Las Vegas Sun

October 24, 2014

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Neon Eden:

Towne Terrace and the apartment shortage of Downtown revitalization

In a recent dustup over a Downtown apartment building, I was reminded of the odious phrase usually attributed to Lenin, that to make an omelet you need to break a few eggs.

I thought of this when I received calls from a couple angry residents of Towne Terrace, an affordable and very livable building on 7th Street across from Las Vegas Academy and recently purchased by entities with ties to Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and Downtown Project. Residents of the tight-knit community said they were being forced out, which one said portended a troubling future for Downtown as a place where only Zappotistas and their brethren would be welcome.

When all was said and done, the residents are staying, and the image of Hsieh and his organization as oligarchic overlord has dissolved and been replaced with something far more benign. Still, in a few respects, the episode suggested how difficult this whole Downtown revitalization thing can be.

Hsieh-related entities bought Towne Terrace and another building at 214 S. 8th St., with the hope that eventually 1,000 Teach for America corps members and alums could be persuaded to live Downtown. Hsieh has made Teach for America, which takes recent elite college grads and sticks them in America’s toughest teaching environments, the centerpiece of his organization’s Downtown education agenda. He’s given $1.5 million, and they’re moving their Vegas headquarters Downtown.

Hsieh told me he wished he’d been more involved in the Towne Terrace mini-debacle from the get-go. Their mistake, he said, was blindly thinking that Towne Terrace was just like the 8th Street property, which he said was half empty and more transient. At Towne Terrace, however, many residents have lived there for years, and they have a real community, with residents who look out for one another and are contributing to life Downtown. This was evidenced by their quick mobilization when the word came down about eviction.

“Knowing what we know now, we wouldn’t want to break up the community. Lessons learned. Do better next time,” Hsieh said.

The problems were exacerbated by a compressed timeline. Hsieh’s group was trying to move quickly on the buildings, as the newly minted Teach for America teachers had to decide where to live.

As it turns out, of 125 members of the teaching corps, just three decided they want to live Downtown. As a result, existing residents get to stay in Towne Terrace. For anyone who moved out and wants back in, Hsieh said his group would take steps to help them.

“It’s important no one is taking the hit financially,” he said of existing residents. He also said Downtown Project’s general principle when it comes to property acquisitions is that existing residents should get to be in a place that is as good or better for the same rent or less.

This is heartening, but the whole story points to two problems. First, only three of the young teachers want to live Downtown. What’s with that?

And second, the passionate reaction of Towne Terrace residents and their fear of eviction indicates that they love their building, but also that there’s a shortage of decent, affordable apartments Downtown. Two told me if they got evicted they’d have to leave Downtown, because other options were either too expensive or too run-down.

Hsieh said as much when discussing progress in the Downtown tech community: “Our biggest challenge is we have no place to put these people.”

These two problems seem related. The lack of housing—and, thus, people and retail—might help explain why Teach for America types are a little reluctant to join the neighborhood.

The bottom line is that progress won’t always come easily, and, yes, some eggs might get broken.

*****

And yes, I know it’s Williams Costume Co. The story of how my word processor changed Williams Costume Co. to Baker Costume Co. in last week’s column is long and irrelevant, as I have no excuse for missing the embarrassing flub before publication. My apologies to Nancy Williams Baker and the staff at Williams Costume Co.

J. Patrick Coolican is a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter @jpcoolican or email him at [email protected] His Neon Eden radio show airs Wednesdays at 8 a.m. on 91.5 FM.

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