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July 31, 2014

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Boom-bust era leaves architectural scars across valley

Architects say the furious rush to build — and profit — has forever altered Vegas environs

Image

Steve Marcus

Architect Robert Fielden stands by homes at the Mountains Edge master-planned community December 9, 2010.

Architects

Architect Robert Fielden poses in Henderson December 9, 2010. In the background, the Crystal Ridge development carved terraces into the mountain for custom home sites. Launch slideshow »

Robert Fielden, who moved to Las Vegas to be an architect in 1964, isn’t bitter about what has happened to his city. For the most part, when he passes the half-finished eyesores and fully finished absurdities that dot the landscape, he points and gives a hearty laugh that comes from his West Texas belly.

Fielden spent years, decades really, as a Cassandra and an iconoclast, warning that the boom was not sustainable and would end in disaster. He was largely correct. And yet, he still loves his city. “I wouldn’t trade it for anyplace in the world,” he says.

Now, though, gazing up at the Ascaya project, Fielden looks more besmirched than his usual bemused self.

A Hong Kong developer has blasted the once scenic Henderson mountains to create luxury home sites, although there’s no building going on, and the developer says there are no immediate plans to begin selling lots.

Fielden likens it to an empty mining camp.

“It’s just a shame. Ruined those beautiful mountains,” he says. “Puts tears in my eyes.”

Fielden’s metaphor, the mining camp, is more than visual.

He’s also conveying the consequences of the boom and bust for the entire valley: Once the mine has been depleted, and the company takes its money and packs up and leaves, the scarred landscape is forever changed. In the same manner, although the building boom is finished and the developers have mostly departed or gone bust, they left behind a landscape that will define our city for decades.

To understand the ways in which the bubble and its bursting will shape how we live for years, the Sun took a tour of the valley with Fielden and later with Eric Strain, another contrarian architect who has a history of asking the tough questions about why Las Vegas looks the way it does.

...

As it happens, the best view of Ascaya, that Henderson hillside, is from a vast parking lot behind an empty commercial development, one built with the expectation that growth would drive demand for new shops. The parking is in the rear, presumably to give the front of the shops a more urban feel. But it’s a pointless, faux urbanism — most everyone will have driven to get here, and it’s set far off the road.

Jeff Roberts of the firm Lucchesi Galati, which designed Springs Preserve, questions the wisdom of this urban style of development in suburbia. “The idea is that you drive to suburbia to get an urban feel — which is really weird,” he says.

There’s nothing urban about this parking lot near Green Valley Parkway and Horizon Ridge. Because of rigorous parking requirements — even, bizarrely, at taverns — we only use about a quarter of our commercial space. The rest goes to “free” parking. But as UCLA economist Donald Shoup points out in “The High Cost of Free Parking,” it’s not free at all. It merely raises the cost because the developer has to buy additional land, which means higher rents and higher prices for goods and services. The ample parking, meanwhile, inhibits any chance for actual urban spaces because walking across them is dangerous and unpleasant.

From this view, Fielden looks down at the homes in the valley below. For these homeowners — many of whom no doubt owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth — the views of those mountains have been changed forever by the stalled Ascaya project.

“The land of a hundred thousand rooftops that all look alike — is it not?” Fielden marvels. “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. But everybody has a palm tree that does nothing but absorb water and gives you no shade.”

For both Fielden and Strain, this is a constant theme: The failure to understand the desert, its ecosystem, its light and heat. The failure to live with respect for the community and the natural surroundings. A blindness to context.

...

Context. Now we’re on Gibson Road in Henderson, up the hill from Interstate 215, and there sits Vantage, a boxy, glassy modernist condo development; a historical artifact of the era of the credit boom, and, perhaps, delusional exuberance. It was a $160 million project, but no one lives there. It sits on the hill, surrounded by suburbia, like a hipster who’s stumbled into a church that he thought was a nightclub.

Click to enlarge photo

A failed condo project in Henderson. The project didn't belong in an area filled with single family homes, said architect Robert Fielden. Photographed December 9, 2010.

Fielden acknowledges the downturn in the market probably killed Vantage, but then he asks, in a tone of jocular incredulity that he’s mastered, “When you look at that, does that give you a sense of value, a sense of home?”

He’s on a rant about a pet peeve. “Where does the sun track?” He gestures with his hand. “Look at all that glass. Exposed.” Only the north side of the structure will be spared the brutal sun. “East side. West side. South side. Glass!” Laughter.

Now we’re on I-215, the great beltway on the outskirts of town with its redundant commercial and retail blending together, gliding by. “And on and on and on,” Fielden says.

...

Architects say the Las Vegas real estate bubble had wildly distorting effects on the behavior of developers, architects, consumers and elected officials. “Everything was moving so fast, no one stopped to think about what they were doing,” Fielden says.

The mania for land and the hyperinflation of construction costs set off an economic sickness in which what seemed rational at the time, in hindsight, looks like folly.

