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September 19, 2014

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Open-air market could be solution for Strip’s desolate north end

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Justin M. Bowen

The unfinished Echelon sits vacant on the Las Vegas Strip Thursday, April 1, 2010.

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

Throw this onto the ever-growing pile of the baffling: Why is there no discussion about blight on the Strip? Why is there no sense of concern — and with it, fresh ideas — about the long stretches of our most important economic and cultural asset that are pocked with half-finished projects or just empty land?

Think of the north end of the Strip: the concrete and steel shell of Echelon, which looks like something the travelers might have stumbled upon in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”; the vacant land where New Frontier was demolished to make way for the nonexistent replica of New York’s Plaza Hotel, and that great monument to the corporate citizenship of Carl Icahn — the unfinished Fontainebleau.

Most troubling of all, however, is the corner of Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard, which counts among the skeaziest intersections in the entire United States.

It’s home to one functioning business — the “World’s Largest Gift Shop.” On the east side of the Strip, we have the blackened eyesore that was once to be an Ivanka Trump condo tower, and the closed Sahara — my suggestion that we turn it into the state capitol notwithstanding.

On the west side, there’s the aforementioned gift shop, and then an approximately 75-acre lot owned by MGM Resorts International, which at one time spoke of the land, combined with Circus Circus, as the next CityCenter.

Obviously there will be no next CityCenter. In fact, there won’t be anything there for a long time.

But I don’t understand why that means we have to settle for a big, dusty, vacant lot.

Here’s a modest proposal: The county or the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, or someone anyway, should rent the land from MGM — it would probably come cheap — and create a tented, open-air flea market.

I realize “flea market” sounds unappealing. Let’s just call it a market, and stipulate that it would be filled with an eclectic mix of high- and low-end arts and crafts and food and drink. Musicians could play. A nonprofit group could manage a public garden or water conservation demonstration project.

Robert Fielden, an architect and urban planner, likes the idea. “It seems like an ideal interim use until something happens at the north end of the Strip. In that sense it would work exceptionally well.”

His suggestion is to add an international element that would allow for a different cultural festival every week, including food, music, costume and dance.

Architect Eric Strain says we need to confront the blight well before Sahara. He says he was driving north on the Strip this week and was astounded by the change past Encore. “It was devastating. The whole air of the Strip changes. It’s like doomsday.”

Strain questions whether our extreme climate is right for a market, but he agrees we need to do something.

The Strip might object to all this talk, thinking we should zoom visitors from the airport to a slot machine where they can lose lose lose. That’s probably shortsighted.

In other cities, this kind marketplace is often a key attraction. Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston attracts more than 18 million visitors a year; the Portland Saturday Market, around since the 1970s, does $8 million in sales and draws an estimated 750,000 visitors; Seattle’s Pike Place Market brings 10 million visitors a year.

A market delivers more than just visitors, however. To begin with, they are a nice amenity for locals. When I was living in Portland and then Seattle, I brought visitors to those markets, but also spent many Saturdays wandering them alone because of the fun people-watching, the food and wares and ever changing entertainment.

A marketplace where real artists sell their creations and chefs sell their peasant food would also add a texture to the Strip that is missing.

Why is it missing? Well, corporate America, which owns most of the Strip, isn’t a great place to find texture.

And this is part of the larger point: It’s time to confront our stale thinking, which is narcotized by a slavish devotion to the corporate masters of the Strip. In other cities, when important resources are left fallow, no matter who owns them, the city fathers and mothers rally around and get creative about unleashing that unused potential.

Not us. We accept blight.

We need to start treating the Strip as our commons, our New England town green, as a community resource and not just a cash cow for shareholders — and creditors — in faraway places.

And if MGM can’t use the land — and it can’t — then why would we just let it sit there, wasted?

