Las Vegas Sun

August 21, 2014

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Planning official up in arms over putdowns of Las Vegas

Las Vegas Planning Director Margo Wheeler bristled at the distinguished architecture critic’s digs at her city.

When he finished, she hurried to the stage to confront Paul Goldberger — nicely.

“Judging Las Vegas based on the Strip would be like me going to Manhattan and judging all of New York City on Times Square,” she told him.

Goldberger conceded as much and noted that he didn’t have as much time as he would have liked to tour downtown Las Vegas, to see what’s transpired in the three years or so since he’d last been there. Through a forced grin, Wheeler invited him to a tour upon his return.

After his speech at the American Planning Association conference here, Goldberger admonished himself, saying he would have liked to have “rented a car” to tour downtown.

During his speech, he clarified that in talking about Las Vegas, he was focusing on the meaning and evolution of architecture on the Strip — which is in the county, not the city. He drew from and expanded on the 1972 book “Learning From Las Vegas” by Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour and Denise Scott Brown, which defended, even gloried in, the growing Strip of the early 1970s.

Still, he admitted later: “I should have given more credit to the extent to which Margo and the mayor have pushed things.”

Hours after his speech and with more time to think, Wheeler remained staunch in her defense of the city’s efforts and incensed at Goldberger’s interpretation.

Who could forget one of his opening lines, which had almost everyone laughing?

“I’m not sure a session on Vegas is the way to end the conference. It might have made a little more sense to welcome you here on Monday, to set you up for what you were going to wallow in. Then again, there’s something to be said for reflecting on it now, after you’ve presumably had a chance to wallow in it.”

And this zinger: “Having many ... urban planners gathering in Las Vegas is not exactly the same as if a convention of temperance advocates were meeting here. Nonetheless I think there’s still a bit of a sense of discordance between this group and what it stands for and the place in which you are meeting. It seems to be a little bit of a paradox — urbanists meeting in the ultimate nonurban city.”

Later Wheeler spoke with a force and emotion that had her almost gasping for air, unable to let go of Goldberger’s comments about downtown Las Vegas and his belief that “Las Vegas wishes the downtown would simply evaporate.”

“It’s interesting that Las Vegans don’t care about downtown, but the planning director and mayor live within walking distance of City Hall,” she said, her words dripping with irony. “It was the ignorance of it all that infuriated me.”

Oh — and there was the thing Goldberger said about Las Vegas “history.”

“The one thing Las Vegas does not do well is thinking of itself in historical terms,” he said. “Anything that promotes looking back is, by definition, unwelcome in this city.”

Wheeler’s livid response: “We had historical walking tours, driving tours. Just this morning I left a session that we did on the Neon Museum and putting the neon back on Las Vegas Boulevard. That’s history. What about the Mob Museum?”

The Mob Museum is slowly filling the shell of an old post office, circa 1933, a block from City Hall. The city hopes to open the museum, expected to cost up to $50 million, in 2010.

That said, the Strip’s well-known history of imploding history and then building over it is enough to make even Vegas residents doubt that anyone here cares much about preserving the past.

As a photographer for the planning association clicked shots of Wheeler confronting Goldberger, he called out: “Come on, Paul, say something nice about Las Vegas!”

“He did say nice things, he did,” Wheeler insisted. “I just think there’s a side to Las Vegas he’s never seen.”

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