This manifested itself in many ways.

• It seemed any project, no matter how preposterous, could make money. Thus, Vantage. Any number of condo and hotel projects on the Strip could also fit in this category.

• Rampant overbuilding. Those with land felt the need to build, and build now, and build with the highest possible density. They built with the assumption that growth in the valley — of residents, tourists, consumers — would lead to profitability. But the building continued even after the growth stopped and everyone ran out of money, both on the Strip and in the community. That has left us with the overhang that plagues the local economy.

• Foolish consumers. Investors thought they could make a quick buck, while families who merely wanted to own a home thought they had to buy now, lest they be left out in the cold. They were like people in a food line who gorged themselves on whatever the developers fed them, fearing this was the last meal, or fearing that the next meal would be unaffordable. So they ate and ate and ate, and then borrowed more money to keep eating, until they got sick.

• Elected officials, who loved the ever-growing tax revenue and the bottomless bag of campaign donations from developers, were usually quick to approve even harmful development. For instance, they allowed subdivisions with housing density to match major East Coast cities, but without any of the amenities of urban density.

...

We drive west and then north on I-215 and stand looking at the half-finished Shops at Summerlin Centre, which halted construction in 2008, suspending 1 million square feet of retail, office and condominiums in an “urban village” atmosphere. Now, it’s like a massive, wildly overpriced avant-garde sculpture of steel and concrete.

Click to enlarge photo

The site of the Summerlin Mall. Photographed December 9, 2010.

It’s not clear when it will be finished, especially since a smaller but similar development, Tivoli Village at Queens-ridge — yes, actual name — seems set to open nearby next year.

Fielden says Summerlin Centre, with its mixed-use plan, may have been worth doing, but only after the developer could show true demand for it. He laments the constant pattern, enabled by failed growth policies and myopic public officials, wherein a shiny new mall goes in, which cannibalizes a different mall, simply moving value from one place to another. In the end, we wound up with retail vacancy rates, for instance, of more than 10 percent.

...

We drive east on 215 to ManhattanWest on Russell Road, another half-finished mixed-use development. Dense, high-rise urbanism plopped down in the suburbs, its name a great irony. Some windows are covered with plywood, like an abandoned property in a city that suffered a natural disaster.

It’s like a Hollywood set. But of what? It imagines that it’s supposed to look this way because somewhere, there’s something that’s cool and authentic and looks like this, perhaps? But there is no such place. This cardboard, Potemkin-village effect is only exacerbated by the surroundings.

Click to enlarge photo

The failed Manhattan West development on Russell Road near the I-215 in the southwest part of the Las Vegas Valley. The mixed-use project had potential but fell victim to the economic downturn, said architect Robert Fielden. Photographed December 9, 2010.

Across one abandoned road is a self-storage joint. On Russell are some apartments, run-of-the-mill valley multifamily housing, albeit a bit nicer and newer than most. Fielden is unimpressed. “Mundane. Pragmatic. Pretty boring. Dull, ugly places to live.”

More than once Fielden will compare various residential developments to the kinds of barracks the military might build for its officers. He served in the Marine Corps, so he’d know.

As we pull away from ManhattanWest, we pass an empty lot with a sign: “FDIC owned property. No trespassing.”

...

We drive south on Fort Apache Road to something called Woodscape Parkway, where the backs of houses, one just like the other, seem to taunt Fielden. “It’s mundane and ugly. It looks like a third-grade drawing.”

Inside the development, the front of the houses have some variety, but Fielden points to unfortunate elements. The street is strangely wide given the scale of the small homes, and there are no sidewalks. This will cause drivers to go faster, which will force parents to keep children from using the street for play. Then there’s the faux porches, which are meant to replicate a common feature of homes in the South or East, a place where families and neighbors swap gossip and tell tales. But these porches aren’t big enough for a single chair. “It’s decoration. They’re selling you something you’re not receiving,” Fielden says. In short, aside from a small grassy common area, the design elements encourage people to stay inside.

Click to enlarge photo

The rear of homes in an a complex in the southwest part of the Valley. "It looks like a third-grade drawing," says architect Robert Fielden. Photographed December 9, 2010.

Now we’re in the southwest valley, at the edge of an archipelago of development — subdivisions sometimes surrounded by empty lots, also called leapfrog development. We’re standing outside a complex filled with three-story single-family homes that Fielden approximates are a mere 6 feet 8 inches apart. Magic Johnson couldn’t lie down between them. And yet, just over the obligatory concrete wall sits a half-finished road and fields of rocky desert debris. The people live on top of one another, but still, they have to go to their garages and hop in their cars to do anything.

Roberts says this was typical. “We’re going to build all these and make these promises, sell houses and turn a profit, and eventually someone will deliver services.” Living in Southern Highlands, however, he waited years for a grocery store.

...

Allowing this kind of sprawl was a mistake we will feel for years, Fielden thinks.