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  1. Fantastic idea! Creative like this city needs & lacks. I visited the Portland Saturday market a few years ago and believe it or not I actually WEPT at the bounteous energy of the offerings & patrons. OK I admit it, I'm a softie, but still.... Great proposal, Mr. Coolican

  2. I love the idea, but they will have to put some money into it. One issue will be the weather. Are you going to build some kind of shelter or area where people can get out of the hot las vegas sun because no one...performers, vendors or visitors..are going to want to stand around when the heat index is 115.

    Also, parking? Remember all those that got towed thinking they were parking in empty lots during the big art event this spring.

    Again, love the concept of revitalizing with markets etc..but SOMEONE is going to have to lay out some money to do this in order to get PEOPLE to SPEND money at this event.

  3. ...I dont know about open air park but how about this...some kind of summer Olympics... some kind of World Fair grounds....something that will last forever as a reminder of the Olympics or World Fair....the problem is that Las Vegas is one sited....gamble gamble gamble...you dont think about Las Vegas as a community and that's where the problem is...Las Vegas is saturated with gambling casinos they need something else to generate new money and ideas....

  4. But, Cooligan, it would be DIFFERENT.

  5. Another thoughtful column, Patrick. Only one thing. Have you been inside the "World's Largest Gift Shop?" Locally owned Bonanza is a cultural icon for our city. Inside is one of the greatest amalgamations of Vegas kitsch (and general kitsch) maybe anywhere. It's something to be proud of and certainly an anchor for that seemingly cursed corner's reinvention. There's actually more history on those four corners than you realize. Apart from the Sahara, the lot directly west was home to the first storied resort on "the Strip" - it was called the El Rancho (not to be confused with a later 'El Rancho' where Fountainbleu now looms) and it burned down in a mysterious fire but it was here well before the Flamingo. Directly to the north of the Sahara was Foxy's Firehouse. A neighborhood casino before there was such a concept with one of the best Jewish deli's in town. After that the Weisner family (great corporate citizens and owners of the once super vibrant Big Dogs franchise) took it over and it was a popular destination for a few years as a microbrew. And the Bonanza wasn't always the Bonanza. Before that it was a complex of quirky businesses and bars anchored by the Jolly Trolly casino. Before that it was a neighborhood complex of cool stores including one of Las Vegas' best known record shops. (Lest we forget the fantastic Wet N Wild water park that was just south of the Sahara since the mid 80's- hey why not one water park in this perpetually hot city?). Toss in a couple of interesting still there neighbors like the Golden Steer, Pamplemousse and if you stretch it a little - the Commercial Center and the "gateway" to downtown (with businesses that litter LVBLVD from Osha to Luv It, Globe Salon to Pawn Stars, Resnicks to Dinos, and the Arts District) and that blighty little stretch might still have a beating heart. Of course, the hot sheet motels, the over abundance of tattoo parlors and the unmistakeable menace of the "naked city" behind the Strat have created their own challenges. It would be nice if people were talking about this area with optimism, but the market hasn't come around, this border of city/county makes it unlikely for cooperation between the two and in a city of 2 million, it seems people are more concerned about their own little block than a building block of a community. Good column.

  6. I'm a tourist. A visitor who spends money in Las Vegas and drives the economy there. The Strip is my area, it's there for the puropse of taking my money in a fashion that leaves me happy and wanting to come back. If this flea market idea will accomplish that, then more power to you. If the motivation is to do something for the locals, then I suggest you find some other area in that big, Las Vegas Valley, like that area by Russell Road just west of the I-15 that they want to put the train station and baseball stadium on. There are plenty of areas in the valley for a locals flea market.

  7. Love the idea any one of them. I too have been to Pikes in Seattle loved it. I lived there for 9 months and we went at least once a month. I think this could work there is definately enough parking. What can we do to make this happen?

