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July 30, 2014

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Las Vegas group transforming blight into a ‘greener’ block for one weekend

Image

Sam Morris

Brandon Wiegand is seen in front of store fronts at 1042 S. Main Street which he and others hope to turn into a block of sustainable living type shops Tuesday, April 17, 2012.

If you go

  • WHEN: April 28 and 29
  • WHERE: 1000 block of South Main Street, downtown
  • WHAT: For two days, a block where half of the storefronts are vacant will be transformed with musical performances, an organic grocery, boutique store, community classroom, dog park, yoga classes and more.
  • COST: The pop-up shops will be selling food and goods. All of the events and admission are free.

Green Block

Cars pass a group of store fronts at 1042 S. Main Street which organizers hope to turn into a block of sustainable living type shops Tuesday, April 17, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Site of Build a Greener Block

The 1000 block of South Main Street, just north of Charleston Boulevard, is not a great place for a leisurely stroll or even to linger for long.

A fenced-off, empty concrete plaza faces a row of four vacant buildings. There is a nearby ballet studio that is open for a couple hours each day and a few other shops in the area. For the most part, though, the dilapidated structures with peeling paint and crumbling facades are backdrops for cars zipping past on their way to Las Vegas Boulevard or Interstate 15.

On April 28 and 29, a group of sustainable living-oriented Las Vegans will temporarily transform the short stretch of run-down cityscape into a vibrant hub of neighborhood activity, including a dog park, community classroom, boutique clothing store, organic grocery, coffee shop, performance area and yoga sessions.

The project is called Build a Greener Block and was started by Green Jelly, a collection of people who wanted to promote green businesses and environmentally conscious living in Las Vegas. Green Jelly sprouted out of Vegas Jelly, a regular meeting of technology entrepreneurs at Emergency Arts.

Green Jelly member Brandon Wiegand pitched the idea to his co-conspirators after seeing a video telling the story of the Better Block project, a similar endeavor in Dallas.

“The group really gravitated toward the idea of actually changing an area,” said Wiegand, 28. “Instead of talking about changes that could be made, or showing some picture, this is a chance for people to live it and experience it.”

The organizers hope others in the community are inspired, and the real-life demonstration of what the neighborhood could become will do more to serve as a catalyst for growth than an artist’s rendering could ever do. When a pastry chef walks past a vacant building downtown, he should ask about opening his own patisserie instead of waiting for a deep-pocketed developer or Zappos’ Tony Hsieh to come along, they theorize.

“I think we share some of Tony’s vision, in that we want this to not be top-down but bottom-up. We want the community to decide what should be here,” Wiegand said. “I do think there is a lot of waiting going on, though. People are waiting for someone else to do something. Instead of waiting, we can accomplish things now.”

At the end of March, group members had a town-hall event during which they asked for community input on what a “greener block” should look like. A banner reading “I wish this was a ...” is pinned above the doorway to one of the empty stores that will soon be re-envisioned, and pasted to the windows are the town-hall participants’ ideas such as “veggie garden,” “local fashion designers outlet,” “Zen water wall,” “a community kitchen” and “farmers market.”

“It took off so much better than any of us expected,” said Ciara Byrne, a Green Jelly member and documentary filmmaker. “At the original Green Jelly meeting, it was six friends in a room complaining about why Vegas isn’t greener. The next one we had 18 people, Brandon pitched his idea, and we said, ‘Fantastic.’ The next meeting there were 40 people, and then the next there were 70.”

Wiegand is a commercial real estate agent, and he used his contacts and knowledge of the area to find the right block. While standing in front of the storefronts Tuesday morning, downtown resident Phil Harp stopped to talk to Wiegand and volunteer to paint and clean up the stores.

“I’m excited,” Harp said. “I went to a preview event and it seemed like a great idea. I’ll be able to do my yoga and come over here for some raw food. Sounds great.”

Trees will be set up along the sidewalk to provide shade, and the road will be reduced from two lanes to one in each direction to slow traffic, make room for bike lanes and promote a small, neighborhood atmosphere. There will be several musical performances, including Earth Rising and Recycled Percussion, that will teach kids how to make instruments out of recycled materials in one of the community classroom sessions.

Andrew Howard and Jason Roberts put on the first Better Block in Texas in part to stick a finger in the eye of city ordinance watchdogs, Howard said. They set up their block with the purpose of breaking as many “nonsensical” regulations as possible, such as prohibitions on awnings, flower boxes and sidewalk seating.

That first Better Block event took place in April 2010 in a Dallas neighborhood. Howard and Roberts invited city officials to the event to demonstrate how regulations were stifling small businesses and growth. Now, Howard, has quit his urban planning job to work on Better Block. Similar events have been staged in a dozen other cities, and many more are scheduled. Eventually, Howard and Roberts were hired by Dallas city officials to re-create the original project elsewhere. Some of the stores set up during the projects, including a children’s art studio in Dallas, have become permanent, Howard said.

“A big part of the idea was reducing hurdles to small-business development,” said Howard, 36. “It was like a short-term innovation zone where people had the ability to test out a business. The No. 1 thing with regulations is that it comes down somewhat to common sense. A lot of laws are old, and people aren’t even sure why we have them. Some laws work well in some areas but not for others. A lot of times it’s not that bureaucrats don’t want to change, it’s that they don’t understand that they are inhibiting growth.”

The Build a Greener Block crew is working with the city and obtaining all of the necessary permits. However, Wiegand said the group hoped the process of putting on this first event would illuminate some of the more antiquated or unnecessary regulations on the books. For example, because the fenced-off public lot was once open to vehicles, it’s designated as a public right of way. Thus, Brandon had to come up with a traffic control plan for a space that is currently surrounded by a tall, black metal fence and concrete barriers that would prevent any traffic from approaching.

The organization also had to pay a $15 fee for each parking meter inside the event area. That’s $5 more than the city would make if the meter were in use for every minute of the entire day.

“I love the city,” said Wiegand, who grew up in Las Vegas, “but some things need to be changed to make these types of projects easier.”

Wiegand said he was fronting most of the money for the project and hopes to recoup the expenses for the nonprofit event through fundraising on indiegogo.com. The goal is $6,500, 75 percent of which will go to permits and other city fees. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than $4,800 had been raised.

After the event, the group plans to set up a website to collect ideas for what people would like to see in their neighborhoods and to look for a different Las Vegas block to set up something more permanent.

“People keep asking me when the next one will be,” Wiegand said. “I want to be involved, but what I really want is for people to take this and run with it, to add their own twist like we did with the Dallas one. I hope this inspires people to take action.”

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