How did it happen? With dollar signs in its eyes, the community invited outside developers, the companies that made billions of dollars on tract homes in Southern California and Phoenix. And what did they bring? Southern California and Phoenix. And they relied on the same business model: cheap land and the mass production of homes, but in a sharply limited variety of models.

Even for fans of Southern California, there was a downside. As Fielden and other Las Vegas architects point out, in Orange County, the houses face west, for gentle sunsets over the Pacific. As for faux Tuscany, it makes some sense in California, which is similar in many respects to the Mediterranean.

But here? The Western sun is the enemy. And the faux Tuscany here can allow heat to gather and leach into homes. But that has rarely been a consideration to developers.

Did it work in California? Then do it here. Like McDonald’s, or Wal-Mart.

Reed Kroloff, an architect who is director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and the former editor-in-chief of Architecture Magazine, says it’s almost foolish to think developers would do anything but replicate the winning formula, which made them so much money in the rest of the Sun Belt. Given their capital outlays for land and materials, the companies, many of which are eyed closely by shareholders, are extremely risk averse. “They don’t take chances.”

“When they figured out how to sell Irvine Ranch,” Kroloff says, referring to the master-planned suburban community in Southern California, “they were going to do it again” in Las Vegas. Their position was merely reinforced by federally backed lending polices, federally built roads, and zoning policies they nudged into being. “It’s a circle, and a tight one, and a hard one to find your way out of.”

Fielden is reminded of the Malvina Reynolds song, the theme of the TV show “Weeds”:

Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes made of ticky tack,

Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes all the same.

...

After growing up here, Eric Strain left to study architecture at the University of Utah and wound up breaking a promise he made never to return to “this hellhole,” he says, half-joking. He came back in 1991 and started a boutique firm in 1997. Strain’s firm, assemblageSTUDIO, has designed striking modernist homes at the Ridges in Summerlin, Border Grill, as well as the student services and early childhood education buildings at UNLV.

We’re at a Mexican place near his office, an appealing loft space that also has the feel of a graduate school apartment with renderings and empty wine glasses, in a gritty part of downtown. He tells an anecdote to properly sum up the building boom and what it wrought: He and about 50 others in the building community took a bus to Phoenix to see projects there. Suddenly someone at the back of the bus, with much commotion, yelled out, “We just passed my street! That’s my house!” Even the street name was the same in Phoenix as in Las Vegas. Think of it this way: Every cup of Starbucks coffee in Las Vegas tastes just like the one Phoenix.

Another time, he picked up some friends at the airport, and as they drove into his development, the friends’ 7- or 8-year-old daughter blurted out, “Eric, how do you know which house is yours?”

Strain, though, is insistently hopeful that the mania has passed and Las Vegas can become its more authentic self, one more integrated and respectful of its natural environment, building an original aesthetic cultivated here rather than by “star” outsiders. (How needy were many builders for status? Strain was once told he could get more work in Las Vegas if he simply moved his firm to L.A. or New York.)

One outsider, one star, who has given us a significant building, Strain thinks, is Frank Gehry, calling his Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health building an important milestone for its civic and aesthetic provocation.

Lou Ruvo Center

The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, which features a unique, twisting architecture, is nearing completion for its opening in May. Launch slideshow »

“You can like or not like his building, but you know it. If everything that was created and everything we built, everybody loved, it would just be more of the same,” he says. “And I think that’s where, in the good times, we got into such a rut, so that if it looked liked the one next door, then it was good.”

He points to the sameness of schools and firehouses with frustration — buildings that might have helped define a neighborhood and give it a sense of place, and for not very much money. (One School District official told him the only priority was “butts in seats.”)

“I don’t think we want to live in Disneyland,” he says, although it’s not clear if the populace would agree.

In the same vein of supporting diversity, Strain seems hopeful about CityCenter and its future.

Despite grandiose claims, it isn’t clear that CityCenter has transformed Las Vegas in any meaningful way. As Paul Goldberger put it in The New Yorker, “CityCenter certainly fails to live up to the claim implicit in its name — the hope that it is going to give Las Vegas, the place of ultimate sprawl, a genuine urban focus. As urban planning, it doesn’t go much farther than Caesars Palace.” Meaning, it pays fealty to the automobile. He concludes, CityCenter “isn’t much of a center, or much of a city.”

CityCenter

A tram passes in front of Aria during a tour of MGM Mirage's CityCenter project Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009. Properties in the $8.5 billion project will open next month. Launch slideshow »

Roberts is not as dismissive. Although conceding that its scale makes it hard to identify it as urban in any traditional sense, he applauds the integration of art and sculpture and emphasizes it feels truly different from the rest of the Strip, which has a single-minded obsession with revenue-maximizing rooms, casino floor and nightclub. Fielden, whose firm designed the Stardust, Desert Inn and Tropicana, puts it this way: “How many bails of hay can you fit in a barn?”