  8. I love that people are thinking this way, culture, open air markets, craft and art fairs but we do not live in that kind of city. We live in a city where every moment not spent in a casino is money a wealthy conservative isn't lining his or her pocket with. It is extremely idealistic to think that a casino group, the LVCVA or any big corporate junkie will be able to get behind something that takes people out of the casino and their very pretentious and expensive attached shops. I'm not even going to go into the tactics most of the casinos use to keep people inside them.
    The part of town this article is written about is right down the street from where my home has been for the last 18 years. My neighborhood can change its name now to 'The Hood' because it is filled with crack dealers, homeless people and hookers. The intersection you speak of is one block south of the naked city (Arguably the worst part of Vegas). We have to fix our many many other eye sores before we tackle that corner. Now that the Sahara is gone it will only get worse.
    We need large sweeping change in the way we do business in this town. They do not think about people when they build here, they think about dollars. An open air market on Sahara and the Strip, far out of most peoples walking distance, is as good an idea as a bullet train to Victorville, a Ferris wheel with a giant led sign on the side of it or the mayors wife taking over for the mayor. We need to fix Vegas first.
    When will we come to terms with why we are here? Why do we keep trying to remove the one thing that not only identifies us as a city but also serves as the catalyst for the income of our lovely little oasis in the desert...Sin. That's right this is Sin City and as much as I would like it not to be that way trying to change it and make it more like a real city 'IS' the reason we are floundering. Kids do not belong here on vacation and costumed superheros do not belong on the strip. We should be catering to gaming, sex and partying. This is the most unique and recognizable city in the world, it does not need more shopping.
    We need to be better at what we do and to diversify within it. Adding a zoo or a mob museum doesn't create any usable income and only adds a few jobs here and there. Comps are all but gone. Free drinks while you are gaming are all but gone. Decent shows at an affordable price are gone. Stages, bands, great local entertainers are soon to be a thing of the past. A traveler to Vegas now can expect to pay for everything and at top dollar. 5 dollar bottled water on the strip (because it is hotter than the surface of the sun right now), 250 show tickets and 100 dollars to get into a pool?
    Las Vegas needs a guy at the airport that kicks you in the groin when you get off the plane so while you are bent over holding your gut they can take your wallet and put you back on the plane. A flea market. LOL

  9. It won't be as cheap as you think. The reason the land is fallow, is unimproved property is taxed at a very low rate. If you build anything on it, the whole parcel is then taxed at its new improved value.

    If you build it, it better make some money.

  10. @sevenfoot-

    Good post.

    Although, I support the flea market idea. Not sure how/if it could survive, or even got off the ground, but if it did, I'd support it. However, some very valid points have been made.

  11. Comment removed by moderator. Personal Attack

  12. there could be an ice skating rink, a fishing pond and some volleyball courts too

  13. I moved here a couple of years ago and was drawn in like so many others. The glitz, glamour, etc. The first time I drove on Las Vegas Blvd from Sahara toward downtown, I cried. I thought this is scary and couldn't figure out why no one would want to fix this or change this. You have the fancy part of the strip and you have downtown. the road between the two. Some wedding chapels, tattoo shops, pawn shops and boarded up buildings. If you are here to visit, you go to the strip. Not much to get you to walk around Fremont Street. Being in the art scene I have tried to work with different people and its pretty exhausting. You got turf wars within the arts district and downtown. I see and hear all these people talk about a sense of community, but they do nothing but complain and when its time to pitch in, they are not there. Its sad. It really is up to the locals to take a stand and try and make certain parts of this town a better place. the strip will continue to fight to keep people there, how do we get people to come to the other end? I dont have all the answers and am just as guilty when it comes to complaining, but I think maybe so many have just given up and realize they can't fight city hall. So much potential for this city, but it was built on the sex and gambling, and as someone else said, that is what this city is about. That is the number 1 priority in order to get Vegas thriving. I really hope Tony and Zappos can help bring some changes to downtown. We need suggestions and actions. Mr. Coolican - I do hand it to you as these types of articles seem to put fire under people. We do need you to keep these conversations going and maybe someday, we will see some change.

