If you’ve spent any decent amount of time at an art opening, cultural event or party in Downtown Las Vegas, then you’ve probably met Steve Franklin, a gregarious, bespectacled fellow who usually goes by “Downtown Steve.” The former St. Louis radio DJ and St. George art dealer has been living and selling real estate in Downtown Las Vegas for more than a decade, but that’s not how Franklin earned his moniker. It was actually former KUNV and current Neon Reverb Radio DJ Donald Hickey who gave Downtown Steve his nom de guerre.
“I lived Downtown, and I’d have parties there, and Donald would go ‘Oh, it’ll be at Steve’s house,’ ” Franklin said. “ And people would ask, ‘Steve? Steve who?’ And Donald would say, ‘The guy who lives Downtown, Downtown Steve.’ ”
Franklin—er, Downtown Steve—said he discovered Downtown “pretty much day one,” after accidentally stumbling upon the John S. Park neighborhood while driving down the “seedy” part of Las Vegas Boulevard between Sahara Avenue and Charleston Boulevard during a home-scouting expedition 13 years ago. He ended up renting a “kinda ghetto” house in the then-still-being-converted commercial/professional district near the Las Vegas Academy, and has been Downtown ever since.
We caught up with Downtown Steve at a rental house he owns just a few blocks from the Fremont East Entertainment District, where he was busy putting finishing touches on a gentle remodel for new tenants.
It seems like a lot of the more affordable houses Downtown are getting snagged up by investors paying cash, putting the squeeze on available inventory for individual buyers. Are you seeing a lot of that?
The really big corporate guys are gone now. You’ve got little mom-and-pop guys that are still down here, but it is not nearly as competitive. For an owner-occupant competing with an investor, it’s not as competitive as it was even a year ago. But it’s still competitive.
What kind of properties are your clients looking for?
They primarily are looking for an older home that has as much of original charm and character as possible. The flippers that come in and do these Home Depot redo jobs, they’re missing the mark. They’re spending more money than they should. Instead of ripping out old, original Youngstown cabinets, they should be painting them, making them cute and nice again. They should think about restoring, not rehabbing. Do a little homework, get a feel for the area. Think funky colors, history, and you actually make money out of restored properties. People will pay top-dollar for something that has a lot of original fixtures. They don’t see that here, and for the most part, they love it.
A majority of properties in Downtown’s historic neighborhoods have been appreciating steadily and oftentimes selling for 100 percent of list price or more. Do you think this trend will continue?
I am done predicting the Las Vegas real estate market. When the crash came, nobody saw it. Actually, there was one guy five or six months before the crash. He showed me some numbers and said, “Man, the end is near, man.” And I looked at him and said, “This makes sense,” but everybody was living in a fantasy world back then. And sure enough, things crashed, and we saw nothing in the media about it at all, and the same thing whenever it picked up about two years ago—just all of the sudden, it started shooting up. Nobody predicted that, and I don’t predict anymore.
I think longer term, Downtown, Paradise Palms … It’s going to outperform, from an appreciation standpoint, any other part of the valley. We’re talking a five-year, 10-year picture. The main reason for that is because there’s so much going on Downtown, people want to be Downtown, and there is a limited supply of houses in what people consider Downtown neighborhoods. You’re buying scarcity, and there’s only a small amount of homes that look like these homes Downtown. Here, we’ve got older homes built from the ’40s to roughly the ’60s, a wide variety of architectural styles. A lot of it’s mid-century, some of it’s cottage bungalow, some of it’s kind of like the Spanish architecture, but it’s all very unique and rare compared to everything else in the Valley.
In the last year, we’ve heard announcements from developers and investment groups of plans to build dense apartment blocks and mixed-use properties, targeting middle-class renters. Given the shaky history of stalled projects Downtown, do any of these seem viable?
I think there is going to be some serious movement toward higher density rental units. People can announce whatever they want—until a shovel hits the ground, it may or may not happen—but the rental market is becoming really far tighter than I’ve ever seen. It’s becoming a lot tougher for renters, especially under $1,000 a month. There’s a lot less that’s becoming available in that $800 to $1,000 a month range, so I think there’s a real opportunity for somebody doing high density to get something together that’s nice and has some space to it, and keep it under that $1,000 range.
When you’re talking to potential buyers, what are your selling points for Downtown living?
Up until probably four-ish years ago, I had a fairly large group of people that I would call “Downtown curious.” I would have to sell them on Downtown first. I gave a lot of tours. I’d pop ’em in the car, and I’d say, “I’m not here to point out the hookers or the drug dealers or the graffiti or any of the negative stuff—I’m here to show you what’s coming down the pike for sure, or things that have taken root Downtown in the past four or five years.” Now? I haven’t done a tour in ages. People are just like, “I want to be Downtown.”
What sort of people are coming to you looking to buy Downtown?
It’s as diverse and eclectic as the neighborhoods. It’s really across the board—it probably turns a little bit toward under-35—but still, it’s all kinds of people, because there’s all kinds of houses. Anything you want, we’ve got it Downtown. You want horse property? We’ve got it. You want a high-rise? We’ve got it. You want a fixer-upper? We’ve got it. You want guard-gated, we’ve got it. You want a tan, stucco McMansion? We’ve got some of those off Shadow Lane.
Any general thoughts about the current state of Downtown Las Vegas real estate?
There is no other part of the valley that is like Downtown, for all its good and all its bad. I really firmly believe that in the longer run, people that aren’t buying down here now are going to regret it. The Downtown Project, Tony Hsieh’s vision of turning Downtown into a high-tech hub—those guys make some money. If that really takes root here—if you look at Seattle, Silicon Valley, Austin, where prices have gone crazy—Downtown prices could just be almost sadly expensive. But if it doesn’t take off, it will still remain affordable in relation to what incomes are for the Valley. I think if anyone can pull off a dream like that, it’s Tony Hsieh, so I think the prices very well could get to the point where it eliminates a lot of people from being able to buy down here, which opens up opportunities for other neighborhoods. Things that are still close to Downtown eventually could start getting some interest from people who are outpriced by Downtown—if it ever gets to that point.
PHOTO BY GEOFF CARTER