Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Downtown Watch: Thinking Inside the (Hot Metal) Box

I've made no secret of closely following Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's extremely ambitious plans to revitalize Downtown Las Vegas from a post-apocalyptic no-man's land into a vital, hip, artistic, and non-zombified neighborhood. Hsieh is a visionary who is probably the only person who can pull of the seemingly impossible task of turning an area that makes LA's famously derelict (though improving) downtown look more like Times Square in comparison into a livable and cool spot to work, socialize, and live.

Already, Hsieh has transformed Downtown by opening an indie coffee shop that's almost always filled with the coolest people in town, started plans to move his corporate headquarters to the area's abandoned City Hall, helped fund a beautiful new arts center that's brought an infusion of actual culture to the city, purchased the rights to and breathed fresh life into the monthly First Fridays art and music festival, moved himself and and many of his employees into a once failing condo complex that's transformed into a hub for the city's creative class. Hsieh doesn't just talk the Downtown talk, he walks the walk, as he's become a visible participant in the neighborhood's social life, as he is often spotted enjoying ballet at The Smith Center and throwing back drinks at The Downtown Cocktail Room.

But the latest part of Hsieh's masterplan has left me scratching my head a bit. The energetic and innovative CEO and his merry band of Downtown Project followers are moving forward on opening a group of businesses in old shipping containers.

That right's, Hsieh and his crew are super-cereal about opening a whole mess of bars, restaurants, boutiques, cafes, galleries, and other small businesses in those big, heavy ugly metal boxes (often referred to as "cans" by those in the know, or by those who have watched the second season of The Wire on Netflix) that are used to ship just about everything (including mail order brides) from port to port.

It's not a totally new concept. The idea has been given the buzzy-term "flexible urbanism," and has (to nobody's shock) already been adopted in places like Montreal, San Francisco, Portland and Brooklyn. Brookyln's Dekalb Market, with it's collection of boutique vintage shops, restaurants, and outdoor movie screenings, and San Francisco's Proxy Project, featuring a chill outdoor Beer garden, seem to be the models Hsieh is aiming to replicate... and surpass, as the Downtown Project website declares their goal of turning Las Vegas into "the shipping container capital of the world," a selling point that will probably not replace the city's famous "what happens here, stays here" slogan anytime soon.

The idea makes a certain crazy kind of sense, in a way. Hsieh is eager to get cool small businesses to move into spaces in Downtown ASAP, and one way to so in a quick and environmentally friendly fashion without waiting for entire new buildings to be built from scratch is to create shipping container structures in the many abandoned lots that are the most common feature in the area. It also means that a small business owner with a cool idea can score a space for very cheap and start interacting with the community without much overhead. Once building does begin in one of the lots, shipping container structures are also very easy to move as well if needed. The price and flexibility, Hsieh and company hope, will draw creative and innovative entrepreneurs looking to get their businesses started immediately, and then keep them in the area for good as more permanent structures are built.

Hsieh and his team envision the project opening as soon as possible, as plans have already been submitted to build a park of containers stacked on elevated platforms over two empty lots, one on Fremont Street owned by a company with ties to The El Cortez and one on 7th Street owned by a company with ties to The Downtown Project.

While the plan does sound nice and intriguing, with irresistible elements of Hsieh's utopian-enthusiasm, the fact remains that we're still talking about giant metal boxes here. Giant metal boxes that will be sitting out in the Las Vegas heat, in the middle of a dessert where temperatures in the summer often spike into the 120s. I'm sure these converted containers will be ventalated and feature some kind of air conditioning system, but that does not change the fact that they are, in the end, giant metal boxes. And while some of the converted container projects I've seen have been creatively designed, they're not exactly going to be Frank Gehry level works of architectural genius that will inspire people into believing that Downtown has been completely turned around into a progressive haven. The boxes can be pieced together like Tetris blocks, cut open on sides, retrofitted with windows and doors, and repainted, but there will still be drawbacks to the fact that they're narrow metal boxes that afford customers little in the way of leg room. Then there's also the fact that, as one commenter on The Las Vegas Review Journal's recent piece on the proposal pointed out that the designers should "put graffiti on" the renderings of the project so the public has a "real idea" of what the proposed project will look like (and then there's the commenter who somehow used the proposal as proof that we can't compete with China, then somehow tied it all in to blaming Obama, even though I'm pretty sure the President has nothing to do with the Downtown revival plans. Ah, internet comment threads.). Critics of the plan also warn that visitors may be intimidated by the area's prominent population of panhandlers, as well as the less than optimal parking options nearby.

While these are all valid fears, Hsieh has proven time and again to be an innovative thinker who has been right more often than not even when his positive thinking initially borders on crazy talk. Hsieh has pulled off the impossible before and seems eager to invest his own personal wealth into improving the area, so you might just find yourself enjoying artisinal Ice Creams and craft Brews served out of locked together shipping containers in Downtown Vegas sooner than later. And as long as Hsieh and company figure out a way to keep those damned metal boxes cool in the summer, I'll be hanging out there as well, snickering at references to The Wire with my friends.

No comments:

Post a Comment