April 1, 2005
The High Life?
Residents question whether high-rise condos make sense in Las Vegas.
With more than 80 condominium towers under way or planned, things are looking up in Las Vegas. But it’s a view some residents worry about. The increased density in the city—part of Mayor Oscar Goodman’s high-gear efforts to jump-start a bustling urban downtown—looks like a boon. However, critics argue that the more exclusive towers along the Strip in largely suburban Clark County are the wrong response to the area’s growth.
“We’re cautiously confident a lot of these are going to be built,” says Steve van Gorp, redevelopment manager for the city’s Office of Business Development. “It will begin to have a profound effect on the skyline.” Downtown currently comprises clusters of buildings between 10 and 40 stories tall, and plans for similarly sized residential towers with street-level retail are in keeping with city guidelines.
The largest proposed tower, a condominium-hotel named Summit, will top out at 73 stories on Las Vegas Boulevard where downtown yields to the Strip. New residential structures are sprouting rapidly in groups of three and four alongside the famous 20- and 30-story hotels and resorts on the Strip. The Valley adds roughly five percent to its population annually (making Nevada the fastest-growing state for the last 18 years). And while horizontal growth presses against the mountains in all directions—creating an urgent demand for new housing—these high-rises are not likely to meet it.
Meanwhile, the Valley’s housing costs are soaring, pricing many local residents who will service the towers out of homeownership. “What do we do for workforce housing?” architect and planner Robert Fielden asks, referring to pre-sale figures for the Strip that suggest 70 percent of the clientele will be from out of state, using the luxury condos as second and third homes. (In contrast, those figures show the same percentage of downtown units being purchased by locals.) Fielden also fears that an economic downturn will leave the valley littered with empty shells, their builders long gone. “They don’t think about the long haul,” he says, “because they’re going to sell and get out.”
Former city-planning commissioner Craig Galati favors the idea of concentrating residential towers in the urban core but is concerned that many of the ones planned along the Strip will be bland, reflective boxes designed for views of the desert but not its conditions. “We have a different environment, and whatever we build here should be responsive to that,” Galati says, noting that desert-adapted design has protective westward exposure, shaded windows, and no glare-inducing glass or colors. “As we get taller that becomes more important.”
That Clark County hastily organized a “stakeholders group” last year to study the tower onslaught only confirms that it is playing catch-up—and that the Valley as a whole lacks the tools to guide its growth. Fielden points out that projects win approval individually, with no appreciation of cumulative impact on issues such as transportation. “These aren’t going to help our traffic problems,” he says. “They may even make it worse.” Although some new buildings, like Summit, will have street-level retail, most new residents of the Strip will have to drive elsewhere for their household needs.
“If there’s a major problem within this valley, it’s that we can’t get all the communities together,” Fielden says. “It’s that we don’t have a unified set of values or goals.”