Once the residential, commercial and tourism center of Las Vegas, Downtown spent the second half of the 20th century losing ground. As the shops and homes left Fremont Street and its environs, the area became more dependent on tourists, and boosters more concerned that they might go elsewhere.
This apprehension manifested as early as 1960, when the first plan to turn Fremont Street into a pedestrian mall emerged. Although not acted on, it planted a seed: Something needed to change. The Downtown Progress Association came together in 1976, amid rising concerns about traffic, parking, image and safety. Organizers proposed several concepts for boosting Downtown, including creating a zoo, an aquarium and a lake on the site of what is now Cashman Center; turning what is now Symphony Park into a golf course (with another artificial lake); and turning Fremont from Main to Fourth streets into a pedestrian mall.
None of those developments, however, happened. Instead, despite the opening of a new casino (the Sundance, now The D) in 1980, Downtown mostly aged in place. The 1989 opening of Steve Wynn’s The Mirage sparked a building boom that supercharged the Strip, but left Downtown that much poorer-looking by comparison.
Problems went beyond the Strip’s rise, though. The advent of locals casinos throughout the Valley and new offerings in Laughlin and Primm cut into Fremont Street’s traditional customer base. Gaming revenues and job creation grew at the lowest rate of any Clark County gaming area. Room rates were falling, as were occupancy rates.
Downtown casino owners’ (and Las Vegas city officials’) sense of foreboding crested in 1992. Main Street Station, the latest attempt to revive the snake-bit Holiday International/Park hotel-casino, had closed less than a year after receiving $17 million in municipal redevelopment funds. With a trio of new resorts (MGM Grand, Treasure Island, and Luxor) set to bring more than 10,000 new rooms to the Strip and Circus Circus’ Grand Slam Canyon offering something that couldn’t be replicated Downtown, they felt it was time to act.
Luckily, someone appeared with an answer. Architect Jon Jerde had formed his design firm, the Jerde Partnership, in 1977 after feeling stifled at building suburban shopping malls. By 1992, he had two major successes: San Diego’s Horton Plaza, an outdoor reinvention of the mall, and the design work for the 1984 Summer Olympics, held in Los Angeles. Universal CityWalk, next to Universal Studios Hollywood, was slated to open the following year.
The Jerde Partnership’s initial presentation to the City of Las Vegas, dated June 23, 1992, sketched the Fremont Street Experience as a pavilion stretching from Main to Fourth. Street-level amenities, utilities, a support building and a new parking garage would augment the plan. The centerpiece was the pavilion’s Sky Parade and Light Show: an aerial display of three-dimensional floats that would periodically traverse, to musical accompaniment, the airborne parade route against a lighted backdrop. This would, the presentation said, “Reinforce Downtown Las Vegas as a viable component of the City as a whole.” Total all-in project costs would be just less than $75 million.
The “Celestial Vault” as it appeared in Jerde’s follow-up presentation was not quite the canopy that was eventually built. One hundred feet wide, 100 feet tall and 1,340 feet from end to end, the covering itself is a transparent archway of lights (the surrounding neon is clearly visible through it), and the parade float depicted is a giant ball contained a 20-foot-tall butterfly/showgirl/faerie chimera. Better yet, the total cost had been trimmed to under $60 million.
In December, the Downtown Progress Association opted to move forward with the Jerde Partnership proposal. Facing competition from the Strip giants, they, like Voltron, formed a giant themselves. With 14,000 hotel rooms and 500,000 square feet of casino space, Downtown was, proponents argued, an attraction in and of itself. The Experience would tie all of that volume together, creating a unique attraction that built on existing investments at a fraction of Strip costs.
Work on the Experience proceeded quickly. By May 1993, the State of Nevada had approved raising the room tax at Downtown hotels to help pay for the project, and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority had kicked in $8 million of its own. On September 30 of that year, 10 hotels formed the Fremont Street Experience LLC, a private company that would build and operate the outdoor mall. Atlandia Design, Steve Wynn’s in-house team, represented the owners, with Jerde serving as project designer, Marnell Corrao as construction manager and Railton Associates as sky parade and light-show manager.
The room tax ($14.6 million) and LVCVA grant covered a little more than a third of the Experience’s total cost. The Las Vegas Downtown Development Agency provided $22.4 million in additional funding, with member casinos kicking in an additional $18 million.
Work began in March 1994 with the demolition of the First Western Bank and other buildings in the 400 block of Fremont; this would be the site of the 1,500-space parking garage, the organization’s offices and new retail space.
At 12:01 a.m. on September 1, 1994, Fremont Street from Main to Fourth officially closed to vehicles. Construction started five days later, with an official groundbreaking on September 16. With veteran builder Marnell Corrao in charge, things went briskly, although not without complications: The first attempts to loft the space frame into place were aborted because of high winds. Delays related to upgrading the light show pushed the planned opening from July to September to December. The additional $7 million cost, which pushed the project’s total price tag to more than $70 million, was borne by the member casinos.
On November 30, the Experience welcomed 7,000 National Finals Rodeo fans for a soft opening of the light show. Two weeks later, a VIP preview followed by a lighting ceremony open to the public the following day marked the official opening of the Fremont Street Experience.
The development had its critics; some locals were upset that they weren’t allowed to see a December 21 exhibition by Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, and that they had to pay to participate in the outdoor New Year’s festivities. Court battles dogged the use of eminent domain to acquire land used for the parking garage. Likewise, the city’s attempts to ban porn-slappers, panhandlers and other miscreants from under the canopy led to 20 years of city ordinances and legal battles.
Fremont Street, however, has evolved in ways that the Downtown Progress Association could not have foreseen in 1992. The 2004 overhaul of the canopy into the 12 million-light LED Viva Vision has kept the display up-to-date. Likewise, the outdoor bars and the Slotzilla zipline, though they weren’t part of the original proposal, have helped achieve the original objective: to get people coming to Fremont Street.
It may not have turned out as initially planned, but ultimately, Fremont found its path.
More photos from Tomo