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July 26, 2016

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Design challenges leave passers-by passing CityCenter by

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Steve Marcus

Some say the entrance to CityCenter is not inviting to pedestrians.

Entrance to CityCenter (11-23-10)

A pair of tourists cross illegally at the entrance to CityCenter on Wednesday, November 23, 2010. Launch slideshow »

While defending their financially troubled development as a forward-thinking enterprise yet to hit its stride, CityCenter’s developers acknowledge a problem with the landmark, $8.5 billion project: Many pedestrians are simply passing it by.

Passers-by may not be seeing the many attractions it has to offer, CityCenter officials told their peers at this month’s Global Gaming Expo, the industry’s premier conference and trade show.

Over the next couple of months, owner MGM Resorts International will add landscaping and signs to make the entrance more inviting and guide pedestrians to CityCenter’s Aria through its Strip-facing Crystals mall, among other entry points.

The issue highlights an age-old challenge along the colossal carnival midway that is the Las Vegas Strip and one that has grown crucial in the tough economy: How to lure customers inside your casino.

There’s no magic formula. Some casinos open to the sidewalk on Las Vegas Boulevard while others sit back. The poorly designed entrance of the former Aladdin — even though it was at the sidewalk — contributed to the property’s eventual bankruptcy and its continued struggle as a Planet Hollywood resort. Customers ascend stairs and escalators to reach Planet Hollywood, fronted by a separately owned mall. The resort’s latest owner is further improving the Strip entrance to ease casino access.

CityCenter’s main entrance funnels pedestrians onto meandering, overhead walkways and a footbridge extending over a multilane entrance for traffic. Aria’s entrance is about 800 feet from the Strip — farther back than many competitors and a deliberate attempt to create an interior, urban setting for people to explore at their own pace.

CityCenter CEO Bobby Baldwin downplays his colleagues’ dour comments, saying the development’s pedestrian traffic is respectable and will improve once the neighboring Cosmopolitan resort opens Dec. 15. Owners routinely tweak major resorts once they are open and problem areas reveal themselves, Baldwin said.

Being closer to the street may attract more looky-loos, but they aren’t the sort of spenders who can make or break a casino, he added.

The criticism of Aria echoes what was heard when Steve Wynn opened Bellagio, nested behind an eight-acre lake that seemed to be a pedestrian barrier to the casino. The resort has become a financial success and an international icon for its dancing waters. Bellagio’s entrance is about the same distance by foot from Las Vegas Boulevard as Aria’s.

Architecture critics say CityCenter has another drawback: They say it falls short of being an authentic urban setting, with tourists feeling intimidated by its cluster of high-rise towers.

Some architects not involved with the project say the main entrance is a significant problem for pedestrians who have to negotiate narrow walkways with unattractive views of traffic. Additional signs and landscaping won’t help much, they say. Pedestrians have the alternative of approaching Aria through Crystals, the high-end retail mall that opens onto Las Vegas Boulevard.

CityCenter lacks enough of an appealing streetscape to draw pedestrians, Las Vegas urban planner Robert Fielden said.

“Most people aren’t willing to walk more than 200 feet to get to where they want to go,” he said. “They move like livestock. They follow a leader and if you don’t have something to grab their attention, the leader will find another watering hole someplace else.”

Las Vegas architect Joel Bergman calls the driveway entrance “cold” and “uninviting” for pedestrians, unlike the fanciful facades that have enticed tourists over the years.

Bergman, a creator and proponent of some of Las Vegas’ most well-known resort themes, was an early critic of CityCenter’s modern exterior.

“They got what they wanted,” he said: An entrance “that is not what a Las Vegas (casino) operator would have done.”

Click to enlarge photo

A couple climbs stairs to a pedestrian walkway at the entrance of CityCenter on Wednesday, November 23, 2010.

Three sets of master planners studied the placement of buildings on CityCenter’s 76-acre campus by analyzing and comparing vehicle and pedestrian traffic flow at the entrances of other properties along the Strip.

Squeezing six towers and 18 million square feet of space onto a footprint not much larger than a single Las Vegas resort presented a design challenge for CityCenter developers. In particular, the entrance had to accommodate a large volume of vehicles, requiring a different approach, executives said.

Incorporating conveniences for pedestrians such as ground-level walkways and crosswalks would have backed up cars on the Strip, as it does at other major resorts, they said.

“People crossing the street creates huge traffic problems and the county was adamant that these problems be solved,” said J.F. Finn, principal and managing director of Gensler in Las Vegas — the firm that led the design team crafting CityCenter. “You have to move people away from those vehicles.”

CityCenter may have created another problem in the process, architect and Las Vegas design critic Alan Hess said.

“The entrance has all the pleasantness of an airport terminal,” he said. “There’s a lot of concrete and ramps and other things that turn pedestrians off, and a sense of being channeled into an entryway.”

It’s too early to pass judgment, CityCenter’s developers say.

It hasn’t yet become the pedestrian “gathering place” its creators sought. That goal has been hampered by construction at Cosmopolitan; the gradual opening of new retail stores at Crystals, which is now mostly full, and the “devastating” loss of Harmon — an empty building with a crucial construction defect — as an operating hotel, Finn said.

According to Hess, CityCenter can do better than its bland entrance.

“There are so many good examples along the Strip of how to get people into a resort easily and willingly,” he said. “They threw the baby out with the bath water.”

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