Strain says many urban spaces often take years to change and evolve and meet their potential. Downtown Los Angeles has experienced this in the past decade. He expresses some confidence this will happen at CityCenter.

He shares a similar hope about UNLV, although as we drive there to walk through the campus, he expresses his frustration. It’s a young university, badly in need of private donations, and in that quest successive administrations became far too deferential to big donors and their desires, which often weren’t aligned with the interests of the university or its students, Strain says.

“It’s tough to put your finger on what’s missing, but something is missing,” he says, on the campus of UNLV. Amid all the visual noise and insistent anti-intellectualism of Las Vegas, UNLV would ideally serve as an oasis of contemplation and dialogue, but also dialogue with the rest of the city.

In one of the main quads, Wright Hall, the Student Union, the Business School and the Humanities Building, each representing wildly divergent looks, combine to make a soup of dissonant ingredients.

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Architect Eric Strain poses by the Classroom Building Complex during a walking tour of UNLV campus Wednesday, December 15, 2010.

“If the buildings don’t tie together, then the landscaping should tie them together,” he says. But it doesn’t. Often, in deference to the automobile, the buildings’ main entrances are toward the parking lots.

Long stretches on campus have nowhere to sit. And although it may seem like nothing, Strain’s question is quite trenchant for a college campus: “Where do you throw a Frisbee?”

Strain admires Lied Library, its use of materials and an interior space he calls “wonderful.”

But the library opens on to another quad that some paving contractor made a fortune on because it’s all concrete. “This, this is hideous. It’s like a runway. I’m surprised planes haven’t mistaken it for McCarran.”

He looks at this corridor of failure, and although he’s referring to this space, he’s also talking about the city: “Nobody looks at the potential of what could be. We just accept what is.”

We’re back in downtown Las Vegas at an affordable housing complex at 211 N. Eighth St., a project designed by San Diego architect Rob Quigley. For Strain, it shows what architecture can do up and down the socioeconomic ladder. Outdoor circulation areas are wrapped in a playful blue netting that provides air flow. The windows are protected from sun by chevrons, although natural light will still penetrate the windows. (Unlike so many others, Quigley adapted his building to the desert.)

Click to enlarge photo

A view of the Campaige Place apartments, designed by architect Rob Wellington Quigley, in downtown Las Vegas Thursday, December 16, 2010.

“It shows we don’t need to treat people who need affordable housing to bad architecture, to put them in boxes,” Strain says. In San Diego, Quigley achieved some recognition for these projects. Here, his project, completed around 2000, went unnoticed; at the time, everyone had the mania.

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So the real question is: What now?

The architects are largely in agreement: We need to grapple with what we’ve done, learn from mistakes, and begin planning a new future, with the entire community playing a role.

Despite what’s happened, they are cheerful, optimistic even, that a new future can be had. Strain says if he had a pocketful of money, he’d be building. It’s time, he says.

Many of the out-of-town developers, the Tuscany crowd, have left. But these architects are still here.

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  1. Great article. Speaks to my heart.

  2. Vantage Lofts is an ugly Slade Development disaster. It is next to 2 empty office buildings, and 1 half done building, and 1 partially occupied. Across the way is Pulte Hills, no, not a subdivision, just the massive piles of dirt that used to be the beautiful foothills of Black Mountain. And this is just one small area at Gibson/Horizon Ridge.

    Yep, we Nevadans are independent thinkers. No building controls, no zoning. Just go, go, go. Yep, a bunch of independent dopes. And look at the mess we're in now. The home builders and architects are laughing at us-from Southern California. I live in Ugly, Nevada aka Henderson. Thank you, City Council and the Building Department, you're doing a helluva' job.

  3. The built environment has a profound effect on health; Las Vegas has ignored this effect to the peril of its citizens. Our developments do not promote social interaction, exercise (walking and biking), outdoor activity, or easy access for children to neighborhood schools, stores, or parks. Have elected leaders learned anything to apply in the next boom? Or will we just continue anchoring our position at the bottom of all the "good" lists and at the top of all the "bad" lists? Let's start building a sustainable community by requiring future developments to complete "health impact" studies prior to official review, then rejecting those that can't demonstrate, if not benefit, then at least no harm.

  4. Chunky says:

    Thumbs up on one of the most well-written and researched articles he's read on Las Vegas in a long time! Kudos as well (and again) to photographer Steve Marcus on his excellent photography and visual story-telling to support the article.

    Every architect, developer, builder, real estate agent and community leader should not just read this story; they should take the same tour!

    Well done and then some!

    That's what Chunky thinks!

  5. Thank you, Robert Fielden, for speaking the truth.

    I have been criticized as "unpatriotic" by friends and neighbors for describing Las Vegas neighborhoods as ugly. I hope they all ready your story.

    As proven by the photographs, Las Vegas buildings are not only ugly -- they're hideous.

    Hellhole, indeed.

