Las Vegas embraces high-density, mixed-use development


The future of urban life in Las Vegas could be in place, not out: think of a mid-rise apartment building with retail stores on the ground floor and houses above.

Known as “mixed-use” development, combining residential and commercial elements into a single project is common practice in many major US cities, but is largely not found in the vast Las Vegas Valley, where residential construction has mainly focused on the exterior. growth.

However, the city has begun to embrace the concept as it seeks more vibrant, compact, walkable neighborhoods with access to shopping, public transportation, and other amenities. The direction, which officials hope to advance over the next 30 years, comes against the backdrop of three pressing issues.

As the availability of land in urban cores is rare, vertical construction appears increasingly necessary for expansion. The state’s affordable housing crisis is the worst in the nation, presenting serious problems for residents and threatening to exacerbate the city’s main homelessness problem. And the region’s population is expected to continue to explode.

There are 300,000 more people expected to arrive in the city over the next three decades, city officials said.

“So that’s going to require us to think about Las Vegas differently,” said Councilman Brian Knudsen, who publicly advocated higher density in the region as a way to address the challenges.

Guided by the master plan

In some areas of the city, officials have already enacted land use regulations to set the stage for the transformation they want to see in Las Vegas, as outlined in the 2050 Master Plan, which the City Council passed. last year to accommodate growth.

According to the plan, nearly 3,600 acres could be rezoned for some of the city’s higher-density, mixed-use purposes, represented by land categories such as “Mixed-Use Center” and “Mixed-Use Neighborhood Center.” “.

The expected result is increased density and taller buildings along major corridors, bringing the potential for projects as high as seven stories to areas where residents have grown accustomed to seeing vacant lots or single-story shopping malls.

The emphasis on building from the bottom up was underscored during masterplan discussions in February 2020, when councilor Michele Fiore called a new one-story Starbucks downtown a “total waste of space” for a property. prime real estate.

Downtown also offered one of the few mixed-use development models that Knudsen was able to highlight in a recent interview: Juhl’s luxury condominiums include a bar, market, and healthy restaurant on the ground floor. .

“We don’t have many examples of that in Vegas,” he said.

Current process

According to Knudsen, higher density zoning has been approved in the Downtown, Medical District, Symphony Park and Historic Westside.

It’s hard to predict when Las Vegans might expect to see noticeable differences, but it will likely take a few years, according to Dorian Stonebarger, chief policy adviser for Knudsen.

Stonebarger said the city’s roadmap for mixed-use projects was carefully planned, targeting areas near public transit and not the entire city. The degree of potential change ahead will also depend on the region, she said.

Knudsen acknowledged that the push for more compact development has been a tough sell to neighbors, though he remains adamant that it’s the right way to go.

“It’s very difficult as an elected official to stand in front of a neighborhood and say, ‘OK, the land you got used to being vacant or the land you got used to being a one-story mall , I am now going to rezone it so that it can be (a) a two, three or four story structure or more,” he said.

Can developers be seduced?

Implementation of the city’s vision will largely depend on the appetite and feasibility of developers, which officials have anticipated. Some areas, including the Medical District, now allow so-called “density bonuses” as an incentive for developers at market rates. If they provide a certain amount of affordable housing, developers can build higher – and therefore build more housing units – to help offset the costs.

The idea “is interesting,” according to Mike Shohet, president of Compass Development LLC, a commercial real estate company whose plans include the Village retail and office mixed-use development in St. Rose, near Raiders headquarters. at Henderson.

Shohet, who is a former executive at Nevada HAND, the state’s largest affordable housing developer, said density bonuses won’t make projects financially feasible and additional grants would be needed to account for high costs. vertical construction.

Although the incentive has been proven in other markets such as Los Angeles, their premium rents are much higher than in Las Vegas, allowing developers to balance the cost of providing affordable housing, it said. -he declares.

Still, he said developers are very interested in the kinds of projects the city is looking for, though he cautioned that few people understand how to make those deals because financing affordable housing is a complex process.

“It’s a smart idea,” he said. “I think it’s really complicated.”

Amanda Moss, spokesperson for the Southern Nevada Homebuilders Association, said higher-density projects can reduce resident travel times, vehicle emissions and heat island effects and also bring investment lagging infrastructure in aging areas.

Bringing the private sector into an arena where it doesn’t normally operate is critical to increasing the affordable housing stock in the area, says Christine Hess, executive director of the Nevada Housing Coalition, which has backed the city’s long-term plans. .

“I would absolutely say it’s a step in the right direction, and it’s a significant step,” Hess said, adding that density bonuses encourage a variety of housing types.

Mixed use materializes

Some mixed-use projects in the city have started to materialize. This month, the council approved a concept plan for the city-owned Desert Pines Golf Club, and last month city lawmakers signed off on the negotiations. for a hotel of approximately 60 rooms in the Medical District comprising retail outlets, a doctor’s surgery and parking.

An example of the kind of project the city wants to amplify is under construction on Decatur Boulevard near Alta Drive. The Decatur Commons by Nevada HAND development, with three- and four-story buildings, is the nonprofit’s first mixed-use development and combines affordable family and senior apartments with 10,000 square feet of commercial space.

Although it came to fruition before the city’s adoption of the 2050 master plan, it has qualities that city officials describe in their long-term guide as making higher density attractive: it’s close to transport and amenities, and it is intended to blend into the community while strengthening the neighborhood.

It also might not be the nonprofit’s last foray into mixed-use development.

“We’re going to continue to pursue this because we know it’s an asset to the community,” said Waldon Swenson, vice president of corporate affairs for Nevada HAND. “We’ve seen strong support from our elected officials, not just in Las Vegas, but other municipalities.”

Contact Shea Johnson at [email protected] or 702-383-0272. To follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.


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