The Once and Future Downtown

Long before the Fremont Street Experience, Neonopolis and Tony Hsieh, the City of Las Vegas had grand plans for reviving the city’s core. Three decades later, we look back at what might have been—and what is today.

1987_and_beyond_las_vegas_master_development_plan_coverIt’s a Sunday afternoon, and I’m sitting inside the Grill at the Gold Spike, eating fish tacos. On the TV screens behind the counter, the Arizona Cardinals are trailing the Atlanta Falcons by 13 points. Rather than the game broadcast, house music plays over the Gold Spike’s PA system. It’s otherwise quiet, with only one other party in the restaurant and a few patrons milling about the bar and playroom.

Across the street is the backside of Neonopolis, its monolithic, pastel-colored, windowless wall rendering the distressed mall like some neon-encrusted fortress. This corner of Ogden Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard was once the proposed home of a “festival marketplace,” a two-block gathering spot that would “serve as the catalyst for additional development and revitalization” of Downtown Las Vegas. If that sounds an awful lot like how Neonopolis was pitched to both the City of Las Vegas and its citizens in the early 2000s, it’s no surprise: Both ideas were well-intentioned yet poorly copied versions of projects that worked in other cities whose demographic, economic and cultural makeups vary greatly from that of Sin City’s.

The festival marketplace was just one of the concepts outlined in the City of Las Vegas’ mid-1980s master development plan, “A Future Look to Downtown Las Vegas.” First adopted in 1984 and then updated at the beginning of 1987, the cover of this 90-page document featured a painting that wouldn’t be out of place on the front of a science fiction paperback, featuring Logan’s Run extras surveying the Space Age, EPCOT Center-like “future” of Downtown.

Inside, the plans weren’t quite as bold as the cover promised. Aside from a magnetic-levitation “people mover” monorail system, the future that was proposed included pretty basic stuff, including themed trolleys riding up and down Fremont Street, and a throwback “Heritage Square” connecting the then-new Downtown Transportation Center with the former federal courthouse and U.S. Post Office that’s now home to the Mob Museum.

Thirty years, a new redevelopment plan and an Internet millionaire-funded startup boom later, Downtown has certainly been revitalized, even if that revitalization remains in its infancy. But how much does our new Downtown resemble the 1980s vision of the future? To find out, we have to go back … to the future!


From a people mover overhead to themed trolley cars on the streets, Downtown Las Vegas circa 1985 was headed to the future in style.

From a people mover overhead to themed trolley cars on the streets, Downtown Las Vegas circa 1985 was headed to the future in style.

“Welcome to the future!” that’s how Las Vegas City Manager Ashley Hall opened his March 20, 1985, introductory letter, reproduced from decidedly un-futuristic city letterhead. He touted Las Vegas as “one of tomorrow’s best bets for progress, innovation and excitement,” citing the Downtown Transportation Center and the people mover—more on that shortly—as evidence of the city’s progress, a sentiment echoed by then-Mayor Bill Briare, who considered this document “a guide to the future of Las Vegas.”

Contained within the verbose 90-page document was a plan that was actually quite simple: Phase 1: Lay down the infrastructure to move people in and around Downtown; Phase 2: Build places for them to congregate; and Phase 3: Make it easy for a variety of private entities to flourish in the area.

The core tenet of Phase 1 was to create a transportation corridor that would connect the Cashman Field Complex (now Cashman Center) with the City Hall area. The Downtown Transportation Center (DTC), at the corner of Stewart Avenue and Casino Center Boulevard, was the essential piece of this plan. It would not only serve to connect the proposed people mover and themed shuttles, but would also become the transfer station for most of the city’s existing bus routes, including the then-lone Strip route.

“There were no facilities in Downtown for people to congregate to catch the bus,” Hall recently said of the impetus to build the DTC. “There were no restrooms, no accommodations at all. It was one terrible, terrible situation.”

The themed shuttles were designed like old-time streetcars or trolleys, and would basically make a 15-minute loop around the Fremont Street gaming corridor and nearby business areas. They were designed to match the turn-of-the-century aesthetic of the Downtown Transportation Center and Heritage Square, with an emphasis on “old-fashioned craftsmanship.”