  14. The powers that be will never support anything that doesn't walk you past a slot machine.

  15. "Why is there no discussion about blight on the Strip?"

    The answer is simple: Las Vegans do not see this as blight. We see opportunity. We see potential. We see the future of Las Vegas. The next reinvention. The next big idea. And we are content to let the market decide when that happens.

    I drive the intersection of Sahara and Las Vegas Blvd nearly every day. The southwest corner, the vast vacant lot that you see as what was to be "the next City Center" and therefore makes you emotionally uncomfortable, I see as the location of the original El Rancho, I see as what was once called "the most valuable piece of undeveloped real estate in the world." That lot has been vacant for decades. Doesn't bother me one bit because I see potential, not blight.

  16. James...
    Those are some nifty rose-colored glasses you're wearing.

    If we could get a pair to all the tourists, we may be onto something!

  17. Well, I'll re-propose what I've proposed before - that business entities buying/owning a property have to post a bond to cover the cost of improving/rehabilitating the property if they don't do anything with it in a reasonable period of time.

    I don't see why the city/county does not go after eyesores more aggressively. Start condemnation proceedings or have an RDA take it over if it's obvious the developer has punted. Echelon and the SW corner of Sahara Ave and LV Blvd are prime examples of a failure to act.

  18. It is about time to build a CENTRAL PARK where Echelon was to be built. The strip needs a break up of concrete between North and South. A beautiful lush Central Park would be a natural fit for the city and the strip ,giving visitors, employees and residents a break from the Vegas scene to relax
    I would create a hotel tax to finance this and a Casino Tax to buy out the vacant land. The Casino Tax would be placed on the Casinos and they should not complain about it as it will prevent further over capacity of Casinos and rooms and prevent further competition!
    I can not believe this has not been brought up and implemented by now!

  19. How about a resort style apartment complex on some of these lots that have been vacant for the last 40 years. No high rise bull crap. The kind of apartment like you see in summerlin that lets you park right in front of your building and has a nice pool and workout room. Also normal rent prices. There are plenty of people needing renatls that are decent close to work and a nicely done community could really help the area. Thats just my opinion.

  20. That area needs something, that's for sure but I am not sure a flea market is the right answer. I come to Vegas every year from Chicago. I always thought that the Stardust should have been kept in place. At least it would have been making some money, much better than a uncompleted construction which is there now. I doubt if Echelon Place will ever see the light of day. I love the World Largest Gift shop in a way that only a tourist could. I hope it stays. The "powers" of Las Vegas need to think outside of the gambling box and come up with something for that area that both locals and tourist alike will love.

  21. Randy, I think you are onto something... A very interesting proposal, instead of building another cement and steel mess. How about a huge Park complex downtown with lots of open air, trees, a lake or something, open a few rental shops for bikes, paddle boats, and a couple of food stands. Maybe an outdoor ampitheater, a couple of classy old school night clubs. Would be a nice change to the classic old steel and concrete structures.

  22. You have two tourist attractive areas and a corridor between them that is not so attractive. The Strip area is beautiful. The Downtown area seems to be reinventing itself. Business depends on traffic flow. As the Downtown improves more folks will move back and forth between the Strip and Downtown thereby increasing the value and attractiveness in the corridor area. All the City has to do is continue improving the Downtown area and private industry will improve the corridor as business dictates. The City is already headed in the right direction. My wife and I regularly travel the corridor when we come to Las Vegas because both areas have a different feel and each has a unique appeal. The only place we stop at in the corridor is Gamblers General Store which is interesting and fun. If I were investing in you great City I would be looking for future growth in the corridor.

  23. PS: If you are into historic slot machines, LA Slots aquired the EL Rancho machines, and has reconditioned them. They are up for sale on their web site...

  24. LOL another "thoughtful" column from this guy! Too bad he really doesn't know the area! LOL, got me with this one, Patrick boy!

