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Downtown Development

While the most obvious of Las Vegas urban architecture is the product of the private commercial development of casinos and hotels, there have been over the year’s public ventures to create or integrate public spaces with commercial. Some of these plans were generated by various (unsuccessful) attempts to create a public transportation system that would connect McCarran airport and its tourist traffic to the Strip and downtown hotels. One such plan by the Aerial Transit System of Nevada, proposed in 1974 an automated Personalized Rapid Transit System utilizing small electric 6-person vehicles that travelled along a guideway with steel rails. The Aerial Transit System, commissioned local architect James McDaniel to design the transit stations and his concept drawings provide striking images of this new (never built) urban transportation landscape, and an intriguing foreshadow of Las Vegas current monorail.


As new high-rise casino hotels rose on Fremont Street, the older surrounding downtown with its small businesses, stores, restaurants, and bars became the target of urban renewal developers. The Fremont Street Experience of the mid-1990’s, which closed and canopied the main street blocks in ‘Casino Center’, is only one, and a relatively limited albeit actually realized example, of the many proposed developments meant to revitalize downtown and to attract the tourists who were increasing concentrating on the south Strip. Martin Stern, Jr., who had himself designed some of the new high-rise hotels on Fremont Street, developed a “Downtown Center Project” which combined renewing older building with a new mixed-use commercial development, called “Winchester Station”, which called for entertainment, dining and a casino, with a major hotel added in a second phase. Martin Stern designed new facades for the neighboring buildings and later added two circular hotel towers to the overall concept.  Stern described the concept, “The intent of this proposal is to create a cohesive shopping block next to the casino core . . . Rather than attempting to compete with the casino core, emphasis has been directed to creating a festive, “sense of space” from the variety of retail establishments in the area . . .  Modifications to the facades of the buildings will create an interesting, varied, human-scaled street scene. While each store will retain its individuality, coherence will be obtained by limiting the palette of colors and materials used. Materials are brick/brick veneer, painted stucco, and painted wood trim. Colors will emphasize pastel reds, pinks, ochres and browns with white trim . . . Sidewalk areas paved in brick will contain trees (in flush cast iron tree gates), seating areas, and integrated street furniture (for newspaper vending, waste receptacles, telephones, information boards, etc.) Trees are to contain strings of lights to give “sparkle” at night; Paired flagpoles will provide “gateways” at the three corners.”


This festive, pastel, faux-western village space was never realized, nor Winchester Station or Stern’s proposed twin towers. They went the way of the other revitalization plans for downtown, which continues to spawn developers and architects hopes and dreams.


The City of Las Vegas itself has proposed its own unique images of the future, the most striking being from its 1987 master development plan entitled, “1987 and Beyond: A future look to downtown Las Vegas”.  The cover illustration depicts a dark space-fantasy landscape, a copy of the mural that now adorns the City Clerk’s conference room.  Perhaps the most architecturally striking new urban space in Las Vegas is not downtown, but on the south strip, now the unquestioned center of the Las Vegas resort industry where CityCenter and the Cosmopolitan offer yet another realization of a towering modernist mixed-use urban resort, the logical projection of the landscape imagined by Martin Stern, Jr.