Las Vegas Turns Inward for Next Act

As Sin City 2.0 Reaches its Limits, Developers See Visions of SoHo on the Strip

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LAS VEGAS ( -- In one of the latest 30-second spots touting Las Vegas' motto, "What happens here, stays here," a suave young man is seen testing different identities on the women he meets during a night on the town. "I'm a hand model," he offers, or a lifeguard, or a big-game hunter, or a "brain doctor."

He may as well be a stand-in for Las Vegas itself, circa 2006. The image of the Strip as a haven for Elvis impersonators, all-you-can-eat buffets and Wayne Newton warbling "Danke Schoen" still lingers, but the reality is that Vegas long ago successfully reinvented itself as a luxury destination. And it's not slowing down.

"Other cities want to recapture what they had -- they're all looking backwards to find something they've lost," says Billy Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners, the ad agency that coined the city's catchphrase. "Here in Las Vegas, we're already onto the next thing."

And the next thing is inward and upward. By the end of this decade, Vegas will be in the midst of its next evolution into a denser, taller and hopefully even more lucrative incarnation led by mega-resorts like MGM Mirage's $7 billion Project CityCenter and Boyd Gaming's $4 billion Echelon Place.

Real-estate boom
The nationwide real-estate boom was especially intense in Vegas, leading to massive sprawl at the edges and pushing up Strip and off-Strip prices to the point where high-rise condominium projects have begun appearing for the first time in the city's history.

But the astonishing run-up on the Strip itself -- the sale of the Tropicana's parent company last month pegged its acreage near the MGM Grand as being worth nearly $30 million an acre -- is forcing operators to double down on their bets. "It's so expensive now that it's much harder to get in and build a brand," says George Maloof, president of the Palms.

MGM Mirage, for its part, is gambling that it's found the answer to its real estate and competitive dilemmas with the $7 billion "Project CityCenter," which the company's chief financial officer once described as an effort to build a neighborhood with the density and feel of Manhattan's SoHo on 66 acres fronting the Strip.

"This has clearly put a new formula of land development in play," says Alan Feldman, MGM Mirage's senior VP-public affairs, one that replaces the street setback and X- or Y-shaped hotel tower with a denser forest of towers that can pack more retail, more entertainment and more people, including permanent residents (i.e., repeat customers) into the same footprint.

The 'starchitects'
Following the branding lessons learned from Vegas 2.0, CityCenter will add "starchitects" to the branding equation, with a 4,000 room hotel and casino designed by Cesar Pelli, a condo-hotel by Rafael Vinoly, and a 550,000 square-foot mall that bears the signature whorls of Frank Gehry (although Mr. Feldman isn't confirming that particular). The project is scheduled for completion sometime in 2009.

Not long after CityCenter was announced, Boyd Gaming -- a co-owner with MGM Mirage of the Borgata Hotel in Atlantic City -- said it would demolish the Stardust and build a $4 billion mixed-use project named Echelon Place. "Without even hearing all of the details, you know where they're headed," says Mr. Feldman.

Yes, down exactly the same path. Echelon Place won't have a residential component, but it will have 5,300 hotel rooms scattered across an eponymous hotel, a more exclusive Shangri-La nestled within the main tower, and two separate towers housing Vegas branches of the Delano and Mondrian -- the boutique hotels in Miami and Los Angeles, respectively, created by Ian Schrager and owned by Morgans Hotel Group.

Upscale and intimate
"The market has clearly been upscaling, and virtually every segment of the Las Vegas market has been willing to trade up," says Boyd Gaming spokesman Rob Stillwell, outlining the reasons why Boyd plans to demolish the Stardust and replace it with Echelon. "As part of that upscaling, people are looking for more intimate environments," meaning the separate hotels, "not these huge monstrosities which accompanied the 1990s building boom."

MGM Mirage has already made it clear that it intends to build future projects on the scale of Project CityCenter. A sort of CityCenter East is being planned for the 55 acres it owns in Atlantic City, and the company is studying the best use for the 44 acres that Circus Circus occupies at the north end of the Strip.

Perhaps the true quantum leap in Las Vegas branding has yet to happen-the emergence of native talent and brands. Until the one-way flow of famous chefs, spas, nightclubs and fashion brands begins to reverse itself, it's hard to imagine anyone here winning the never-ending game of one-upmanship. "I can see a future where we start exporting brands to the rest of the U.S.," Mr. Feldman says.

The Palms' George Maloof promises to extend The Palms brand beyond Las Vegas -- "It's free and clear; I don't have any partners or restrictions, unlike many in Vegas, so I can go wherever I want in the world" -- but won't give details. "I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."

Maybe, but it still remains to be seen if a city that vows "what happens here, stays here" can project itself onto the outside world.
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