Wednesday, June 30, 2004 | 9:40 a.m.
Las Vegas is seeking proposals for use of the Fifth Street Grammar School, a vintage Spanish-style structure in the heart of downtown that officials are eager to fill now that Metro Police have left the building.
"It has historic significance and the potential to be attractive for (renovation)," said Chris Knight, administrative services director for the city. "It's nice to look at and has the potential for some pretty central uses such as an urban market, bookstore, deli market or coffee shop, and there's a tie there with the Lewis Corridor (the closed off portion of Lewis Avenue between Fourth Street and Las Vegas Boulevard)."
Metro had been using the gymnasium and much of the parking at the site, but has been moving out over the past months. Metro is cutting the ribbon next week on a new Downtown Command Center at Ninth Street and Bonanza Road.
Knight said that the two-story gym now houses a warren of offices that must be inspected for defects. In addition to the subdivision of the gym, inspectors must review the roof and the rest of the 37,000 square-foot building, of which about 20,000 square feet will be available. Knight said he has not established a time frame.
Mayor Oscar Goodman said he wants it done quickly.
"That's going to be my agora," said Goodman, explaining the Greek word as "a marketplace where ideas are exchanged."
"I think the Fifth Street School will be that location."
He threw out a series of ideas in rapid succession, from a meeting place for various clubs in the valley -- "We have a camera club, a porcelain club, a water color club" -- to a flower market and a bakery: "I love the smell of bakeries."
Goodman also pointed out that the school will house portions of programs from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The university's architecture program has space in the building, and the International Institute of Modern Letters and the Cities of Asylum will place offices and studios in the building, although there is no timetable for when those moves, formally announced during the mayor's State of the City speech in January, will happen.
Goodman placed the school in the context of downtown redevelopment. It is adjacent to what is called the government corridor, across the street from the George Federal Building, north of the Arts District, south of the Fremont Street Experience and the attendant hoped-for entertainment corridor.
"The Fifth Street School has great historic meaning, in that a number of city fathers in this town are graduates of that grammar school, and now it's becoming a center for literary discourse for a center of a fairly high order," said Glenn Schaeffer, president and chief financial officer of Mandalay Resort Group. Schaeffer is also a writer and a founder of the International Institute of Modern Letters.
The school opened in 1936 as the Las Vegas Grammar School with a $165,000 Works Projects Administration grant secured by then-Nevada Sens. Key Pittman and Pat McCarran and by Rep. James Scrugham. It was converted to government use in the 1960s.
The Cities of Asylum project works out of the institute, and is affiliated with the International Network of Cities of Asylum.
The idea behind City of Asylum is to provide a haven for writers who are in danger because of their work. Chinese writer Er Tai Gao came to Las Vegas as part of the program, and Noble Laureate Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, who was president of the international network, is the Elias Ghanem Chair of Creative Writing at UNLV.
"In terms of the institute's core mission, exemplified by the City of Asylum program, we promote, support, translate and publish writers of conscience from various trouble spots in the world. The message and theme of this is that literature is an agent for social change in that writers of dissent stand up to tyrannies and liars," Schaeffer said.
"Oscar Goodman has embraced this idea, he wants a community of arts, and one of the important reasons for Las Vegas as a venue and Downtown Las Vegas in particular is that it surprises people to find a literary enterprise of this ambition in Downtown Las Vegas," Schaeffer said. "That's good, because we get all the more attention for it."
Eric Olsen, executive director of the International Institute of Modern Letters, said, "We're kind of muddling along at our own slow pace, but we'll get there eventually ... That kind of Spanish colonial architecture, I love that, and it's built around a courtyard.
"I can't think of anything better. What a jewel that could be downtown. Anyway, we're going to play our small part in it."