The New Urbanism Movement and the Downtown Las Vegas Grand

In this first part of a two-part column, CEM contributor David Paster explores how the new Downtown Las Vegas Grand property fits into the New Urbanism movement.

In 1920, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret adopted the uni-titular pseudonym “Le Corbusier,” reflecting his belief that anyone could reinvent himself. His pivotal, utopian ideal work, “La Ville Radieuse” (“The Radiant City”), was one of a handful of Le Corbusier’s urban planning constructs that assisted with establishing the foundation of what is now recognized as the New Urbanism movement.

The most effective New Urbanism expressions are designed and created to comprise multiple elements of traditional, historic and idealized cityliving experiences.The designated locale must be foot-friendly for a smart-growth, viable, live-work-play atmosphere.

Actively interacted with work and leisure pursuits, coupled by “behind the curtain” spaces, are intended to be operative, sustainably participant-encompassing, action-compelling, invitingly approachable and minimally temporally constrained. New Urbanism-based places must maintain an externally focused positioning and integrate with the greater host environment. Inhabitant experiential consistency and continuity with a type of “inside/outside” blending are key. Finally, the use of authentic or even fictionalized narrative, backstory, or accounting aids in the understanding of the user of the New Urbanism experience.

Disney and the Grand
With New Urbanism, there should be both explicit and implicit movement pathways that summon exploration, a means to allow a space’s visitors to proverbially chase the rabbit and follow it down a mysterious hole. The inclusion of philosophical and practical investigative trails have been promoted to nearly an art form by the proven hospitality expert “imagineers” of Disney (think “hidden Mickeys” furtively located throughout Disney-branded amusement parks and cruise ships and the walking and biking trails of Celebration, a master-planned community in Osceola, Fla.).

As designated by the Urban Land Institute as the “New Community of the Year” in 2001, Celebration shares some meritorious traits with The Grand. Most apparent is the near-ubiquitous presence of partially retro-oriented, urbanism theming re-enforced with the use of an “architecture of reassurance” (e.g., forced visual perspective and manipulation of guest movement by constructive design) and continuous presentation of behavioral economic theory-centered choice-framing opportunities.

Juxtaposing Private and Public Spaces
While not quite pursuing through design technique as lofty as a goal as Le Corbusier’s utopic vision of social reform or internalizing Disney’s near-obsession with theme and place-based facsimile, The Grand definitively incorporates tenets of contemporary, post-modern urban planning principles and practice.

The industrial chic property is owned by CIM Group, and Fifth Street Gaming manages the gaming space while DTG Las Vegas Manager is the operator of the hotel and restaurant operations.

In contrast with historic insularism-founded paradigms, The Grand is attempting to integrate with its host environment of downtown Las Vegas. For example, there is asynergistic association with the Mob Museum and other downtown features, including the Third Street cornucopia of food and beverage options (many of which are owned by Fifth Street Gaming and its sister company, the LEV Restaurant Group) and the Fremont Street Experience.

The Grand is trying to transition from traditional casino gaming hospitality’s inward-looking, patron capture place-agnostic architecture (e.g., Atlantic City-style casinos that initially ignored the former primary draw to America’s Playground of the just-outside-the-mirrored-doorways seafront or primarily generic shed casino properties) to providing a de facto town square with its urban rooftop pool retreat space known as Picnic. This seasonally open ode to green space with an infinity pool, picnic food via food and beverage outlets and multipurpose entertainment space is relatively radical.

Promoting a nontraditional, neo-public space to be utilized not just by guests but also by the community at large may prove to offer some benefits, but also may present unexpected challenges for the ownership and management. When all of the hyperbole is complete and the superlatives end, The Grand property is, at its core, still a casino-hotel complex. Yet, despite other compelling rationales for The Grand’s raison d’etre, it may be posited that the so-far successful conversion of a sort of urban “brownfield spot” is noteworthy purely for the attempt to juxtaposition private and public space.

To be precise, The Grand, as it exists, is a classically capitalistic, for-profit, gaming-centered entertainment enterprise, which was not organically brought to fruition with input as a communal locale by all relevant stakeholders within the downtown municipality or even the greater SMSA of Las Vegas, Nev. Rather, the re-invigoration of the shell of the former Lady Luck Hotel and Casino was, and, as kinks continue to be worked out, is quite a feat.

