Where others see dirt and desolation, Chris Gonya sees character.
“That was a feral cat dumping ground,” the sharp-shoed 38-year-old developer says, pointing to a half-acre parcel that is now home to The Pioneer, a small complex of eight renovated bungalow-style apartments. Located on 10th Street between Carson and Bridger Avenues, it takes some exploring to find, despite being so close to pedestrian-heavy Fremont Street. “I can explain this address a million times and people won’t get it. Then I say, ‘A block south of Atomic [Liquors], and they say, ‘Oh!’”
The property isn’t a shiny guard-gated high-rise with concierge service designed to lure in the upper crust like many of the newer constructions in the area, but it’s a treasure for those with a bohemian streak.
Designed in collaboration with award-winning architecture firm Bunnyfish Studio, the modest, mostly studio homes needed some serious TLC before opening in 2015. Gonya estimates that he spent around $20,000 on renovations per unit, with the landscaping alone costing $200,000. He took things further, fully furnishing some of the bluish-gray-and orange-colored dwellings—including art accents, such as a painted mural and a rainbow-colored stained glass room divider. The space features a community garden, barbecue, landscaped courtyard and a hulking, rusted steel sign that reads “The Pioneer” to greet visitors.
Personified, The Pioneer would be a Gold Rush-era frontiersman, like those who inhabited the neighborhood where it sits, Pioneer Heights, in the early days of Las Vegas. In his research, Gonya dug up a 1905 clipping from the Los Angeles Herald advertising a name-your-price auction for land in the area, which “adjoins the new Railroad Townsite of Las Vegas,” and bills it as a “City of Opportunity and Destiny.” It’s that spirit that embodies The Pioneer. And it’s that level of thought, history and personality that goes into all of Gonya’s projects.
Born in Ohio, Gonya studied architecture at Cranbrook, a boarding school just outside of Detroit. While still a high school student, he lined up professional gigs with firms in New York. Though he initially studied at University of Michigan, he quickly dropped out, moving to the Empire State to design bars and restaurants. But developing projects in New York can be taxing, as small undertakings could cost millions. When his wife, a Las Vegas native, became pregnant eight years ago, they decided that Southern Nevada would not only be a better place to raise a child, but might just offer some opportunity for Gonya as well.
Today, Gonya’s one of the leaders of the Downtown Las Vegas revival, though he keeps a low profile. He’s not focused on promoting himself or his projects on social media (instead, he has an Instagram account dedicated solely to his obsession with shoes). Unlike those simply trying to capitalize on the market, Gonya takes a more organic, compassionate—and financially risky—approach. “I’m not going to see money on these for a long time. It’s really daunting,” he says. “But this neighborhood needs love. … I have the wherewithal to make [Downtown Las Vegas] a better place. So why not?”
Gonya is building an unlikely empire on his tiny stretch of 10th Street. Just two years ago, the block was barren. Now it’s a creative enclave that’s home to musicians, Strip performers and independent business owners. Even more are lining up, eagerly anticipating his next projects.
Those who inhabit Gonya’s properties are as interesting as the developer himself. Click each photo to learn more.
Across the street from The Pioneer is The Double D, a triplex that Gonya recently renovated. It’s named that because two metal cursive Ds graced the small front porch when he purchased it. The home, built in 1942, was painted black and white. Immediately, Gonya thought of Liberace’s piano-themed home and Siegfried & Roy’s majestic compound, using them as inspiration. “You have to have a muse,” he says. “We’re always looking for history and character—it’s here.”
His next undertaking brims with it.
On the same block, just one space removed from The Double D is another eight-unit property called the Desert Cactus. Gonya purchased it in February. As it currently stands, it isn’t too pretty. “It looks like a bomb went off in there,” he says, pointing to a corner unit.
Peering through the ripped blinds, it’s apparent that Gonya’s assessment isn’t entirely hyperbole. There’s mangy brown carpeting, dangling electrical wires and grease-stained walls. Gonya refuses to open the door for the sake of our nostrils.
Originally erected in the 1950s, the small, 650-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment homes are going to need a top-to-bottom overhaul, from the walls and floors to plumbing and electrical. He initially wanted to implement a Betty Willis-themed design in homage to the late artist who created the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. But then Gonya met some of the current tenants, including one young couple who had matching tattoos with the property’s name and sign. “It got me thinking that it was much more important than I assumed,” he says. “There’s history to honor with the Desert Cactus. I have to respect that.”
With his tenants at heart, he quickly switched his concept and found a new muse (“I have more ideas than I have time,” he says.). “The story that I’ve been telling myself is that it’s for young Air Force officers,” Gonya says. The property’s theme will riff off of the F-86 Sabre fighter jet used at Nellis Air Force Base in the late 1940s through the 1950s—the timeframe of when the Desert Cactus was built. The corrugated steel parking structure helped inform the design: “I’m just playing around with the metal since I’ve got this huge metal wing out front that I can’t get around,” he says.
Renderings of the renovated Desert Cactus
He’s wary of promising a completion date. “None of my stuff is really linear. It’s a work in progress,” he says. “It feels like I’m driving with two feet—brake, gas, brake, gas.”
Simultaneously, Gonya’s finalizing plans for The Benjamin, a new construction—his first in Las Vegas with partners—on the corner of Sixth Street and Bonneville Avenue. Slated to break ground this year, the project will feature 12 townhomes along with commercial spaces. It’s a more luxurious, higher-end development, but one that still reflects Gonya’s inner history buff. The property is named after western explorer, fur trader and rumored spy for the U.S. government Benjamin Bonneville (after whom Bonneville Avenue is named). “It’s gonna be sexier, but I think the other [properties] are way more interesting,” he says.
Gonya acknowledges that his off-Fremont projects aren’t for everyone, just as The Benjamin might not appeal to those looking for something more homey. “[The Pioneer tenants] love that I kept the old tile. There’s some real patina to those [homes],” he says.