Wednesday, March 7, 2012 | 3:10 p.m.
Beyond the Sun
Symphony Park/downtown site map
Like hungry diners, the Las Vegas City Council seemed to be banging their utensils on the table today.
Several told Chef Charlie Palmer they’re impatient for him to begin work on the boutique luxury hotel/restaurant he’s planning to build at downtown’s Symphony Park.
But, even when pressed for a date, Palmer’s business associate, Richard Kaufman, told the council they don’t have a firm plan for getting started yet on the 371-room project. It would be just to the north of the new Smith Center for the Performing Arts, across from the central park area.
However, when the financing ingredients are right, they’re hoping to serve up the project in courses, with the first phase including between 50 to 100 rooms and Palmer’s signature restaurant, Kaufman said.
“No one wants to start it sooner than we do,” Kaufman said. He said they were trying to find the right recipe of room rates and low construction costs that would get the project going.
After several minutes of discussion, the council accepted the report. The Palmer group's agreement with the city gives it at least two years of trying to work out the financing on the project. They’ve paid the city $489,000 to be able to keep their hold on the property.
“No disrespect, but I don’t want a prospective lot holder to just sit on dirt for years to come, thinking they’re going to flip to make a dime,” said Councilman Steve Ross. “We want some progress. We want some great projects. The Charlie Palmer is a great project. And I understand the economics of it — macro, micro, get it. ... I don’t want us to allow the growth to slow down.”
Mayor Carolyn Goodman echoed that sentiment, telling the developers that "life is risk" and that "we would love to have you opening soon."
Part of downtown revitalization
The review of Palmer’s restaurant plan was significant in that it came up as the council was holding its first meeting in the new City Hall at 495 S. Main, part of a grand public-private revitalization effort for the downtown.
The council envisions bringing more jobs and revenue into city coffers with a five-block office retail complex just south of City Hall and, to the west, a mix of cultural, medical, residential and commercial projects in the 61-acre Symphony Park.
Council members told Kaufman and Palmer that the opening of the Smith Center and the new City Hall is generating more buzz about what’s coming next in Symphony Park.
Kaufman said one of the problems they’ve had in moving forward is they don’t know yet who all their neighbors might be — it could be an exciting professional basketball arena to the north or it might be a group of condominiums or apartments — and when they’re going to be there.
“That uncertainty is a piece of the puzzle,” Kaufman said. Until that solidifies, “I think applying a finite schedule to it would be bad for everyone,” Kaufman said.
The city has made agreements with various developers for projects in the park. But those developers have also put their projects on hold, waiting for the economy to improve before moving forward. Plans include several residential projects, street-level retail shops, a major hotel and casino. The city has also entered into an agreement for the Cordish Companies to drum up interest for sports arena project and entertainment district on the project’s north side.
But the main activity has been along the south side of Symphony Park, starting with the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center, followed by The Smith Center, which is opening this weekend, and the Children’s Discovery Museum, which is expected to be open in November.
Concern about projects locked in
Ross asked Bill Arent, the city’s development director, what locks the Palmer project into Parcel G in Symphony Park. Arent said the city has a development agreement with Palmer, which in 2010, gave them a four-year window to try to make the project happen.
“What I want to know is, whether it’s Charlie Palmer or anybody else, with any parcel at Symphony Park, what holds them, what locks them into that dirt?” Ross said. “Because if Charlie Palmer’s not ready to do something and somebody else is, and they’ve got the cash to do it and they see the momentum of downtown occurring today before our eyes, what’s stopping us from having them step out of Parcel G?”
Arent said it was the mutual agreement between the city and the developer to try to make it work through 2014. Arent said while they haven’t started construction, they have spent a lot of money on pre-development.
Ross said he understood that, but “anybody who is sitting on those parcels — they’re doing nothing. Where we, as a city, are very progressive, very pro-active in watching the vision and the heart of downtown move.”
Councilman Bob Coffin told Kaufman that in listening to his report about the financing and the status of bank loans and room rates in the luxury hotel market, “I worried it all sounded like you wanted to get out of the project.”
Coffin urged the developers to at least put in a restaurant.
Kaufman said they had an opportunity a year ago to put in a restaurant somewhere else in Las Vegas, but decided not to. Instead, they committed more money and decided to try to do something on the site, which is why they are now looking at a phased project.
“The whole project today is absolutely not viable,” Kaufman said. “What might be viable is a phased project. That’s why we’re spending resources to see if it works.”
“We want to do something there that’s right and that makes sense, not just economically, but that’s rewarding for everyone,” he said.
He said they’ve specifically chosen not to go buy an existing hotel and restaurant somewhere else in Las Vegas, but to wait to try to make it work in Symphony Park.
“I sympathize with anyone who says ‘hurry, hurry,’ Kaufman said. “No one wants to hurry more than we do. But our strong desire to go quickly are also tempered by our strong desire to do it right.”