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July 15, 2019

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2011 Forecast: Urban Planning:

Recession could be opportunity to reshape, improve communities

Urban Planning

Steve Marcus

The Crystal Ridge development carved terraces into the mountain for custom home sites in Henderson, but developers stopped the project when the housing market collapsed.


Architect Robert Fielden poses in Henderson December 9, 2010. In the background, the Crystal Ridge development carved terraces into the mountain for custom home sites. Launch slideshow »

Quite a mess we made of this beautiful valley. Half-finished projects that are concrete and steel corpses of fantasy economics. Subdivisions that appear out of nowhere, desert Leavittowns that manage to be both incredibly dense and totally car-dependent. Empty condo towers. Schools that resemble prisons. Half-empty strip malls. Seas of parking lots.

Conventional wisdom would tell us we made this mess, so now we have to live in it.

But it isn’t so. It won’t be easy, but architects, urban planners and sociologists say we can use this recession, and the pause in new construction, to begin reshaping the valley to make it more functional, visually interesting, environmentally responsible and hospitable to community.

We are what we are in large part because the boom times had distorting effects on the behavior of the entire community — elected officials obeisant to developers, developers who built at maximum density with minimum amenities, homeowners more interested in flipping than living.

“This is what we got for not doing what we should have done,” says Robert Fielden, an architect who’s been here since the mid-1960s.

Now, though, our panel of experts point out, we can put policies in place to begin repairing the damage and laying the foundation for a healthier building pattern — and with it, a healthier community — if and when the city ever grows again.

“What better time to search for creative answers, while we have the moment, and the need, and actually try them?” said Reed Kroloff, an architect who is director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and the former editor-in-chief of Architecture Magazine.

Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani is thinking along these lines, having assembled an informal group of architects and engineers to explore how the county can put the right policies in place, before it’s too late again.

Longtime Las Vegas architect Eric Strain says, “This is a period to question, not to dwell on our economic glory days, and one that enables us a brief pause to reshape this community into a place we are not just proud of, but a place we want to call home.”

Below, suggestions from a panel of experts.

There’s a way to coexist with our desert surroundings. What we’ve done ain’t it.

“Stop building Tuscan homes,” says Robert Lang, a UNLV sociologist and director of Brookings Mountain West. Why do they build Tuscany-style homes in Southern California? Because it’s a Mediterranean region in climate and topography. We live in the desert.

“Do green the way people did before air conditioning. We don’t have a strong tradition of environmentally sensitive homes. We have to establish that tradition,” Lang says.

“Materials should reflect the permanence of place and form and have the ability to weather,” Strain says.

Our guides: the midcentury modern architecture that proliferates in new forms in Palm Springs, Calif., as well as the desert building of North Scottsdale, Ariz.

The same goes for landscaping, the experts say. Drought-resistant plants and shrubs that shield the ground? Yes. Palm trees? Sorry, they really don’t belong here.

More controversially, the planners and architects, Fielden especially, say it’s time to stop blasting into the desert. He favors a plan similar to the growth boundary proposed by then-state Sen. Dina Titus in 1997 known as the “ring around the valley.”

As longtime Las Vegas architect Jeff Dacks points out, these proposals are about more than just making ourselves feel good. It’s a matter of survival, as water supplies dwindle. “Water conservation and management are of the utmost concern,” he says.

The rest of the country moved beyond passé suburbanism right when we embraced it.

We’ve employed ruthless segregation of uses — we don’t work where we live or live where we shop. New urbanism — mixed-use development that encourages walking and street life — has swept the rest of the country, including some Sun Belt cities. If rising real estate values among these mixed-use developments are a guide, people, at least some people anyway, want to live this way. By the time Las Vegas discovered this development pattern and began to run with it, it was too late, as the recession killed a number of promising projects.

Instead, we wound up with incredibly dense subdevelopments that are also unwalkable. Neat trick.

The easiest remedy is to focus on downtown Las Vegas, which is our best, most easily attainable shot at urbanism. Fielden suggests moving a graduate school there.

Another place of potential focus: UNLV, where many hope Maryland Parkway can be made into something like the university district in Tempe, Ariz.

Let’s have a contest.

The High Line in New York City was a freight rail line on Manhattan’s West Side that hadn’t had rail traffic in more than 20 years. Then Kroloff served as an adviser to a contest that challenged participants to design potential uses of the elevated rail line that sits upon a trestle. It’s now one of the most celebrated parks in the city.

Kroloff and David Baird, UNLV architecture department chairman, say Las Vegas should embrace this model, which would produce good ideas and bring the community together around a common project.

One potential contest: How do we link together our mishmash development?

As Strain says, “Developments should coexist with each other — not be separate areas of life, but link and join.” Another potential contest: What to do with our empty strip malls in the inner suburban ring. The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art can serve as a model with it’s “Flip a Strip” contest.

That empty house could be a corner store.

Justin Hollander, an urban planning professor at Tufts University, is an expert in depopulated neighborhoods and how to make them good living spaces. If we changed our zoning laws, we could put our many foreclosed homes to different uses.

Perhaps some of those suburban developments would want to turn one of their empty homes into a corner store. In general, our panel says our zoning laws need to be more flexible to allow for more uses of property, such as live-work spaces, at least within reason. Also, on the zoning front: Enough with the walls.

“Why are our children being educated in closets?”

That’s what Strain asks, referring to the deficit of natural light in our schools. More generally, he wants UNLV, the Clark County School District and other public agencies to lead by example and point toward a more imaginative architecture, design and landscaping. “One shouldn’t have to ask why a police headquarters looks like a suburban office building in our downtown,” Strain says.

With our public agencies taking the lead, Strain hopes for a change in attitude, a new way of seeing. “We place value on the clothes we wear, the cars we drive … but we settle for whatever we are provided in the built environment,” he says. We need to judge and value the places where we live, work and play, and not tolerate the dull, the dehumanizing, he says.

Encourage street life.

Kathy Perkins, who is a crime prevention specialist for Metro Police, says she grew concerned during the building boom as developments went in without streetlights or usable parks with lights, seating or restrooms. Meanwhile, living spaces were often bunched at the backs of the houses.

Wide streets without sidewalks were meant for cars, which meant kids weren’t playing outside, which meant their parents weren’t socializing. Guess what: When there are fewer eyes and feet on the street, and when neighbors don’t know each other, neighborhoods are more dangerous.

It’s all connected.

This is a point made by Baird again and again. If we don’t do anything about education, health care, transportation, crime and poverty, it will be impossible to lure people downtown or into our inner-ring suburbs. Quite simply, if the schools in those areas aren’t improved, the flight will continue apace.

We’re all in this together.

Baird wants to see a community dialogue on these issues, one that would get people invested in the community and its future.

Fielden suggests a potential avenue: Neighborhood council boards for, by his count, the 600 to 700 neighborhoods in the valley. (This would not be the same as homeowners associations, which are quasi-private bodies that have caused, in many cases, significant headaches for homeowners.)

These entities would get people invested and train them for potential public service.

Developers should be forced to at least present plans to these boards before moving ahead. Los Angeles, a city also known for its lack of community and incoherent development, has instituted a neighborhood council system like this in recent years, and it’s been quite successful.

“Expect people to be part of their destiny,” Fielden says. “If you expect them to, they will. I believe in humankind,” Fielden says.

CORRECTION: This story originally identified Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani as the incoming chairwoman of the commission, but the commission decided Jan. 3 that Susan Brager would serve as chairwoman. | (January 3, 2011)

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