  25. In reading these comments (almost always a bad idea), I find it shocking that few people seem to understand the concept of private property. Nobody can, or should, be forced to develop an empty lot unless a development timeline was written into the sales contract. What has happened to American thinking? Wow.

  26. A flea market? A flea market? A FLEA MARKET???! What the devil is Cooligan thinking (or drinking)? Has he been out in sun too long? Do you have any idea of the type clientele a flea market in that area of Las Vegas would attract?

    My suggestion would be to tastefully landscape the area. Make it as "park like" as possible. In the long run it would be a lot more efficient and easier to manage than setting up a flea market. It would not hurt other businesses on the strip and if building starts again no fleas would be displaced.

  27. Reza shows that he would have made a fine spokesman for the Pentagon in Vietnam, circa 1968. It's not blight, it's opportunity! Those properties won't be developed FOR YEARS. What I'm suggesting is turning this empty land into something that would be a resource for the community -- coming together and creating something. (Did I suggest seizing the property? No, of course not. I'm suggesting some public or semi public agency lease the land from MGM.) This is something we could all work on together. Dayvid, I appreciate the typically thoughtful comment. As for the history, yes, I know it was the El Rancho and I'm familiar with the fire. I didn't mention it because it didn't seem relevant, though it is indeed interesting history and maybe I should have noted it. I'm sorry if I denigrated the "World's Largest Gift Shop." Yes I've been in it. It's great that they're surviving, but they would do even better if there were functioning businesses on the other three corners, which is what I'm trying to address.
    Other notables: No, skeazy is not a word, but you can find it at the urban dictionary, and if you walk around the area, especially at night, I think you'll find the word works quite well.
    Markets attract an upscale clientele in Boston, Seattle and Portland.
    As for whether I know the area, I'm sure there are people who know Vegas better than I do, and especially that area of town. I would never claim otherwise. But I've lived here five and a half years, so I'm not really a newcomer. What is this -- Boston?
    I repeat: It doesn't have to be a market. Make it something else. All I'm suggesting is that business, political and community leaders put their heads together and start thinking about what we might do with properties that will not be developed -- FOR YEARS. Do you get that? These properties are going to remain unused for years. If you're cool with a bunch of half finished projects and empty lots, that will remain that way, not for months but FOR YEARS, I guess that's cool, but it's also bizarre. And I resent that you people are forcing me to use ALL CAPS when I generally try to avoid doing so.
    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  28. Reza is an exemplary spokesman for what is right and unique and interesting about Las Vegas. That he vigorously defends the quirky habits of a city that's relatively young doesn't mean he's naive or disingenuous (as your Pentagon reference suggests). As a businessman who's put it all on the line in multiple ventures (many successful) and a native shaped by the quirks of this city, he comes to the table with a voice too often lost amongst the people who demand that Las Vegas become more like other places. I fear Patrick and James will never see eye to eye on the topic of what Vegas is or means, but I do think the conversation between smart people is healthy - so long as you keep the low blows out of the public eye...

  29. Plan-B: Put a few ferris wheels there.

  30. Reza must not realize that Mr. Coolican is a socialist in the same mode as our president (BTW, Pat, that's NOT a compliment). If it's for the "public good," property rights be damned....

  31. Once again: Did I suggest seizing property? Uh, no. Also, funny that Obama the "socialist" divested the government's ownership (which began under socialist Bush) in the banks and auto companies. Some socialist.

  32. When the "good times" return then that area will build again. Runs in cycles.

    The government, city/county/state have no money and they have more then proven they are not good at business so they need to stay out of it.

    MGM has been the master of making things work, city center is a slow start but 15 years from now no one will care that it started out slow. MGM owns the property and it will become something.

    Now for a new comer Mr. Coolican, your idea of the Sahara becoming the new State Capital was a good idea. Why don't you run with that one. ;-)

  33. I think Coolican is onto something, and we're all just grabbing at differents parts of the concept he's put forward.

    It's pretty obvious most of us want something done about the blight - we just differ on how to do it. Coolican, by putting his idea out there to be shot at, advances the concept for all of us. For, it causes the problem to be looked at - not just by us regular folk reading the paper, but by the politicos as well. This attention is necessary and helpful. We don't want this problem to fall off the radar.