Of the three projects, the most mind-boggling—and way ahead of its time, but not just because of the technology involved—was the people mover, the Disneyland-like maglev monorail train that would have risen on pylons over the north end of Downtown, with a 7,500-passenger-per-hour capacity. The master plan is chock-full of photos of train models, renderings of proposed people-mover stations and highly scientific plans that wouldn’t look out of place in a Star Trek technical manual.

“The idea was to have an easy, accessible way that people could find transportation throughout the Downtown area without having to look for parking,” says Ron Lurie, who served as the mayor of Las Vegas from 1987 to 1991 and is now executive vice president and general manager of Arizona Charlie’s Decatur.

Phase 2 of the plan proposed creating a sprawling civic plaza in the “nine blocks within the immediate vicinity of the City Hall Complex,” which relied upon the city acquiring from the U.S. government the former federal courthouse and U.S. Post Office west of City Hall, with the possibility of reusing it as a “downtown museum.” Other essential components included the Heritage Square adjacent to the DTC, a central library for the newly consolidated Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, and the Children’s Discovery Museum.

1987_and_beyond_trolley_rendering_02Private-sector development and public-private partnerships were essential to Phase 3’s success, which focused on business development throughout Downtown. The master plan touted then-recent expansions of the Golden Nugget and Lady Luck, as well as family-friendly amenities such as a Ripley’s Believe It or Not attraction at the Four Queens and an RV park at the California Hotel & Casino.

Most of Phase 3’s pages were dedicated to proposed projects such as the aforementioned festival marketplace, which would “attract residents and visitors to Downtown for shopping, dining, recreation and entertainment.” The primary model for such a project was Church Street Station in Orlando, Florida, a former railroad depot that entrepreneur Bob Snow turned into an entertainment complex in the late 1970s. By the mid-1980s, Church Street Station—based on the strength of its club-hopping appeal—was one of Florida’s top tourist draws.

The other planned private development project would have transformed the former Union Pacific rail yard properties west of the Union Plaza Hotel and Casino into an ambitious, mixed-use development with 10,000 new hotel rooms, a possible golf course or amusement park, churches and chapels, 70,000 square feet of retail stores, and related support industries.


Former city manager hall doesn’t mince words today when it comes to the importance of redeveloping Downtown Las Vegas—then and now. One of the architects and overseers of the mid-1980s master plan, Hall says “the Strip was eating Downtown’s lunch every year. And you simply had to do something to get Downtown somewhat viable again so it became a positive urban center, not some wasteland.”

Perhaps. But if the gaming industry moved its focus from city-controlled Glitter Gulch to the Clark County-controlled Strip, isn’t that just the free market in action? If the populace abandoned the center of town for newly minted suburbs, isn’t that just natural progression? The flip side, though, is the deleterious effects of urban abandonment can have repercussions that go beyond the dwindling coffers of a few casinos.

“It’s a downtrodden area, not only physically but economically, which has an impact on a declining tax roll, which means lower property-tax revenue, and but for some public involvement, it’ll keep going down,” says Bill Arent, the current director of the city’s Economic and Urban Development department. “The theory is, if you do it right, once you have it running extremely well, then it no longer needs special attention.”

The key phrase, of course, is “if you do it right.” A lot of ideas that seem good at the time of development don’t actually pan out in the long term, if at all. That includes a lot of the proposals that have popped up in these parts over the years, and not just from the 1980s master plan. Church Street Station worked in Orlando. Horton Plaza, the model for Neonopolis, worked in San Diego. The monorail … well, it worked for Disneyland.

“There’s a trend in government to adopt best practices,” Arent says. “So you look at everything that’s happening [across] the country, put it all together, pour it through the magic sausage machine, and there’s our formula. That’s the wrong way to do it. We need to look at the unique assets we have in our community. We’re a unique place.”

And unique places have failures, such as the original incarnation of Main Street Station, which came out of the festival marketplace proposal. Lurie says Church Street Station developer Snow moved the project from Fremont Street to Main Street because it was cheaper. There, Snow built a clone of his Orlando entertainment complex around the Main Street Park Hotel. The ornate, Victorian-style Main Street Station opened in 1991 to much fanfare, but Snow’s inexperience with running a casino and the property’s somewhat disconnected location led to a quick decline—and bankruptcy—by the following year. It wasn’t until Boyd Gaming bought the property in 1993 and connected it via pedestrian bridge to its neighboring California Hotel & Casino that Main Street Station would finally see success, though not as the entertainment and nightlife mecca the city initially envisioned.

