacant lots, liquor stores and motels, as an opportunity to develop something new and enriched that could foster an economy, bring young professionals and inspire natural growth of community and industry. Hseih’s Downtown Project aims to develop a community by listening to what people want and need from their physical environment, that is also dense, diverse and inspires economic growth.

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Inspired by the book Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser and thinkers like Richard Florida, the plan is to develop a functioning urban core within five years.  With $350 million allocated to Downtown Las Vegas, the Downtown Project will invest money into central, community-building sectors:  $100 million in real estate, $100 million in residential development, $50 million in small businesses, $50 million in education, and $50 million in tech startups.

But what sets downtown Las Vegas apart from other revitalization projects is that it is not full of abandoned, vacant buildings that can be retrofitted for modern use.  Instead, the Downtown Project team had to come up with a way to build quickly and create space for entrepreneurs to settle in.  The solution is repurposed shipping containers, which are relatively inexpensive and can quickly be transformed into offices, restaurants, or even homes.  The sustainable agenda of the plan comes as no surprise.  Increasing density and decreasing emphasis on cars, providing public transit and alternate means of transportation, green roofs and parks are just a few items on the list to a sustainable city.

The plan has several tenants that is guiding the development of the project.  In contrast to “if you build it, they will come” the Downtown Plan is focusing efforts on what the community of people that will be sharing the urban spaces want and need.  Hseih is inpiring passionate ideas from the shareholders and investors, focusing largely on how the community will want to build and grow.  The project also adapts to the concept of how density enriches cities.  The plan calls for a density of greater than 100 people per acre, increasing spontaneous interactions among neighbors that is more likely to create a culture around sharing ideas and community building.

Residential density is just one factor of a vibrant community.  What the project calls “ground level activities” is really describing commercial and community spaces that are clustered together, linking streets and activities.  Cafes, small businesses and public spaces make for a greater sense of community and more complex patterns of navigating through urban spaces.  In addition, the project is collaborating with cultural communities of technology, fashion, music and art.

The project prides itself on focusing on the development of an arts culture that inspires co-working by coordinating events and community gatherings.  It is geared toward building community, trust and partnership between passionate people.  Beginning with a community is a challenging way to build a city, but it makes the most sense – it saves resources and puts time and money into projects that are essential and most beneficial to the community.

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