  34. Mr. Finch: Are you suggesting that the "politicos" force the hand of private property owners and "make" them do something with their land?

    Again: the piece of property at the corner of Sahara and Las Vegas Blvd has been vacant for longer than Mr. Coolican has been alive. Some day it may be developed, or it may never be developed. So?

    If Mr. Coolican wants to see something there, he should get busy and try to make one happen with private money. I'm sure MGM will give him a fine land lease...

  35. Great suggestions! Sounds like you locals care about your city more than you let on. Nice! Vegas is the best!

  36. Given Reza's way of thinking, the Interstate Highway System would never have been built. We'd still be waiting around for some private developer to do it. Great plan.

  37. I'm not sure "force" is necessary, Mr. Reza. Government can assist and coordinate efforts to move the issue along. For example, look at the recent statutory change wherein the state will now centralize efforts to more aggressively market Nevada to attract diverse industries. There's no reason the county/city can't take the same type of action on the local level to better focus efforts for blighted areas.

    Sometimes all it takes is for someone to step forward and invite all the potential players to the table. Wishful thinking? Maybe. But, it's sure worth a try.

  38. first...Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston is not a flee market or temporary set up...but I like the idea..lets stop badgering and come up with some fun ideas...
    here are a few;
    1: A Zoo, BIG Zoo...Trees, water ect..compete with SD.
    2: city park with hot dog vendors, trees, benches, canopy's, water spouts ect.
    3: Worlds largest out door bar...like full throttle
    make it a box shape and sell vendor space.
    http://www.fullthrottlesaloon.com/siteru...
    4: Worlds largest putt putt golf course
    5: Something like Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
    http://www.woodlandscenter.org/history.h...

    Just some fun ideas ;-)

  39. That entire intersection can be made into a combination of things. First and foremost....an ultimate red light district for the Strip clubs and adult stores to be at instead of on the back streets of Highland, Desert Inn and Paradise. Another option: With all the tax breaks we have here in Nevada for making movies, how about movie studios/ sound stages and even music recording studios as well as a large media complex. More and more movies, tv shows and commercials are being filmed here.

    Another option: Town Square North without the stores. Put in a Buffalo Wild Wings, Dave and Busters, Texas De Brazil, Chili's, relocate Tony Roma's, Olive Garden, Bubba Gump's, and a beer garden! The models for this are Navy Pier in Chicago, Long Beach Waterfront, The Grove in LA and Irvine Spectrum....you are close enough to the major resorts to where locals and tourists will want to go there. Add in some other chains like another Five Guys, Inn and Out, Rubios, you name it.

    Good or bad?

  40. I'm not sure that any of the comparisons thrown out here as models work very well. Pike Place and Fanueil were existing markets. Central Park is a sorta natural landscape as it existed prior to NYC's growth. Saturday Market in Portland is part of the greater Tom McCall Park. When I lived in Portland we had just stopped the west side freeway, but the whole waterfront was a dump on the west side of the river. Saturday Market was a couple of dozen candle and tshirt sellers, but it got organized, grew and is now extremely popular. But remember it is only part of a much bigger park that runs from the Burnside Bridge almost five miles to the Sellwood Bridge. There are green spaces, concerts, the light rail, OHS at the south end. It took thirty years and it's still growing.

    LV has barriers....north end Las Vegas, south Clark County....can't we just get along. Then there is leadership. Pat has great ideas that he throws out to challenge local leaders, but it seems to me that our local leadership is pretty inbred and happy with the status quo. Oregon had Tom McCall and Portland had Don Clark [for whom I worked] plus some very committed business and industry folks. Sorry, but I don't see those folks here. There is money, there is plenty of power and influence but little vision to make LV a great city.