Las Vegas Sun

September 23, 2014

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The 61 acres: What now?

The Vision

Union Park, the working name for the proposed development of Las Vegas' 61 acres downtown, would "reverberate throughout downtown like a giant beautiful fireworks (display) that keeps expanding," Mayor Oscar Goodman says. Among the projects being touted for the land:

The Questions

After years of promotion and countless hours of meetings and negotiations, pieces of the plan appear to be on the way to be implemented, and city leaders remain optimistic about the rest of it. But questions linger:

Today it's just a small patch of desert, 61 acres on the western edge of downtown that, literally and figuratively, are on the wrong side of the tracks.

But when Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman gazes at the barren land, formerly part of the Union Pacific rail yard, he sees a glittering vision of downtown's future -- and, perhaps, his own political legacy.

Goodman's grand plan envisions medical and performing arts centers, a domed baseball stadium, a new City Hall, a skyscraper-filled residential and commercial district -- the kinds of projects, the mayor says, a great American city needs.

It is, developers, city leaders and others agree, a boldly ambitious vision that well could, as the mayor predicts, "reverberate ... like a beautiful fireworks (display) that keeps expanding" to galvanize a reinvention and reinvigoration of all of downtown.

Yet after years of promotion and countless hours of meetings and behind-the-scenes negotiations, Goodman's vision for the 61 acres, called Union Park, largely remains that -- a grandiose plan.

Although pieces of the plan appear to be on the way to being implemented, the full project is far from reality and faces daunting challenges and big ifs.

No major-league baseball team is clamoring to move to Las Vegas. There are concerns whether the housing market would be strong enough to fill proposed high rises with professionals interested in frequenting the "new" downtown after work. There are also concerns whether the proposed entertainment venues could successfully compete with the Strip.

Some, viewing the plan as a grab bag of big, not necessarily compatible dreams, also question whether the current proposed individual projects would work well together and with the adjacent outlet mall and furniture mart.

And earlier this month, The Related Cos., the development giant that the city hoped would weave the project's disparate threads into a colorfully cohesive tapestry, pulled out of the deal.

Despite all that, Goodman and others are optimistic that Union Park will make the leap from drawing board to steel, bricks and glass rising skyward. Within the next two years, construction on the former railroad yards is expected to begin for a performing arts center and an Alzheimer's research facility, both of which have strong financial backing.

Goodman has an aggressive timeline for the rest of the project -- too aggressive, apparently, for Related. His demand that construction of office and residential high rises start within two years ultimately caused Related to walk.

As Las Vegas Councilman Lawrence Weekly puts it: "We have a vision, and we want to see it happen -- and not be leaving office in six years and have just one building under way."

Assuming it is built, whether sooner or later, the development's success will hinge on how the numerous potential pitfalls are handled. Of those, perhaps none is more important than how to erase the isolation that now envelops the area.

Because even if the city pulls off the development coup, the railroad tracks that have separated the property from the rest of downtown for generations could leave Las Vegas with essentially two downtowns.

Union Park's development could be "the single most important way to transform downtown and take it out of a 40-year tailspin," UNLV history professor and Las Vegas Sun columnist Hal Rothman said. "But to be a successful downtown you have to draw people to you," he said.

The regional effect

The planned performing arts center, academic medical center and a sports stadium are three components of the city's working plan for Union Park that would dramatically affect Southern Nevada regardless of where they are built.

All three are on Goodman's short list of what Las Vegas needs to become "a great American city."

For the 61 acres, the performing arts center is essentially a lock, the medical center is a possibility and the ballpark is a longshot.

The Fred W. and Mary B. Smith Center for the Performing Arts and the Lou Ruvo Alzheimer's Institute, which could become part of an academic medical center, are moving forward with funding commitments and development plans separate from those for the rest of Union Park.

The Alzheimer's center is expected to break ground in August, and construction of the performing arts center is to begin around May 2007, leaders of both said. Both projects would take about two years to build.

University officials, local medical leaders and city officials agree that Southern Nevada needs an academic medical center to raise the level of care. There are differing ideas, however, on where it should be built and who should run it.

Even as the city negotiates with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, local hospitals and doctors have risen against "outsiders" running a Las Vegas medical center. The Clark County Medical Society has proposed that a center be built near University Medical Center.

Goodman said getting a medical center on the 61 acres "would be a bonus," but stresses that the precise location is less important than having a medical center open somewhere in the city.

Former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones, now a Harrah's executive, believes an alternate location would be preferable, arguing that a medical center does not fit with the rest of the Union Park plan.

"What does a medical center have to do with an outlet mall and a furniture mart?" Jones said, referring to the adjacent developments.

Part of the city's plan looks like "they've sort of plunked a lot of stuff there," she said.

But Rothman believes that an Alzheimer's center and a full-fledged medical center would draw people to Union Park, which would help it thrive.