  6. Good article -- but it cries out for illustrative video that shows us what the architect is talking about and hopefully illustrates the architect's solutions, or what he would have done instead. And that is so easy to do these days.

  7. Excellent article. I would like to again reside in the Vegas area for retirement. But I want a LARGE YARD, under 1/4 acre but large. I want a smallish row house. Condo would be good but NO ACCEPTABLE CONDO DESIGNS IN CLARK COUNTY--SINGLE STORY, SMALL FRONT YARD, common walls but NO WINDOWS THAT OPEN TO NEIGHBORS WINDOWS. Large back yard with light--sun worshipers need light not shade. Near bus lines and grocery. NO or very reasonable HOA's and/or condo fees--LARGE PROFITS UNACCEPTABLE--PAY FOR SERVICES ONLY.

  8. So many ugly homes, jammed too close together on little tiny lots. The get rich quick crowd composed of developers and home buyers dumb enough to think they can live off appreciation for the rest of their lives have created thousands of acres of little real value. What they thought would be a money machine in the form of grossly overpriced properties is in more demanding times hard to gin up interest in at all.

    And now we have a valley littered with vacant homes (and commercial properties) soon to be followed by more whose owners dumbly lament that they can't afford to stay in the house now that it is worth half of what it was before, so they will walk away.

    Can't afford to stay? Idiots. If you can't afford the payment now, you couldn't afford it when you bought it. Why not just tell the truth and admit that suddenly you realize you feel trapped in something not what you envisioned, i.e.. the refinance to finance a life style I can't afford syndrome. Otherwise known as using your home as a credit card. Why not admit that they just don't care, have no personal responsibility or pride and are just ducking out on an obligation because it didn't work out. Kind of like buying a new car and finding out you paid thousands too much because you didn't do your homework and leaving it in the lenders parking lot for someone else to pay for.

    And of course a city and county government that gave licenses and permits to anybody with a contractors license and a truck load of money with no thought to community planning, future value or sustainability.

    That's how you end up with blasted mountains paid for by the Chinese now essentially an abandoned eyesore.

    Thank goodness the boom is over while there is something left to preserve and maybe do right the next time. If only our local government will require more than a fat checkbook and a pass on the rest from now on.

  9. Some of these developers should be banned from ever building here again. The "kiddie" box homes with no overhangs, no architectural features, 3 feet from one another are a disgrace. I'm still amazed that people buy them. Ugly as sin.

    Manhattan West, Summerlin Center, Vantage. Eyesores.

    As usual, it's all about the money. The "just build anything, they will buy it" mentality among builders destroyed parts of this city.

    Very well written article. Kudos.

  10. A wonderful and well researched article Patrick.

    Shame on us for allowing politicians and city planners to be blinded by tax revenues; luckily some of those politicians ended up in prison and many of those city planners have left Las Vegas.

    This unchecked and rampant growth has now left us with blight across our valley. How foolish to think that people would want to live in lofts in the middle of nowhere! Manhattan West? Really? These projects belong in Downtown where there are concentrations of people. Even places like Town Square and other fake downtowns are misplaced and scar the landscape.

    The best thing that could have ever happened to this community has been the economic downturn. Now we can all sit down, take a deep breadth, look back at our mistakes and truly build a more sustainable community.

  11. The author has done a great job of summarizing what I have thought for years: that there is a mind-numbing sameness to neighborhoods throughout the valley. The following would summarize probably 95 percent of the homes in Las Vegas (at least the ones built in the past 20-25 years): stucco exterior walls, Spanish tile roof, some variation of tan or earth tone paint. There is little variation in features. Few neighborhoods have any discernible identity. From any vantage point in the metropolitan area you see expanses of houses with no apparent variety.

  12. Has Las Vegas become simply a way station for employees servicing the casino industry? With third class educational, medical and cultural amenities, this town has little to offer.

  13. Good grief! Get over it! Las Vegas is a boom and bust city ... like so much of Nevada. Just wait until the valley runs out of water ... that should be real ugly.

  14. What a great piece of expression. This article declares almost every emotion I feel about the "community lifestyle" in Southern Nevada only with more subtly appointed words and much less intolerance than if it had been belched onto paper by thee.

    It is the elected officials that allowed Las Vegas growth to emerge with such disgrace, but I guess one can't blame ignorance.

  15. Feel sorry for no one. This is what greed will get you. Maybe you can learn from it? Probably not.

  16. While I think the architect makes a lot of good points, I would have liked to see a few more of his ideas about what Las Vegas developers SHOULD be doing. It seems he is very critical both of the "How can you tell which house is yours?" sameness of places as well as those trying to be too avant-garde like Vantage. He also criticizes both overly-car-centric places and those trying for "new urbanism". So where is the happy medium that he would like to see?

  17. I hope the planning department officials and greedy politicians who allowed Southern Nevada to be BASTARDIZED by the developers are reading this article and the posted comments.