As with most business trials, durational presence is fated to be tested by the economic reality of dynamic inconsistency. Will the controlled environment creation of yesterday and today hold relevance during immediate and future tomorrows? Is feature creep, the natural nemesis to best-laid plans, an eventuality, due to committed growth (e.g., extensive planned retail space being built atop a former public transportation hub)? With the entity’s singular nature, is there an inability to maximize and/or leverage economies of scale and scope? Is true innovation being embraced by The Grand’s operational cooperative, or is what is being touted as revolutionary actually more evolutionary (i.e., emulating the trends of the various facility materializations of existing, or even in process, like commercial hospitality venues)? Are the nominal novelties (e.g., outside, on-street gaming; walk-up opportunities such as for sports betting, Hawaiian-style shaved ice and pizza slices to go) more variances or replications of already existing aspects of recognized properties’ elements that claim provenance over a high-hip quotient market?

With the afore queries in mind, an equitable question that might be posed is whether The Grand is genuinely and comprehensively unique or is it, if personified, rather attempting to be, in its present state, a sort of Cosmopolitan-light, contemporarily sans the auxiliary and ancillary revenue stream sources (e.g., night clubs, retail, entertainment).

Further, it does not have the immediate proximity benefits of a Strip location or even an on Fremont Street (east or west) address. Although only a block or two away, the Gold Spike, the California and Main Street Station all have been adversely affected by their locations. While The Grand’s owned section of Third Street has some real potential, the urban desert/dead spot between Ogden and Fremont streets along the continuation of Third street and connecting to the primary downtown traffic artery of the Fremont Street Experience is an obstacle that needs to be overcome expeditiously, possibly with the help of some cooperative urban planning-style efforts between the City of Las Vegas and The Grand.

A First Mover in Downtown, but Not in Las Vegas
As with the microscopic (in comparison) facility of The Grand, other major gaming hospitality companies are laying down money and taking their respective chances that the consumer market will adapt to the breaking down of walls to marry inside and outside experiential environments. Clearly, in simple monetary terms, the barriers to entry were significantly lower for The Grand, due to being located downtown rather than on the Strip; subsequently, their position as a downtown first mover of environmental incorporation has been solidified.

Still, Las Vegas-wide, similar New Urbanism milieus are on the drawing board and under construction, staking locations on both sides of the southend of the Strip. Caesars Entertainment’s Linq project and undoubtedly MGM Resorts International’s New York New York and Monte Carlo synthesizing urban experiential corridor/piazza known as Park with, according to the official MGM blog, “(areas) between the two properties and leading back to the company’s new arena will be a park environment featuring dining pavilions and performance spaces complemented by areas for quiet relaxation,” are nods to New Urbanism.

Adaption to and Adoption of the Environment
Peter Morton, founder and owner during the glory years of the Las Vegas Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, occasionally shared with employees a few business words of wisdom that reflected his core beliefs concerning the operating philosophy of his casino. As reputation cannot be artificially manufactured and is overwhelmingly perception-dominated, Morton offered these bon mots: “You can’t buy cool.” Rather, it is necessary for a casino gaming hospitality property to maintain, in vintage HRH and Casino parlance, a vibe. This culturally, internally authentic sense of self and external, patron perception vibe cannot be contrived, but most organically develop. It seems that The Grand desires to maintain a vibe, but it is still in the aspirational stage.

It is difficult to nearly impossible to plan and design for all eventual, actual demonstrated preferences of guests. As with most new properties, moderate to extensive retooling may need to occur at The Grand to marry the patron wants and needs and their respective provisions.
Recognizing these actual limitations, The Grand possesses some elements in its favor and will encounter problems that have not been discovered. Still, lessons can be learned from the operations of immediate downtown neighbors.

Not the Only New Kid on the Block
There is the oft-repeated downtown cliché of The Grand’s opening as the sole phoenix rising from the ashes. This portrayal is faulty as The D, Golden Gate, the Plaza, the Golden Nugget and the El Cortez also have undertaken relatively recent property rejuvenations or reinventions. All of this redevelopment is complemented by extensive nongaming urban space creation led by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. The Downtown Project includes the innovative container park and de facto Zappos club house created within the walls of the former Gold Spike. Plus, the whole East Fremont Street restaurant, coffee house, bar and nightclub scene is a direct result of private entrepreneurial spirit. In other words, The Grand did not arise from the shambles of the former Lady Luck in a market vacuum. Rather, there are many ingredients in the competitive brew that will help nourish or potentially starve the newcomer.

