Las Vegas Report

Vegas Part 5: Same Old, Same Old on the Strip

As Vegas Mimics Others, Will Familiarity Breed Contempt?

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LAS VEGAS ( -- By my fifth day in Las Vegas, I was not, despite Hunter S. Thompson's example, a sleep-deprived, drug-addled freak. If anything, I was actually a little bored. What I really saw during my time here was an infectious degree of sameness. The last decade's luxe lust may have built the city into an adult playpen, but for anyone from New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco, the net effect has been to bring Las Vegas more up to par with those cities while sweeping away all of its sandy grit. For example, not only could I find the same luxury brands in the Forum Shops that I could in New York, I could also find them again half a mile up the Strip in the Fashion Show Mall.
Project CityCenter is scheduled to open in 2010
Project CityCenter is scheduled to open in 2010

I felt this way even on Fremont Street, where the addition of an LED-studded canopy spanning the length of the street has conspired to transform downtown's old-school casinos like the Golden Nugget into the "Fremont Street Experience," which looks and even sounds like patently fake urban spectacles such as Disneyland's "California Adventure."

All the same in the Wynn era
This is the strategy that has served Vegas so well in the past 15 years -- the accumulation of brands, of options. But it has so far proved impossible for anyone in the Steve Wynn era to differentiate themselves. The MGM Grand executive I spoke to yesterday even went so far as to refer to Wynn -- who sold MGM Mirage some of its most profitable hotels -- as "formulaic." Brand-name shopping begat brand-name chefs, which begat the land grabs for spas and nightclubs. Even chef Guy Savoy, who has been in town just over a week, understands his role in the calculus of things. "Three years ago, I discovered shops like Hermes, Chanel and Yves St. Laurent were here," he told me. "If they are in this place, a great chef must be in this place." And on and on it goes.

So where does Las Vegas go with it? When does this model stumble under its own weight? Not any time soon, if the record-breaking crowds are any indication. But there's another trend at work on the Strip that will drive the next evolution of Las Vegas, and that is real estate. Last week's sale of the Tropicana Hotel at the south end of the Strip offered a new opportunity to peg a number to what an acre is worth here on the city's beachfront: $30 million.

It was the slow march to that figure that forced MGM Mirage, which owns an empty 66-acre parcel in the heart of the Strip, to dump the Wynn formula. Three-hundred-foot setbacks from the street and X- or Y-shaped towers were no longer dense enough to justify the real estate price tag. And that's how MGM Mirage set out to build SoHo on the Strip.

Project CityCenter
The company announced Project CityCenter back in 2004. It's a $7 billion mixed-used "neighborhood" covering the entire site. The master plan, in its current iteration at least, calls for buildings by bona fide starchitects Cesar Pelli, Rafel Vinoly and perhaps Frank Gehry (one of the buildings in existing renderings bears his signature whorls, but the company isn't saying). There will be a 4,000 room hotel/casino (Pelli), a Mandarin Oriental hotel including residences, a second condo-hotel (Vinoly) and more condos. A retail/dining/entertainment mall (maybe Gehry) will suck in pedestrian traffic right off the Strip.

"This has clearly put a new formula of land development in play," says Alan Feldman, MGM Mirage's senior VP of public affairs. Not long after CityCenter was announced, Boyd Gaming -- as a co-owner and operator of the Borgata in Atlantic City -- announced it would demolish the Stardust and build a $4 billion mixed-used project named Echelon. "Without even hearing all of the details, you know where they're headed," says Feldman.

Forty years ago, the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown wrote their classic paean to the city, "Learning From Las Vegas." They celebrated the signage, the Strip and the city's devotion to the vernacular. Project CityCenter, with world-class architects who've already stamped their styles on cities from London to Los Angeles, would do away with all that.

Chasing the last holdouts
"We're going to blend the best of both worlds," Feldman promises, refering to Vegas' '60s ring-a-ding heyday and today's shopping-mall ethos. Roughly 15 years ago, a study underwritten by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority revealed that only 15% of U.S. travelers had Las Vegas in mind as a likely destination. Since then, the city's made enormous progress in going after the other 85%. And CityCenter, Feldman says, will be the "crowning moment when we add that final percentage, that last group of holdouts that would go to San Francisco for a restaurant opening in a heartbeat or go to London for the weekend."

After a week here, I've learned that Las Vegas doesn't necessarily want to be different anymore; it wants to be the same as those other cities. And while I can't begin to argue with the results -- with the rivers of cash coursing through the casinos and splashing off the Strip -- I am happy to be heading home.
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