  18. You don't see that much modern, Italian, Danish furniture advertised...it is all traditional...the houses are Spanish ticky tacky. Too bad the modern condo complex is empty...

    A growth cap for commercial and residential would have lessened the decline.

  19. Great Article. We should have a regulation if something is not completed within a certain time period the ground should be returned to its origional state. Vacant buildings should have a time limit before they must be removed. Every six lane road in town does not neet to have a strip center on every inch. Our greedy politicians have allowed this mess by approving the Building of Miles of Crap, while they have not increased the total Tax value or quality of life to the community.

  20. This lengthy piece on architecture and the scars we're left with is an effective epitaph of our mistakes. It is up to the voters and policy makers to more assertively decide where we go from here.

    Our individual spending habits have changed, perhaps forever, and some of these shuttered homes and shopping areas may be forever uneconomical and have to be razed and replaced.

    One action journalists and voters must take is to record who made the faulty votes of approval for these abominations. These candidates must be held accountable for their past mistakes and not be re-elected or allowed to pass on to higher office.

    We must break the cycle of voter approval of career politicians who move from Planning Commission to County Commission to City Council to Mayor, to Congress, etc. These are the folks who have given us the design failures and burdens of unaffordable labor contracts, for example.

    The bullet point paragraph which is most important for the future and which demands follow-on analysis is:

    "Elected officials, who loved the ever-growing tax revenue and the bottomless bag of campaign donations from developers, were usually quick to approve even harmful developments...."

    We must identify these officials and hold them accountable or we are doomed to repeat these lessons of history.

  21. An excellent article. Bob and Eric have tracked the disconnects in LV planning well, and have developed projects that incorporate sustainable ideas that articulate a local architectural vocabulary. The article should have enmeshed the water issue, which is the 800lb gorilla that will only exacerbate the tensions on how much development is sustainable.

    The UNLV campus is a missed opportunity to create a civic place in the valley. The development people have way too much say in the priorty and aesthetic of the campus environment. The Vision 2010 plan that Dr. Harter developed could have anchored the subsequent master plan, but the planners were not necessarily sympathetic to the context of the LV built environment.

  22. We got a terrific deal on our rental house, but the Las Vegas city street (Cactus Ave) that leads to our subdivision is but rocks and dirt. Don't they pave the streets in this burg?

  23. Terrific article. Good to see you back writing for the Sun, Patrick. And thanks for your kind words about my Sun series in the L.A. Weekly; I look forward to reading more of your work.

  24. Excellent article! The housing developments COULD have been attractive and something the home owners could be proud of. Such is not the case, unfortunately. Cookie cutter houses on very small lots. One would have a hard time doing anything on the tiny lots. The best solution: bring in the bulldozers and start over, with a plan. And,these cookie cutter houses on small lots were not cheap, but very expensive (over priced).

  25. Excellent article, I knew things were bad, but not that bad. This situation appears like it will take decades to be put right, if it can be put right. For instance like it is impossible to put toothpaste back in the tube, it is impossible to un-excavate a mountain. The question is, who is going to buy this crap? And a lot of it is truly crap! With so many people underwater on their mortgages and the value just not there and never coming back, a lot more people are going to walk. In which case there is going to have to be some serious discounting. Who wants to live in a house that is architecturally and aesthetically ugly on an undersized lot (literally inches from your neighbor) lacking in the right amenities and design for the climate and locale. Some of the unoccupied eyesores need to be condemned, it that is possible, if the builder/bank/owner is unwilling to finish them. Truly a sad commentary on greed and excess, which the citizens of Las Vegas will be dealing with for a long time.

  26. Great article!! But I am sure with all these empty homes and developents, our idiot town governments will still issue new pemits to builders...why build more when all these new places are still empty??

  27. TheKash agrees with Chunky. This is one of the best articles ever published in the sun, and this article tells it like it is. Hopefully, someday, probably years and years down the road, things will return to the way they were. But it is going to take many, many years.

  28. A great article about a subject that never gets mentioned much here: Vegas is an architectural wasteland that's been pimped for quick, easy profits.

    On the Strip -- until the economic meltdown -- MGM, Boyd's, Caesars, etc., were racing to out-do and one-up each other. In their haste to saturate the hotel market they also killed local construction trades by creating a boom that drew thousands of out-of-state workers to town.

  29. I've lived in Las Vegas for 40 years and it made my heart ache to see the desert ripped up and paved over for the eye sores that replaced it. Your Architects forgot to mention the concrete canyons created by straight streets and rows of two-story homes leaving the residents little privacy in their own backyards. Or the small-width streets with red curbs on both sides with no street parking and short driveways too small to park even a compact car. Or the houses crammed so close together with no backyard or side yards making for windowless homes.

    We can thank our greedy local governments that approval this cookie cutter construction and lack of sound planning. Instead we have bureaucrats and politicians pocketing gobs of cash to look the other way while our city and county is changed for the worse.

