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July 22, 2014

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Neon Eden:

Build a Greener Block gives local businesses a look at what Downtown could become

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Sam Morris

An idea with wheels: Green Jelly transformed Main Street into two days of urban revival fun.

I strolled around “Build a Greener Block,” which sought to dress up a somewhat neglected stretch of Main Street and turn it into a vibrant urban experience for a weekend, when I heard a new friend scoff that the raw food store was also selling tofu, which, of course, is processed.

I joked that the conversation sounded like something out of Portlandia, the funny show on IFC that celebrates and mocks all things Portland.

The event organizers no doubt would love the Portlandia reference. They are Green Jelly, and they’re trying to promote environmentally conscious businesses and living in Las Vegas.

A few basics about the event on April 28-29: They took the 1000 block of South Main Street, which is just north of Charleston, and collapsed four lanes into two. Then they invited in community activists and vendors to set up in some of the empty storefronts and on the sidewalk, including a bike collective, a coffee stand, clothing boutique and a florist. They used chalk to create a makeshift crosswalk, which left some drivers befuddled and had my attorney friend talking liability. A DJ threw beats.

The effort was modeled on a guerilla movement in Dallas that later spread to other cities, where they demonstrate how a blighted area can rapidly change if not for bureaucratic malaise and civic neglect. (In our case, organizers worked with the city rather than antagonized it.)

What’s the point of it all? That’s a fair question, because the effort wasn’t cheap, at $6,500 (more on the cost in a minute).

Think of it as a fun street fair that also serves a didactic purpose—it shows the community what’s possible while giving potential businesses a dry run, a chance to see if they can be successful Downtown.

Brandon Wiegand, an organizer, called the event a big success. He estimated it drew 750 to 1,250 people and let vendors and community activists test out urban revival on Main Street.

He noted the significance of Greener Block being organized by people outside the Zappos universe. It’s important that grassroots activists not wait around for money or instructions from the new big player Downtown. Wiegand said Raw Fusion, a pop-up health food store for the weekend, was so impressed with the response that it’s discussing opening at 1050 and 1052 S. Main.

Wiegand would like to do more events like this, but he said the city needs to consider the prohibitive cost of permits. Most of the $6,500 was spent on permits and related costs, Wiegand said.

When I asked the city about this, I received a rather detailed reply, which I suspect had something to do with a recent front page story in the Review-Journal about Wes Myles listing the Arts Factory with a commercial broker and ending his role hosting First Friday events, all while blaming the city for onerous fees and regulations.

City spokesman Jace Radke said in an email, “The city has actually been working very hard to be more business friendly and to make the permitting process more convenient. The city has already waived and reduced some fees.”

He sent examples that I’ll take up in future columns on the city’s regulatory regime. For the purposes of our discussion of short-term events, Radke said the city works with event organizers to lessen the permitting burden, citing the free closing and barricading of streets for First Friday.

At Greener Block, I got a coffee from a meticulous barista from Sambalatte, whose permanent home is in Boca Park in Summerlin. He was annoyed, he said, that he was serving something below his standards.

Krystal Marie was overseeing the Fremont Bike Clinic, where they’ll fix up your bike for a donation for parts. The Public Pedal Bicycle Collective is trying to make Vegas a more bike-friendly city, she said. (Given our drivers, pray for these brave souls.) Some young women swung their hips in Hula Hoops.

My friend is a Vegas lifer and bristled at the hippie vibe.

Indeed, not every city can be Portland, and we shouldn’t want to be Portland. At the next Greener Block, they should have a gun range.

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 Mondays at 8 a.m. on 91.5 FM.

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