Monday, Aug. 27, 2007 | 7:10 a.m.
Sam Cherry flips a switch and the shades covering every window in the penthouse of his pet project, SoHo Lofts, slip mechanically into the wall and are gone.
Cherry walks to the balcony, squints into the sunlight and smiles. He points to a plot of land two blocks away - that's the home of this 29-year-old's next Vegas high-rise venture.
From 20 floors up, the view is money. Millions.
From Las Vegas Boulevard and Hoover Avenue, the view is a crazed woman riding a bike past a pair of homeless men leaning head first into their shopping carts, clustered in a dirt lot where a construction worker has fallen asleep in his truck, foot dangling out the driver 's -side door.
Welcome to the Wild West gone vertical, where condo cowboys with capped teeth and slick suits rope members of the wealthy herd into betting on a neighborhood turning from dilapidated to desirable. Chic, even.
When Cherry was walking the downtown streets four years ago, shopping for a parcel to build SoHo on , he was solicited by a prostitute.
He shrugged it off then. He laughs it off now. One grubby native's not going to sour The Vision, the giddy, money-drenched movement to redevelop downtown's downtrodden skeleton.
For Cherry and others determined to polish and present a new Vegas, the change can't happen soon enough. But it won't happen overnight , either.
Until then, it's a tale of two cities - the imagined and the actual, the penthouse and street-level views of downtown, slowly melding into one.
A young, blond Metro cop is holding a flashlight to the eyelid of a handcuffed man, watching the thin skin twitch - an indication, the officer says, that he's high.
This awkward intimacy, one man leaning inches from another's face, is the conclusion of a call for police help from the manager of the Strip Hotel on Utah Avenue, who wants the twitching man removed from his property.
But when the cops arrive, the man bolts into a dark alley. He's caught and cuffed. He's carrying a lighter and release papers from the Clark County Detention Center. The young blond officer, now writing up the arrest report, looks at the man and pauses.
"Hey," the officer says, "Didn't I Tase you?"
The man, leaning against the hood of a police car, looks closely at the cop. Yes, he says, you did. A few months ago. Right outside this hotel.
Cops who work downtown must straddle the changing landscape. They deal with tourists who come to ogle Fremont Street and contend with street hustlers who prey on those tourists. All the while they are mindful of the people who work downtown and the affluent condo owners who have slowly moved in during the past few years.
Police are busy every night in downtown streets that have sagged into disrepair.
Sgt. Jerry McDonald bounces from scene to scene on the night shift. A naked woman running loose. A man pistol-whipped and robbed. A bar fight lo ser bleeding from his shaved head.
An armed man who runs from police right into a Mexican restaurant, where he sits down, grabs a menu and pretends, panting, that he's a customer. Until he's collared.
"This is what you get down here," McDonald says . "It's a slow night."
In the past two weeks police patrolling the downtown area have responded to 88 assaults and batteries, 49 narcotics citations, 36 burglaries, 35 robberies, 30 fights and 510 "other disturbances," according to Metro records.
The crime downtown is scattered, Capt. Will Minor says. Patterns are seldom discernible. Problem populations are always coming and going, committing crimes of opportunity.
To clean up downtown for new development, police have launched proactive policing initiatives, Minor says. Cops are training businesses to protect themselves, running crime stats to identify problem areas, teaching residents to serve as their eyes on the street. Metro officers even studied high-rise neighborhoods with police in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Then there's crime prevention through urban design. As lights turn on downtown, as blight is obliterated by development, streets seem safer.
Almost like a fungus, Minor says, criminals need "darkness and moisture to grow."
Owners of residential hotels downtown now sign contracts agreeing to operate lawfully and regulate their tenants. If the businesses don't play ball, police - with the blessing of city government - start writing citations. They'll monitor the hotels until, perhaps, they're all gone.
That's another part of the redevelopment vision, building big on land that becomes too valuable for the rundown apartments and idle industrial businesses.
There are 45 residential-commercial projects - mostly high - rises - proposed, approved or under construction in downtown Las Vegas. Within the next five to 10 years, city planners expect 15,500 residential units to become available. That's almost one new unit for every two of the estimated 33,000 people who were living in the downtown redevelopment area last year.
