Las Vegas Sun

September 2, 2014

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Columnist Tom Gorman: Offering food for thought on some important missing elements in urban living

Nancy Williams has advice for the thousands of people who are expected to occupy those new downtown high-rise condos: Pick up the milk and bread on your way home from work because there may not be any markets within walking distance.

Nancy remembers when Sears and J.C. Penney, mom-and-pop markets like Cliff's and Myer's, and a dime store were in her neighborhood. But the place has changed and now it is kind of ironic that even as the city invites people to move back downtown, there are fewer places than ever to serve them.

Nancy is something of a Vegas pioneer. As a starry-eyed 18-year-old, she landed in Las Vegas in 1948 for a two-week stint as a dancer at the El Rancho. She never returned to L.A.

Over the next six years she danced in shows starring the likes of Carmen Miranda, Sophie Tucker, Frankie Laine, Rudy Vallee, Joey Bishop, Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr. (appearing as a member of the Will Mastin Trio).

She began teaching dance on the side, and making costumes for her students. One thing led to another and, as the Strip started going topless, she quit dancing and teaching, and went into the costume business big time.

By the late '50s her business, Williams Costume, occupied her full time. As it continued to thrive, she thought it better to live closer to work. A lot closer.

In 1989, as she was expanding her building, she bucked Las Vegas zoning laws and got permission, after much wrestling with bureaucrats, to live above her sprawling shop. She wanted to commute to work via elevator.

"Everywhere I went at City Hall, I was met with closed doors," she said. "They said, 'You want to live above your business? That's not allowed!' They said it would start a bad trend."

And the rest, of course, is history. The city now encourages mixed-use zoning, where people live in condos above stores and businesses. It's all so very chic, so urban-village.

(The trend is, of course, actually quite retro, dating back to the birth of our nation. Our land was settled by people who worked downstairs and lived upstairs. They include saloon operators, morticians, mercantile owners and the president of the United States. "Hon, I'm going downstairs to order an invasion. I'll be back up in a while.")

Nancy's third-floor penthouse is something of a knockout -- a spacious, three-bedroom, two-bath home with windows that offer her, her seven cats and three dogs a 360-degree view of her neighborhood. It's not exactly Turnberry Place, but she's not slummin', either.

But the irony of her lifestyle is that even though she no longer has to drive to work, she now has to drive to buy a loaf of bread. Where she lives and works, at the corner of Third Street and Colorado Avenue, there's no nearby food market, dry cleaner or drugstore. (But come Halloween, up to 10,000 of her neighbors won't have to walk far for costumes.)

City officials appreciate Nancy's concern and they say that, in time, there ought to be all kinds of services and stores necessary to support downtown living.

Among the conditions to build a condo tower, for instance, is that 70 percent of the ground floor be used for retail purposes. The developers will be under the gun to find the right mix of commercial tenants to serve their residents, said Scott Adams, the city's business development director.

In addition, the city is on the hunt for a grocer to build a store on city-owned land at the southeast corner of Clark Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard.

"It is a fairly centralized downtown location, central to the proposed condos," Adams said. "It won't necessarily be convenient for everybody, though. At the end of the day, somebody may have to get into his car to go grocery shopping."

The retail businesses to sustain downtown residents may take a few years to develop, Adams said. But it has worked in other cities, such as San Diego, and Adams is confident it will work in Las Vegas too.

Nancy Williams hopes so. But she's a bit cynical. "I'm a little worried that we'll see a bunch of gourmet wine and cheese shops," she said.

"And how much gourmet wine and cheese can we use?"

Because it is not known if and when a food market will open near Nancy's shop, let's all do the neighborly thing. If you run down there to rent, say, an Elvis costume or a showgirl headdress, first pick up a bag of Pedigree lamb-and-rice kibble for the dogs, or some Friskie's ocean dinner, or a loaf of sourdough. She'll love you.

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