When hundreds of architects descended on Las Vegas two years ago for their annual convention, organizers scanned the Strip for tour ideas and rolled snake eyes.
The pyramid? The faux Eiffel Tower? Not exactly paragons of high design.
Out of desperation, organizers chartered buses to cart the group to Death Valley and the Nevada Test Site at Yucca Mountain.
“We had to stretch it a bit,” conceded Vegas-based architect Windom Kimsey, former chair of the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on Design. “The level of sophistication was lacking.”
In a morphing city where hotels and casinos are built and razed and built again, a massive new development seeks to make a lasting mark on the city’s skyline. Project CityCenter -- MGM Mirage’s 76 acres of densely packed condos and hotels designed by some of the country’s premier architects -- may finally put Las Vegas on the architectural map and usher in a cosmopolitan reincarnation of the town better known for kitsch and over-the-top theming.
“This takes the Las Vegas evolution to the next level,” said Terry Jicinsky, vice president of marketing for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority
“When Steve Wynn opened the Mirage with the heavily themed resort concept, everything that came after that followed suit,” he said. “It’s probably a reasonable assumption that this will set the bar for new things that are constructed in Las Vegas.”
The $7-billion Project CityCenter is the largest privately financed project in the country. The mega-resort includes a hotel-casino, convention center, retail and entertainment space, condos and two boutique hotels, all nestled between the Bellagio and Monte Carlo hotel-casinos on the site of the old Boardwalk Hotel and Casino. After just two weeks on the market, 90% of the condominium units in one of the project’s condo-hotels have been sold, with prices starting at $1.5 million.
“People think we’re out there on a curve, but to be original and to be smart is better than to be faux,” said Tony Dennis, executive vice president of CityCenter’s residential division. “Everything has its day. “
Unlike the rest of the Strip, where hiking from one casino to another can be a workout, density at Project CityCenter will rival that of Manhattan. Condos and hotels -- designed by what MGM Mirage executives are calling an “architecture dream team” -- will be built up to 650 feet, or 60 stories, as high as the Federal Aviation Administration will allow because of the proximity of McCarran International Airport.
When the project opens in late 2009, there will be a 4,000-room hotel-casino; two 400-room luxury hotels, including a Mandarin Oriental; 2,700 luxury condo and condo-hotel units; and 500,000 square feet of retail, dining and entertainment space.
“It’s just incredible to contemplate,” Las Vegas historian Michael Green said. “I have visions of Bugsy Siegel coming back here and ... saying, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Bugsy dreamed that this place would be big, but not this big.”
Project CityCenter is just one in the wave of proposals to hit Las Vegas. In all, about 70,000 condo and condo-hotel units are planned and 10,740 are under construction.
Among the major projects is Boyd Gaming Corp.'s $4-billion Echelon Place -- four hotels, condos, retail space and casino on 63 acres. Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., which has amassed 350 acres on the Strip, could eventually unveil a project that would trump CityCenter in magnitude, but no specific development plans have been announced.
So far, the market has been unpredictable. Thirteen projects have been canceled or suspended in the last few years, said Brian Gordon, a principal at Applied Analysis, a Las Vegas-based economic and real estate research firm.
“We’re facing an imbalance between supply and demand,” Gordon said.
Still, he said, a handful of projects have “significant potential for success” based on brand recognition, location and the developer’s track record. Project CityCenter has all of those, including a location in the thick of the action -- on the Strip next door to the Bellagio, Gordon said.
What CityCenter is offering is “unmatched in any other destination,” he said. “There is nothing comparable in the market today or on the drawing board in terms of resort residential development in the hottest market in the world.”
To entice prospective buyers who have watched other projects fall by the wayside, MGM Mirage officials have installed a live webcam at the construction site to capture the building activity.
The sales office opened in January, with fully decorated units and computers that simulate the view from whichever condo unit the buyer is considering for purchase. After only two weeks on the market this month, 90% of the 227 condos on the top floors of the Mandarin Oriental had been sold, generating more than $613 million in sales. Prices run as high as $12 million for a three-bedroom, 4,200-square-foot penthouse.
More than 1,350 people have also made reservations for the Vdara Condo Hotel and Veer Towers by putting down as much as $15,000.
“The tremendous success of Mandarin sales, in terms of price and pace ... indicates that CityCenter is more than a city within a city; it is a real estate micro-market with its own supply, demand and prices,” said Dennis, the CityCenter executive.
Jason Fox, a 26-year-old mortgage broker in Las Vegas, has already made a reservation to buy a condo at Veer Towers, even though it doesn’t go on sale until April.
“I’m definitely buying one,” Fox said. “I’m going to get the largest unit they have in the highest floor. I’m always on the phone with the saleslady trying to hook it up.”
Fox said he wasn’t scared off by traffic scenarios that show an additional 2.3 new cars for every new room. As it is, getting from one end of the Strip to another can be a bumper-to-bumper, time-wasting endeavor, considering that regional transportation officials estimated that Las Vegas Boulevard reached its auto capacity in the mid-1990s.
“Traffic will be a nightmare, but I’m all about living there,” Fox said. “I like to go out and have fun on the weekends. If I’m going to party down on the Strip, I don’t want to get drunk and get a DUI.”
A $7 cab fare will get him anywhere on the Strip, compared with $50 for a trip to the suburbs, Fox said.
Although he thinks many projects won’t materialize, he expects the value of the ones that do to accelerate quickly.
“I am very excited about the Manhattanization of Las Vegas,” Fox said.
Project CityCenter officials are touting it as a transformational project, a grown-up Vegas that will set new standards for urban design and living.
The architecture world is taking notice of the headlining designers, including Daniel Libeskind, Cesar Pelli, Helmut Jahn, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates and Rafael Vinoly.
“You’re bringing in one fell swoop eight pretty well-known, sophisticated architects,” said Las Vegas-based architect Kimsey. “I think maybe this is Las Vegas’ chance to put ourselves on the architectural map.”
Libeskind, best known for his Freedom Tower and the master plan for the reconstructed World Trade Center, said he thought Project CityCenter would improve the attractiveness of living in Vegas.
“This will change the notion that Las Vegas is just a place to shop, go to a hotel and be entertained,” Libeskind said. “I think it’s really going to become a metropolis, a city. It’s no longer just an illusion or a nostalgia.”