Three large, corrugated steel crates stacked a few yards from the bustling Fremont Street corridor look like they would be more at home in the Port of Los Angeles than in the center of downtown Las Vegas' biggest revival project in decades.
But the steel boxes, trucked to Las Vegas and tucked behind a Mexican restaurant on a vacant lot between 6th and 7th streets, are just a glimpse of a proposed development that's slated to use dozens of shipping containers as bars, restaurants and boutiques.
The idea, part of the Downtown Project backed by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and carried out by countless new recruits to downtown Las Vegas, is to provide an alternative to traditional development and bring life to an urban dead zone.
"You see all these empty lots, right," said Josh Bowden, 31, who is helping to shepherd the shipping container project. "We really have a lot of businesses; we just don't have space."
Since the Downtown Project - backed by about $350 million in private investment from Hsieh and others - moved into Las Vegas, it has attracted arts, technology and service entrepreneurs eager to join Hsieh's vision for a vibrant urban environment.
Technology entrepreneur networking events attract standing-room-only crowds to The Beat coffeehouse, and Fremont Street from Las Vegas Boulevard to 6th Street is as lively as it has been in decades.
But Hsieh and others with the project were surprised to learn that, despite an epic real estate crash in Southern Nevada, finding appropriate commercial space downtown has been difficult.
So they're setting aside part of a block of land they bought for $5.2 million in February for what is labeled in city planning documents as Fremont and 7th Street Container Park.
"The Downtown Project team meets with entrepreneurs daily, many who are ready to get moving right now," said Zach Ware, who is leading the Downtown Project. "But downtown Las Vegas doesn't have enough retail space to support it. We don't have exact numbers on the 'backlog' but it is high."
PROJECT AROUND PLAZA
According to documents on file with the city planning department, the park would cover two empty lots, one on Fremont Street owned by Exber Inc., which is affiliated with the El Cortez, and an adjacent lot to the south on 7th Street owned by 707 Fremont, LLC., which is affiliated with the Downtown Project.
The plan shows containers stacked on elevated decks, with restaurants, bars and small shops facing inward toward a central plaza.
It also shows a small area set aside for a water feature or playground and space for open-air vending.
Other documents filed with the proposal show the developers don't plan to provide additional parking, opting instead to direct potential customers to existing garages at the El Cortez and Neonopolis.
The developers also seek waivers from site plan, streetscape and architectural design requirements.
Backers say their inspiration comes from container-based developments around the world, such as Box Park in London, DeKalb Market in Brooklyn and Proxy in San Francisco.
"Those projects were inspiring and, when coupled with the opportunity to bring more small businesses to downtown Las Vegas quickly, it was a perfect fit," Ware said.
The proposal is slated to go to the Planning Commission in June and could be in front of the City Council in July.
'NOT AS SIMPLE AS IT LOOKS'
Even with widespread support for the Downtown Project from city officials and the business community, the shipping container park faces challenges.
Arnold Stalk, an architect, developer and former city planning official, has built prototype container structures and has nascent plans for a container development farther east on Fremont Street.
He welcomes the efforts from Hsieh's group but adds that, if the first high-profile container development in Las Vegas is done poorly, it could sour officials and the public on future proposals.
"You really have to do your homework to make it work financially," Stalk said. "They are going to find out when they start building it that it is not as simple as it looks."
After viewing a snapshot of the proposed layout, Stalk identified several potential issues with the project.
For starters, from the street level it appears it could be difficult for people on the sidewalk to see across the entire plaza until they are within the perimeter. Also, the interior looks to have sharp corners that can block lines of sight.
Stalk said that could be intimidating for people uncomfortable with downtown's homeless population to be confronted by panhandlers without warning.
"Spaces behind spaces, that is a problem," Stalk said.
The developers may also be selling themselves short by only creating one-story structures, he said.
He said one of the advantages of container construction is the rigid frames allow for creative, multistory structures with attractive shapes that also maximize the economic potential.
"There are innumerable architectural opportunities to it," he said. "You can stack them nine high without losing their structural integrity. You can tilt them. You can angle them."
WILL CITY OK UNORTHODOX PROJECT?
Stalk also questioned how city officials would react to the proposal.
He said container construction doesn't always comport with standard building codes, meaning officials will have to look at the project with an open mind if it is going to survive the approval process.
He cited his own early attempt to discuss a container proposal with officials in North Las Vegas.
"If you throw the code at it, you are going to run into all sorts of limits," Stalk said, describing a meeting in which building officials insisted on stucco facades, red tile roofs and even planter boxes on the structures. "The meeting was a nightmare."
The project documents haven't yet landed in front of the Las Vegas Planning Commission; but Planning Commissioner Trinity Schlottman, who lives just a few blocks from the proposed project, said he is looking forward to seeing it.
Schlottman said he likes the notion of developers designing unusual projects downtown.
"I'm glad to see there is a different project and it is not another stucco project coming to downtown," Schlottman said. "I support different building styles all coming together downtown, that is what will make our downtown interesting."
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at email@example.com or 702-229-6435.