The people-mover project, alas, never got off the ground, let alone nearly 17 feet into the sky. Much like the unrelated Las Vegas Monorail years later, the people mover was intended to expand beyond Downtown, connecting to the Strip and then to McCarran International Airport. But both Hall and Lurie say inter-municipal disagreements got in the way, and not even the Downtown portion ever escalated beyond the drawing board.

As for the themed shuttles, they did begin running concurrent with the opening of the Downtown Transportation Center in 1987, though neither Hall nor Lurie can pinpoint for exactly how long. “They did run for a while, but they were not as successful as we thought they would be,” Lurie says. “Sometimes it takes time to implement programs, and when [public officials] leave, others have to pick up where we left off, and I think there just wasn’t a lot of interest in it at the time.”

A letter from City Manager Ashley Hall offers a glimpse into the master development plan for Downtown, complete with the new Downtown Transportation Center.

A letter from City Manager Ashley Hall offers a glimpse into the master development plan for Downtown, complete with the new Downtown Transportation Center.

It took a few decades more than planned, but the old U.S. Post Office building was indeed restored and reopened as the Mob Museum in 2012. In the interim, Heritage Square was paved over, and the DTC was shut down when Downtown’s new central transfer station—the Bonneville Transportation Center—opened in 2010. The old DTC facility has since hosted the Downtown 3rd Farmers Market every Friday, and real estate developer CIM Group has an approved plan to transform that property into an 80,000-square-foot retail, dining and conference complex, although no ground has been broken yet.

Building the Bonneville Transportation Center was part of a shift southward toward the 18b Arts District and The Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Las Vegas City Hall itself relocated to Main Street and Clark Avenue in 2012, just a few blocks from the Bonneville Center, and the renamed Discovery Children’s Museum moved adjacent to The Smith Center. The former City Hall building next to the Mob Museum is, of course, currently leased to Zappos, whose CEO, Tony Hsieh, is in the process of putting his own $450 million stamp on the surrounding area.

With the Valley’s residential expansion ever outward, the Library District moved its administrative offices from the Las Vegas Library on Las Vegas Boulevard to a new, high-tech facility outside of the city proper in the unincorporated southwest. The neighboring city-owned Reed Whipple Cultural Center was shuttered several years ago because of budget cuts, and plans by current residents Las Vegas Shakespeare Company and Nevada Repertory Co. to spend $45 million remodeling the aging building into a new home for various performing arts organizations have been cut short. According to a Las Vegas Review-Journal report, donors “encouraged a more central location” than Downtown, so if the proposed Clark County Theatre Center comes to fruition, it will be built from the ground up at the southern end of the Valley, near Town Square.

And if that happens, that’s OK, because here in the future, Downtown Las Vegas is doing fine on its own—even if the best-laid plans of its architects don’t always work out. For instance, the mid-1980s redevelopment plan, though not entirely thrown out, was complemented in 2000 by the adoption of the Las Vegas Downtown Centennial Plan, a 179-page behemoth that outlines everything from infrastructure improvements to the goals and definitions of Downtown’s distinct districts. Despite the unexpected peaks and valleys in its first 15 years—the Great Recession, the Downtown Project, competing stadium projects—the effects of the Downtown Centennial Plan can be seen throughout the city’s core today, from Boulder Plaza in the Arts District to the fixed lanes for the ACE transit system.

Sure, we don’t have magnetically levitated trains zooming by overhead, but we do have bodies flying 10 stories above Fremont Street along ziplines (love it or loathe it, the Fremont Street Experience draws 17 million visitors per year and may have single-handedly saved Downtown’s gaming corridor in the mid-1990s). We also may not have themed trolleys, but we do have Shift stations providing vehicle-sharing options for residents to easily and sustainably get around Downtown.

For what it’s worth, Lurie says he’s impressed with Downtown’s ongoing evolution, from the redevelopment of the former Union Pacific rail yards to the revitalization of Fremont East. And when he sums up the goals of the 1980s redevelopment plan, it’s clear that the vision for the future of Downtown Las Vegas remains fairly consistent, even three decades later.

“We wanted people to park Downtown, eat Downtown, see a show Downtown, hop on the monorail or a trolley, go to Cashman Field and see a play or a ballgame, and come back up to Downtown,” Lurie says. “To me, it was all about marketing. You provide good access and good programs, and people are going to come down there.”


Pj Perez talks Downtown Las Vegas on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.

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