He sees the impact of a performing arts center as more tenuous because it would compete with shows and concerts on the Strip and elsewhere in the Las Vegas Valley.

Don Snyder, retired president of Boyd Gaming and chairman of the performing arts center foundation, disagrees.

"Not to take anything away from the Strip, but those are more oriented to tourists," Snyder said. His proposed center, would be more of a "community asset" targeted at local residents, with lower prices and programming aimed at "exposing kids to the arts."

The center, which could open in late 2009 or early 2010, also would have a different blend of entertainment -- such as a Broadway show in town for a two-week run or traveling philharmonic orchestras -- than that found on the Strip, Snyder said.

Goodman is bullish on the center, saying it would help lift the city to greatness.

Jones, not often found on the same side of an issue as Goodman, also has high hopes for the performing arts center.

"It will be a real community center," she said.

Unlike the medical center plans, which are largely unfunded, the performing arts and Alzheimer's centers are more than halfway to their funding goals.

The performing arts center, which will receive money from the county's tax on rental cars, is expected to cost $125 million to $175 million. The center also is to have a $50 million to $60 million endowment.

The $50 million Alzheimer's center has $25 million in cash and commitments.

In contrast, the sports stadium is the biggest unknown in the plans, with no team in line to move to Las Vegas and no funding plan.

But that has not fazed Goodman, who said that landing a major-league sports franchise would give Las Vegas a "sense of community" not felt since the heyday of UNLV basketball in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Effect on downtown

Skyscrapers on the 61 acres could encourage further redevelopment throughout the rest of downtown by drawing new residents, businesses and visitors.

Snyder said the performing arts center would eventually have some activity "virtually every day," giving "more people a reason to come here."

"This project as well as the Alzheimer's center creates tremendous energy for development and fuels growth around it," Snyder said."Good projects look for good environments."

The construction of a new City Hall on the 61 acres would likely put more than 700 workers on the property. Additional office space plus condominium-filled towers would bring hundreds, perhaps thousands, more people downtown, backers said.

"To really trigger a successful project and redevelopment downtown you need more people living downtown," said Debra March, executive director of UNLV's Lied Institute for Real Estate Studies.

"It's important to get young professionals downtown, and enjoying downtown at night to give the area a sense of vibrancy and community. All successful communities have a healthy city center."

Developer Irwin Molasky, who built the IRS building next to the 61 acres and is planning another building for the Southern Nevada Water Authority next to it, said Union Park has the potential to "change the dynamics of the entire city of Las Vegas."

"It will bring new business downtown and people living downtown," Molasky said. "These are all ifs, but if City Hall and a performing arts center come, they would bring thousands of people downtown -- and in the evenings, too."

But Molasky and other developers said the 61-acre development is not driving downtown redevelopment yet.

Sam Cherry, whose Soho Lofts building just north of Charleston Boulevard on Las Vegas Boulevard South will be the first new luxury high-rise residential project completed in downtown, said the Union Park development "could increase land values, but more likely it will secure existing land values." That, in turn, could help the redevelopment trend continue and it would expand downtown.

The railroad tracks

The rows of railroad tracks between the 61 acres and the core of downtown have effectively formed downtown's boundary -- and could, some worry, isolate the proposed new development.

Rothman said historically railroad tracks have been dividing lines in cities, and for the optimistic vision of the 61 acres to come to fruition, city leaders will have to give people a reason to cross them and easy ways to do so.

Those closest to the tracks and the development are confiden that the tracks are a hurdle that will be overcome.

While the city and Related officials negotiated a deal, Related secured Union Pacific officials' OK for pedestrian bridges over the tracks.

City Office of Business Development Director Scott Adams said the city and private landowners on opposite sides of the track so strongly want to be connected that the linkage "will take care of itself."

Adams' feeling is supported by the Tamares Group, which hopes to sell the Plaza hotel that backs up to the tracks opposite most of the 61 acres.

Tamares Investment Manager Michael Treanor said of all of the potential buyers of the Plaza, "there isn't a single person not interested in connecting to the 61 acres, under or over the railroad tracks."

The railroad tracks could even turn out to be a tremendous asset for Union Park and the rest of downtown.

Long-range plans for a light-rail system from southern Henderson to northern North Las Vegas would probably run the commuter line on the tracks.

"That would trigger a real boon and success on both sides of the tracks," March said.

Casino

Union Park plans also include space for a hotel and casino, and some worry that could be bad for existing downtown casinos.

"The downtown doesn't need more gaming," Boyd Gaming spokesman Rob Stillwell said. "It needs more amenities like residential living and a ballpark. Those would be positive."

But Snyder, the former head of Boyd, which owns Main Street Station and several other area casinos, does not believe a casino on the 61 acres would harm any existing casinos.

"Gamblers like to walk around too much, go from place to place to change their luck," Snyder said.

And if Union Park meets its proponents' expectations, downtown's luck, too, could begin to change.

Dan Kulin can be reached at 259-8826 or at [email protected]

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