    But lets face it, Las Vegas is a facade and money is its engine. We have only ourselves to blame for ruining our community.

  30. What's nice about this dotted landscape of ghost towns is that it is no longer necessary to drive through the vast desert expanses of Nevada to see a ghost town.

    More ghost towns are on the way right here in Las Vegas!

  31. "Fielden spent years, decades really, as a Cassandra and an iconoclast, warning that the boom was not sustainable and would end in disaster. He was largely correct."

    Really? How can Fielden spend decades claiming the boom was not sustainable and now be assigned the legitimacy of a fortune teller? No boom is sustainable; that's why it's called a boom. If you say the world is ending long enough, eventually you will be right.

    While I may personally agree with much of the architectural sensibility delineated in this article, I take issue with two main arguments being made. First, to state that developers have made alterations to our valley that will last "forever" is nothing short of human hubris. Nature will relatively quickly remake the landscape when the time comes that humanity expires.

    Second, I find it to be antithetical to the idea of Las Vegas to try and artificially control development. Empty lots, empty buildings, implosions, leapfrogging - all of these things are not just superficial characteristics of Las Vegas, they are integral components of its character. Las Vegas has always and forever been a boom-and-bust locality, and that cycle has fueled success for the city in many ways, as well as creating development scenarios that some find less than appealing. Trying to artificially control development, through means such as governmental interference and parameter, threatens to create an imbalance in the core psyche of 100 years of growth.

    Part of what makes Las Vegas incredibly appealing to folks like myself is that anything is possible. Nobody is there to tell you an idea is too stupid to work or that you can't try something. Sure, that often results in failed projects of various sizes, from small storefronts to Fountainbleu, but it also results in amazing new developments created by people crazy enough to take the risks. I vastly prefer the freedom to fail spectacularly to some sort of development mandate by architects and governments, and I will happily put up with a few half-finished projects today so that we can have a hundred impressively finished ones tomorrow.

  32. HeyMikey;
    Cactus Avenue is not located in Las Vegas, but Clark County.

    Excellent article. It is refreshing to hear someone speak what they really feel rather than sugarcoat it to remain politically correct.

  33. Santa Barbara, Irvine, Camarillo, Ventura dont have boom bust cycles because they have controlled growth. We need that . We needed that. Stop with the construction jobs whine!!! Supply and demand. Less supply more demand. Higher real estate prices. Leadership doesnt lead in this town it caves to $$$$. Short sighted.

  34. Even though this great article touched on it I see many of those posting here keep forgetting one of the major problems with the boom and bust times.

    The consumer. The consumer causes the boom and bust just as much as any builder or elected official.

    The consumer never wants to take any of the blame though, they always look for a fall guy. They always went to blame someone other then their self for their own failings.

    Some of us are doing just fine. We used common sense and did not use our homes as an ATM Machine. Paid off the house and left it that way.

    Live within your means at all times and you will have a much better life.

  35. They build it. We buy it. Over and over and over again.

    The problem with land development is the same problem as in politics. A significant majority of consumers and voters are ignorant, and lack good critical thinking skills. We get poor government and lousy places to live because we buy it.

  36. The cosmo opened! This is excellent for LV. Don't question just smile when it all goes wrong then analyze the reasoning behind it, then question who made these decisions, then ask for all the details.

  37. Someone at the Sun actually knows how to write a great article!

  38. I worked on L.V. area developments for an engineer in the 1990's. At the time, we worked on a huge Black Mountain development for a San Francisco developer who eventually caused the engineers and architects to file bankruptcy by non payment of costs. I was one of those suddenly laid off when the office was closed. And that was during the "boom". I think the developer actually went to jail for fraud. Maybe that's when the Hong Kong people came along.
    We worked on a lot of entry level subdivisions in NLV and Henderson. I never understood those hideous tiny "porches" on the front of houses that were totally useless. Also the very minimal setbacks allowed. Even here in California the setbacks are 10 feet (5 feet per lot) between houses, not the 7 or so feet mentioned in the article. The speed of approval was amazing compared to California where it can take years to go thtough the approval process once a plan is submitted (fot the subdivision, not an individual house). We did one subdivision in NLV that went from developer making an offer to buy the raw land to "build out" in less than a year.
    It is true that developers use common plans and themes in different markets. The similarity even exists between developers. I saw one mid range plan (2800 sf) that was being built by 3 different developers in the same market with just enough tiny modifucations to make it appear "different". At least 2 of those developers illegally copied the plan from another.
    At the time, builders were coming from all over to set up shop in L.V. They all left as quickly as they came....

  39. I disagree with almost all of you. Most comments on here call for regulations, bans, no-growth, greed, etc.

    While many homes or neighborhoods may be ugly or boring, I still support freedom of choice first and foremost. If you folks don't own the land you're complaining about you should not have a say in the design, color or style of the new building.

    I see ugly cars everyday, but I don't try to ban them. I see ugly people everyday, but I don't try to ban them either.

