A Foundation built on Sand?

Serendipity

In their book, The Carbon Efficient City, Hurd and Hurd make the argument that “great” neighborhoods, those that offer a range of services and thereby reduce vehicle miles traveled, can ultimately help reduce net carbon emissions. While carbon efficiency is not an explicit goal of the Downtown Project in Las Vegas, its founder, Tony Hsieh, lists Edward Glaeser as an inspiration and advocates for walkable neighborhoods, rather than the car-centric development common throughout the Vegas Valley. The genesis of his vision for Downtown Las Vegas was his purchase of the old Las Vegas City Hall as the new headquarters for his online shoe retail company, Zappos, located in an area of town that, at that time, was considered blighted. In a recent article documenting the Project’s current struggles, one of the entrepreneurs who received Downtown Project funding described the area thusly, “We used to come downtown and you just never came into this area [on Fremont Street] unless you were looking for crack or something—it was honestly, so absolutely unsafe” (http://bit.ly/1BQeckI). Hsieh states that he wanted to provide his employees with services within the general vicinity of his new office, an idea that mushroomed into a $500 million redevelopment project. But while several formerly blighted areas have been reborn through both gentrification (north Brooklyn being a prime example) and neighborhood revitalization (http://bit.ly/1AS2KD1), money and good intentions may not be sufficient. In fact, a series of articles have recently been written about the Project’s shortcomings. Those articles offer quotes from a range of stakeholders, from residents like Matt Heller, who argues that “[t]here is zero sustainability in downtown Las Vegas. Zero,” (http://bit.ly/1BAsJzu) to the Director of Brookings Mountain West, Robert Lang who states that “The region’s going to be a difficult sell as a tech haven [another of the project’s goals] because the numbers don’t bear out…You really need all kinds of startup firms and a culture that region-wide nurtures innovation” (http://bit.ly/1BQeckI). This seems to be the crux of the issue: regardless of the resources it may not be feasible to create “great” neighborhoods that contribute to reducing carbon emissions if that neighborhood lacks fundamental elements like a pre-existing neighborhood structure and anchor institutions beyond a single industry (hotel/casino) that can serve as a foundation for the growth that Hsieh and others of his ilk envision. Otherwise, Hsieh might just be another foolish man, who built his house upon sand. If so, how else might his personal investment of $350 million have benefited a city with such an obvious need for “great” neighborhoods?

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