The Rise of Downtown

Downtown revitalization, in any city, anywhere, is a messy, complex process. Onlookers often struggle to see the gradual course of change and evolution through the fog of daily controversies, businesses opening and closing and the general scrum of a city’s life. Las Vegas is unique in many ways, but it is not unique in this. But because it is such a young city, just recently old enough to face the need for revitalization, it may be extra hard to interpret what’s happening, to see the progress in the midst of flux.

The good news is that DTLV is following the same trajectory that downtowns nationwide have experienced– and in a lot of those cases, we can trace 40 years of revitalization efforts. And that gives us a chance to see the pattern–a pattern that, in DTLV’s own one-of-a-kind way, is playing out right now.

Here’s a brief description of how America’s downtowns have fallen and risen again, and how DTLV fits that pattern:


Downtown areas nationwide experienced a massive exodus of money, businesses and people in the two or three decades following World War II. Different pundits claim that different factors created that exodus — increasing incomes, inexpensive automobiles, better roads, consumerism, racism, traffic congestion, changes in development laws, you name it. And all of those things probably had an impact, some more and some less, in Las Vegas much the same as in cities nationwide. Las Vegas’s Downtown maintained its prosperity a little longer than many others, but by the 1970s and ’80s people and businesses were steadily relocating to the city’s developing suburbs.


Money follows money, and only the craziest investors will put their resources into a place where other people are pulling out. Just like a couple of pieces of bad news can put stock markets worldwide into a tailspin, a few high-profile lost businesses can turn a whisper of “Downtown is going downhill” into a full-blown pullout, a race for the hills. As new businesses and subdivisions opened elsewhere in the 1970s and ’80s, DTLV began to lose the ability to attract new investment.


As the money pulls out of downtown and gets reinvested in shiny new buildings and businesses elsewhere, downtown building owners find that their properties have less and less value — they can’t sell them for the kinds of prices that they used to, and they find it harder and harder to get loans for repairs or improvements (and any building more than a couple of decades old needs a fairly continuous stream of improvements). This means that buildings, parking lots, driveways, and eventually public spaces like sidewalks, don’t get the small routine maintenance and clean-up that they would need to stay at the top of the market (and changes in potential tenants’ taste might even make a well-maintained building less valuable than it used to be).

This also means that the property slides down the rental rate food chain — the tenants that it can compete for have less and less money to spend, whether the building holds apartments or hotel rooms or stores. So the downward spiral continues. In Las Vegas, as in many other cities, the people and businesses relocating to the area at this time increasingly consisted of those with few other options.

“There’s no hope”

After a few years of disinvestment and deterioration, newspapers and television news and everyday people begin to repeat a refrain about downtown that was echoed in cities nationwide:

“There’s nothing good there.”
“It’s so dangerous!!”
“It’s so dirty/run down/beat up.”
“Nothing but [insert your choice of undesirable person/activity/business]”

And then the inevitable, recommended solutions:
“Just bulldoze it all.”
“Flatten it and put up a shopping mall/stadium/convention center/other Massively Expensive Big Thing.”
“Just ignore it and it will eventually finish dying, like it seems destined to do. “

Visionary “crazies”

Even though only the craziest investors will go in where others are pulling out, there are always a few that see opportunity in the debris. Maybe they are straight-up profit seekers, calculating that they can buy low and sell high with a little extra effort into reclaiming some of that past value. Maybe they have a personal desire for some element of the community life that a healthy downtown, with its mix of people and places and activity, creates like nowhere else. Maybe they have experienced successful downtowns and want that for the place where they live or work or have invested in.

In the best cases, it’s a mix of all three. But the first people to proclaim that they see an opportunity, who buy a building that others thought should be demolished, who start a festival or open a business in a place that others had written off…they’re “crazies.” And if they don’t know that going in, chances are the No Hope voices will make that abundantly clear. Las Vegas has had a few of these in recent years, including the organizers behind First Friday, the Arts Factory, Emergency Arts — and yes, even that online shoe company CEO–who believed in the area’s potential enough to invest their own money at a time when most others wouldn’t.

First attempts and failures

Risky investments have an annoying tendency to fail, and early revitalization efforts are seldom exceptions to that rule. Business owners take on the wrong tenant, and potential store owners discover that running a business is a whole lot harder than it looks. People who want the place to succeed try things — they might make conscious experiments to see what works and what doesn’t, or sometimes just get stars in their eyes over some Wonderful Thing that promises to be a magic solution. Most of the time, the magic fizzles fast.

If the downtown is lucky, that happens before something important gets destroyed or all the available money is vacuumed into that abyss. Downtown Las Vegas’ first attempts were relatively small scale, which was a stroke of good fortune. When some of them failed, as can be expected, they didn’t derail the area’s growing successes.

Building on first successes

A popular restaurant in an previously-overlooked location. A new location for coming together and enjoying community life. New places for learning, exploring meeting, visiting– and yes, colliding. Giving people from across the city a chance to rediscover a part of what makes their community unique. After those first iffy start up years, all those new visitors and good press feels pretty good.

This is where DTLV is today, and it’s an achievement to celebrate. But it’s not the end of the road. For Downtown’s revitalization to truly take root, for it to last longer than a moment of novelty and press as the New Hot Thing, Downtown Vegas needs to continue on the trajectory that other downtowns have pioneered. And that will take more:

More living, working and playing

Downtowns that don’t add places for regular people–not just the wealthy!– to live and work… lose their luster. They become unimportant, a fad, a place that becomes a has-been when the next shiny bauble comes along. Downtowns that thrive don’t have to provide every service and every job within their boundaries, but they do need to provide a rich and varied and real experience, one that makes people want to be there and invest their time and money for the long haul, not just on Saturday night. This is part of the challenge facing Downtown Las Vegas today– to thrive for the long term, DTLV must provide a full and rich experience for people who want the energy of a downtown lifestyle.

More hands on deck

Successful revitalization is not ever created by a single investor, no matter how wealthy or benevolent. Downtowns are just too complex, with too many different activities and people and businesses, for a one-shot, one-master approach to work (and the US is littered with failed projects that tried just that). Downtown revitalization requires people of all ages and backgrounds and income levels to roll up their sleeves and do what they can toward the hard work of rebuilding — not just the places, but the community that supports them.

That might mean fixing up a building, starting a nonprofit, creating an event, or something else. It doesn’t mean sitting back and helplessly depending on someone with a name or money or reputation to make it all great by themselves. Downtown revitalization, at its core, is a team sport — or a Massively Multiplayer Online Game, except the game is real life.

More community ownership–financial, personal and emotional

How do you know when a downtown is going to be alright? When lots of different people care about it, support it, put their money on the line for it, do things to make it better. When talking about downtown isn’t about someone else’s business interests, but about “our” Downtown, “our” community. When people have ownership of their downtown–ownership of buildings and homes and businesses, to be sure, but more deeply, ownership of the community.

That’s when you know your downtown is going to thrive for the long term. You will still need to maintain and fix and clean up, just like you do with any building, but when that happens, your foundation will be sound.

Downtown revitalization, at the end of the day, isn’t just about businesses and buildings and streets. It’s about people, a community of people, a wide and deep community of people who want the special community that only an urban downtown can provide, whether they live, work or even just occasionally play there. It’s about a place that matters matters to people. Deeply; enough to fight to make it better.

Downtown Las Vegas has that opportunity. It has it by the truckload. It’s an amazing place, and it’s getting better all the time. And that opportunity is for our whole community. So please join us, in whatever way you can.