Some of the afore-named properties have made an internally clean break with their pasts while others seem to hang in transitional limbo between “old” and “new” Las Vegas. Lessons may be learned from both the relative successes and failures of de facto competitors, mostly in terms of providing a superior service product leading to a better overall hospitality experience. Cable television personality Andrew Zimmern simply stated, “the hospitality business is all about taking care of people’s happiness, being responsible for it while they are under your roof.” This definition is as good of a working understanding of the field of hospitality as any.

Nonfavorable Institutional Challenges to Avoid
Another property that went through a fundamental ownership/management change continues to make some mistakes, most revolving around interpreting fine lines between adherence to rules and regulations and providing quality customer service. While the sources of problems and perpetuators of said problems are not universal—this historic venue maintains some outstanding product features and many loyal, hardworking employees who deliver exemplary service—patron expectation gaps, many attributable to legacy remnants, are too plentiful and too easily observable not to take pause. Service fundamentals are being neglected and/or ignored, and a partial endemic culture of ill-fitting service impotency has arisen in the void of a systemic service-oriented organization.

This service impotence, mostly resulting from employee under-empowerment, reveals itself in the form of statements such as: “I just work here…I/we can’t do that…There is nobody here who can help you at this time, come back in the morning/when he or she is on duty…(worst of all) I don’t know (with an implied) I am not going to attempt to find out.” This inability to serve with grace or common sense for fear of not pleasing the management overrides the greater goal of ensuring customer satisfaction and leads to too many dysfunctional service encounters that can easily escalate to incivility spirals among employees and guests.

The harmful legacy remnants create undesirable expectation gaps in terms of what traditional gaming hospitality patrons would consider minimum standards of functionality and, more critically, marginally tolerable service levels. As a case in point, at more than one establishment, certain gaming activity assistance functions are only open during seemingly convenient hours for owners and management and not the guests.

One illustration of this business policy is that the player loyalty/slot club is closed from midnight to 8 a.m. Thus, if a patron wanted to activate 5X points, cash out points or participate with some other promotion during “dark” hours, this would be impossible. Intuitively, as gambling is an inherently non-logical activity and often occurs when driven by spontaneity (i.e., when a “lucky feeling” hits), one would imagine that a 24/7 facility should provide someone on property who can and will help serve the patron’s immediate time-sensitive needs. This gap in service-offering fulfillment could be as easily solved as having slot techs or cage employees cross-trained to facilitate the needs of players not only when convenient for the house, but rather, and more appropriately, at the whim of the player.

In brief, contemporary competitive intensity among all casinos demands that properties step up their respective service game. Key functions of an operation should not be compromised for the sake of curtailing the expense of a few full-time employees who may not be fully utilized. As nearly anyone with gaming hospitality field experience is cognizant, the 2:15 a.m. gambler might be the most valuable one who has shown action all day.

The good news is The Grand’s employees, when asked to perform various duties have provided some excellent service moments.

In part two of his column, David Paster examines the Downtown Grand Las Vegas Hotel and Casino’s early days of operations since opening in October.

Fast Facts
Downtown Grand Las Vegas

Property Owner: CIM Group
CEO: Seth Schorr, CEO, Fifth Street Gaming, operators of Downtown Grand
Location: Downtown Las Vegas on Third Street, between Stewart and Ogden avenues
Hotel rooms: 620 rooms and suites, ranging in size from 350 to 1,200 square feet, in two towers. Amenities include 42-inch flat-screen high-definition TVs, Serta Presidential pillow top mattresses and USB power outlets.
Casino: 30,000-square-foot casino with 600 slot machines and 30 table games. Gaming options also are provided on the Picnic rooftop retreat and outside the resort on pedestrian-friendly Third Street.
Food and Beverage: Offerings include Stewart+Ogden bistro; Red Mansion Chinese Restaurant, The Commissary, an upscale food court; a New York-style deli called The Spread; and The Ninth Island, a shave ice and daiquiri bar from Hawaii. Available seasonally will be Picnic, an urban rooftop retreat featuring an outdoor pool with a fire pit and cabanas, a full restaurant/bar and parklike landscaping. Bars include Furnace, the Mob Bar and Art Bar.