Its become de rigueur for developers to practically sell out their high - rises before the buildings are finished, sometimes before ground is broken. SoHo Lofts, the first project to break ground downtown, quickly collected cash deposits on almost all of the building's 120 units.
Next door, Newport Lofts is more than 70 percent sold and not totally finished, though buyers have already started moving in. Juhl has already sold 70 percent of its 341 units. Streamline Tower has sold 60 percent of it s 275 residences, which low-end for more than $400,000.
So who's buying? Depends on whom you ask.
Newport Lofts developer Clark Seegmiller is targeting wealthy Southern Californians. People who can afford second homes. Or the children of people who can afford homes for them.
From Newport's rooftop, Seegmiller looks at the land below and sings a familiar siren song: the promises of downtown prosperity. The Vision.
"You just see a shack on it," he says, pointing to a dusty lot of dwarfed homes. "I can see past all that. I can see what's coming."
Juhl developer Rich Gustafson recalls shuffling homeless people out of the way so he could start projects in San Diego.
"When people are investing their home dollars down there, crime as well as homelessness disperses," he said. "They know they're being watched by people in their condos."
Gustafson wants to sell Juhl homes to Nevadans who will live there full time. He wants a "lights-on building."
Everybody does, Cherry says. It's just that the California condo-buying set is so hard to refuse.
"Right now we don't have that critical mass," he says. "You need people living down here with a vested interest."
At Streamline Tower, investors are buying units as second homes, with plans to make them primary residences once downtown has revitalized to their comfort level, developer Dusty Allen said.
"It's already turning," he says. "You can't pour that much money into downtown and expect it not to turn."
Land in the area typically sells for $6 million to $10 million an acre.
Cherry's making plans to open a luxury car dealership in SoHo's first-floor retail space. Seegmiller, for his part, wants his building to have a "really, really fancy Starbucks."
Walter Veltroni, the mayor of Rome, and Oscar Goodman, the mayor of Las Vegas, are looking out a window in Veltroni's office.
Goodman recalls the conversation:
"There is the Palatine," Veltroni says. "There is the Forum, where the great debates took place. And there, there is where Julius Ceasar would speak to the people." Goodman replies, "Mayor, you come to my office, and I'll show you U.S. 95."
Goodman sees the story as a lesson: Rome wasn't built in a day; downtown Las Vegas won't be either.
"The day I was elected (in 1999), even though I wore the same eyeglasses I had on before, I saw everything differently," Goodman says. "I saw that downtown was seedy. I saw that it had the first signs of blight and I said to myself, 'As the mayor of Las Vegas, I'm going to do everything in my power to make downtown gleam and glisten.' "
It started with the 61 acres that used to be Union Pacific rail yards. The city paid $2 million and traded 99 acres for the land in 2001. Now the acreage, known as Union Park, is one of the most ambitious downtown redevelopment efforts. It's home to the World Market Center and future home to the 54-story World Jewelry Center (Goodman calls it "Dubaiesque"), the $250 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts and the mayor's prize, the Frank Gehry-designed Lou Ruvo Brain Institute.
When the Ruvo building is finished in 2009, it will explode over downtown, Goodman says. Land costs will double or triple. People will come from all over to gawk at the building's undulating metal facade. Then maybe they'll want to move here.
"This is the beginning of the renaissance," Goodman says. "We have phenomenally wealthy people who have invested in our downtown. These are serious players. This is not some guy taking a flier."
Still, the Mayor concedes, we're not there yet. Not totally. He'd like to run the homeless out, he says. Same for the crumbling hotels and the perception that downtown isn't safe. He'd like for more lights to be on in more high-rise condos.
When the lights are on, Goodman says, cockroaches scatter.
He doesn't mean bugs.
Sardines and crill. That's what Chris Shelton feeds his sharks.
The 24-year-old developer (and former contestant on Donald Trump's "The Apprentice") has a shark tank in his concrete and steel SoHo penthouse.
Cherry convinced him to buy the place for $1.5 million three years ago. At first, Shelton thought Cherry was nuts. Then he saw The Vision.
"Within five years, you'll see a drastic change," he said. "Ten years from now, it will be a mini-Manhattan."
An international investor recently approached Shelton to purchase the property. Shelton had the penthouse appraised at $4.7 million. Now it's in escrow. He's selling it fully furnished, but he's taking the sharks.