    What ever happen to live and let live?

  40. " There were zoning hearings on all of these developments and elections during those years. But yet it seems that everyone was too busy during those times to try and stop some of these decvelopments"

    Not true. It seemed up in NLV, building permits were being handed out WITHOUT the benefit of public hearings. I can't remember the specifics, but I do believe some NLV officials ended up in jail for some shady dealings, granting building permits were included. In recent years before I left, I heard of hearings on projected developments up in NLV but the existing community really had no say in anything because the land was bought 15-20 years earlier before the boom and basically the developer had carte blanche to do what it wanted because that is how the building codes were written. COdes that were never changed most likely from the 1980's and early 90's or maybe even earlier (we all have seen that - a Chevron Station or a strip mall butting up against the brick-walled backyards). When we bought our first home in 2000, we knew that the land near us and across Ann Rd was possibly zoned for commercial including a grocery store. At the time, Ann Rd was only TWO lanes!! Simmons St. was still a dirt and gravel road that only went so far. You could still hear the coyotes hanging out in the desert! So we literally weren't too worried. Little did we know or even believe how the area would be built up the way it eventually ended up. But then in about 2004, things started to change and change very fast. It was very bizarre how homes and commercial areas were all mixed up together. And the rest is history.

    And yeah - that grocery store was finally built. Luckily for us, we were at the opposite end of the community and we were not forced to look at the loading dock from Albertson's from our patio or master bedroom window!!!

  41. (The "and imploded" part is key; the Dixie Square Mall that was used in the Blues Brothers hung around to rot for 30 years afterwards.)

    *****

    LOLOLOL My very first job ever when I was in high school was at the Dixie Square Mall!! Problem with that place was the location. That was the death of it. People didn't want to go shopping in that area.

  42. Very good article and very good posts except for one or two here and there.

    Bottom line: it's not so much the architecture of all the houses looking alike, but how the valley was laid out all in the name of Greed. I hated that you had 3000 sq ft homes on 7000 sq ft lots!!! The buyers really had no choice; there were some subdivisions built that the lots were big enough so you could put a pool in and that was in the early 2000's, but when things started to pick up in about '04/'05, the lots kept getting smaller and smaller. The homes were placed on such small lots you walked outside and went 10 ft and that was the end of your property!!! We knnew then why these permits were issued for such small lots and we still know why - plain old greed.

    If the lots were bigger, less homes would have been sold - the builders and the politicians would not have gotten their share. But in the long term, ie today - there wouldn't be so many foreclosed, vacant homes in the valley. The valley would never have been overbuilt.

  43. No one addressed the issue of how high density housing has impacted education. When children cannot play anywhere but ON THE STREETS or stay inside their homes, this has a negative impact. Just the fact these children are not getting the sunlight they biologically need is one factor. Then there is the problem of socializing outside, roaming the streets, walking in groups, often abusing their immediate surroundings as they do. Many times, you see opened garages where groups or gangs congregate. The so called token "green areas" are often areas where people walk their dogs to (and NOT pick up after them). And then, my all time personal favorite pet peeve, children basically forced to living indoors because of lack of essential sidewalks and play areas in their neighborhood, and parent's disdain for some negatively behaved children (and their parents) influence outdoors, these children live a life full of VIDEO/VIRTUAL GAME PLAYING and solitaire social networking.

    Thanks to the abundance of empty houses, Section 8 housing to welfare recipients has become a "boom". This "boom" has created more Title 1 Schools in Clark County to service this sector. Naturally, these schools are left with trying to fill in the gaps, both in education and socially for such children. No Child Left Behind mandates have been brutal to these schools with dedicated teachers and staff. (By the way, NCLB was renounced by its very author a few years later!) Many teachers refuse to work in these areas!
    Children struggle when they are boxed in, and strong physical limitations are embedded in their living spaces.

    Those who were: involved with developing these unsustainable plans (I haven't addressed the WATER issue), those creating the projects/jail-like mentality of home and neighborhood designs, and those in the political body who SUPPORTED AND APPROVED these designs and projects, should be held liable for the mental health of the children living in these high density housing blocks, and be held liable for the lack of success/lack of high school graduation of these children. Yes, their parents own some responsibility, but they did what they could with what was available---which is a ugly ill planned architectural mess with a piecemeal infrastructure.

    My suggestion: take the empty houses and damaged lots/landscape and convert these into family recreation areas. Let's rescue what remains. Let's effect a positive change. Use some areas for green energy generation for neighborhoods. Let the people who live in these areas suggest what is needed and support that. Time to citizen to real resident citizens instead of fly by night developers and misguided and greedy government agents.

    Excellent article and reporting the truth! Keep it coming Las Vegas Sun!

  44. Great article. My favorite line was "It sits on the hill, surrounded by suburbia, like a hipster who's stumbled into a church that he thought was a nightclub."

    What a great simile!