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October 21, 2017

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Joe Downtown: Developer might act on need for mid-priced apartments downtown

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From left, Rich Worthington, president and CEO of the Molasky Group of Companies, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and Irwin Molasky, chairman of the Molasky Group, are shown at an event to introduce a bike-share program, Sept. 21, 2012.

With downtown Las Vegas about to see an influx of 1,300 Zappos employees in a few months, a major local developer is considering construction of a large, mid-priced residential apartment building a few blocks off Fremont Street.

Addressing a gathering of a few hundred businesspeople and local officials Monday night, Rich Worthington, Molasky Group of Cos. president and chief operating officer, talked briefly about the need for “workforce housing” downtown.

He was one of five panelists in a forum called “The Resurgence of Downtown Las Vegas & Fremont Street East” at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Symphony Park.

“We have a lot of high-end units and lower-end units downtown, but a dearth of moderately priced housing geared toward the new workers,” Worthington said.

Molasky has previously built two-story buildings of about 24 units per acre, he noted; this building would be between 170 and 190 units, averaging about 70 units to the acre with a parking garage.

He identified the potential building site in an area used as surface parking by the California hotel/casino northwest of the intersection of Casino Center Boulevard and Stewart Avenue. That would make it a short walk for an employee of Zappos, which is moving into the former City Hall a few hundred yards east on Stewart.

“We think it’s feasible and we think it’s really needed,” Worthington added.

Though he projected an artist’s sketch of what the building might look like, he said afterward that “if” the project happens, it will take “a long time” to take it from sketch to reality.

Sponsored by Bank of Nevada, the panelists included Seth Schorr, CEO of Fifth Street Gaming; Jeff Victor, Fremont Street Experience president/general manager; Bill Arent, Las Vegas economic and urban development director; and Jeanne Markel, downtown team director for Zappos.

Arent spoke at length about what he called “iconic” downtown buildings such as the Smith Center and the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. He talked of the city’s “ambitions” for the construction of more than a million square feet of office and retail space near the 1-year-old, $185 million City Hall. Forest City Enterprises built City Hall and has said it intends to develop the blocks to the south of the building.

That hasn’t happened. So Arent put the city’s hopes in terms of both present and future tense: “City Hall kick-started the (development) that Forest City envisions.”

He added that the city talked to an Austin, Texas, consultant and came away with the idea of a “regional digital media cluster” — a potpourri of e-commerce, software publishers and the like as a development base for the future.

In many ways, that’s already happening downtown.

City Hall’s construction opened the door for Zappos to move into the city’s old building, which has sparked a feverish redevelopment of a downtown zone several blocks east of the new City Hall.

Markel talked of the history of Zappos' move to lease the old City Hall and renovate it, a process expected to be completed soon, with employees moving in this fall. She paid homage to those who paved the way for downtown redevelopment, saying Zappos is “late to the dance … but we’re thrilled to be playing a small part of it.”

Some would argue that for now, Zappos is the engine pushing redevelopment forward.

Downtown Project, a redevelopment group whose investors include Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, has purchased dozens of acres over several blocks east of Las Vegas Boulevard with the aim to redevelop it with the community in mind – both the community of Zappos employees and downtown Las Vegas as a whole.

Markel touched on pieces being put into place or there already, such as a speaker series, Project 100 — an ambitious multimodal transportation plan — and many other projects. Answering a question from the audience, she also noted there is even talk — she stressed it is only talk for now — of a grocery store potentially moving downtown.

“I know of a potential spot and some folks having conversations,” she said, adding that a downtown without a grocer is “a pain point for folks who live downtown already.”

Victor seconded that, saying he lives in the Ogden high-rise at Ogden Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard: “A grocery store would be a lovely addition.”

As head of the Fremont Street Experience, Victor talked up the new Slotzilla zip line that will be operational soon. He projected a computerized video that roughly demonstrated what it will be like to shoot out of the uppermost lines of the towering structure at 35 mph, flying the prone rider from one end of the Experience to the other.

“We tested it in a farmer’s field in Utah and I can tell you, it’s a really good time,” he said.

Near the end of the forum, someone asked whether it makes any sense for the Las Vegas 51s, a minor-league team that plays in downtown’s Cashman Field, to consider moving far west to Summerlin, especially now that downtown is coming alive.

Arent was diplomatic in his answer.

“We’d like to have baseball downtown but first and foremost we’d like to keep it in the community,” he said of the team.

He looked around the room full of people inside the Smith Center, which didn’t exist two years ago. If the team moves to Summerlin, he added, “think of Cashman Field as our next Symphony Park.”

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