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May 22, 2015

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Scott Dickensheets:

If Las Vegas is in decline, let’s make the most of it

The other day I saw a U-Haul turtling down U.S. 95, toward Arizona, and not for the first time asked myself:

Is Las Vegas really in decline?

Of course, some have complained it has been in decline for years, because it couldn’t stitch together a decent social safety net, couldn’t sustain a museum, couldn’t even bring Ikea to the people. All signs of civic enfeeblement, I agree, and not only because I’m dying for an Ikea floor lamp.

But I mean “decline” in a more literal, arguably more urgent sense. Census and anecdotal evidence (for example, the number of outward-bound U-Hauls) indicates more people leave Vegas than arrive these days, and surely more would take off if they could unload their homes. By some estimates, as many as 60,000 houses sit vacant in the valley — ponder the monstrous nature of that number for a moment: an emptiness roughly equal to the population of Carson City.

In a city long powered, in part, by uninhibited growth, the notion of serious decline can be hard to wrap our heads around. But it is serious. Indeed, I suppose the real question is, is this a temporary reversal or a long-term — gulp, permanent — condition? Over the years we’ve cultivated a lot of faith in the city’s economy, but …

“I am concerned that the city is falling apart fast, quicker than it built up,” a source in Las Vegas city government told me. Hmm. Sounds long-term to me.

“The story of Las Vegas has been — Las Vegas is always growing,” says author and urban planning expert Justin Hollander, “and if you could manage that growth, you could improve the quality of life.” For his book “Sunburnt Cities,” due out in November, he studied several Sunbelt cities (more Phoenix and Fresno than Vegas) to see what happens when that philosophy peters out.

But I didn’t call Hollander for a belt of crummy news; when I want to feel bad, I can just calculate my home’s value, using the same math that determines the speed of falling asteroids.

No, I called him because he favors an idea called “smart decline” or “smart shrinkage,” which boils down to a version of the old lemons/lemonade wisdom: If your city stops growing, can you do something positive with that? Can you manage shrinkage the way you once hoped to manage growth?

Seems like an idea worth pondering as Las Vegas fishtails through the curve between our growth-driven past and whatever it is we’ll do next. How can we make this work for us?

I’m not so much interested in the broad-strokes aspects of the theory, a lot of which derives from examples in the Rust Belt and Europe. I don’t think Las Vegas is quite ready to knock down emptying neighborhoods to turn stucco wastelands into parks, pleasant as that might sound.

I do like smart decline’s emphasis on smaller tactics to enhance quality of life: turning acres of undeveloped suburban dirt, empty since the housing flop, into neighborhood amenities by keeping them clean and planting a few trees (shown to improve surrounding property values, by the way).

Hollander also suggests “relaxed zoning” rules that’ll let owners of empty buildings use them for temporary projects — art happenings, ad-hoc markets. Anything to increase circulation in those deadened areas.

I’m not saying a few trees and art shows will turn this mother around. Our mess is huge, with long roots — years of failed or halfhearted diversification efforts, political complacence, a willingness to count the money and damn the consequences — and it’s unlikely to improve very soon. And, of course, the 2011 Legislature still needs to get in there and make it worse.

No, the appeal of this smart decline idea is its challenge to our long-established way of thinking; its insistence that we can grasp this moment instead of merely wait it out; that we can do something besides cross our fingers and slash our budgets. Changing our pro-growth mind-set is like turning an aircraft carrier — long and slow — but it just might be what gets us through.

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