61 acres attracting believers

It hasn’t always been easy to be a Union Park booster.

The 61-acre site at the corner of Bonneville Avenue and Grand Central Parkway was supposed to be anchored by a new stadium. And be the site of a new City Hall. And be connected to the Fremont Street Experience by way of a razed Plaza hotel.

And … well, plans went nowhere. Developers came and went. Nothing got done.

But Union Park’s ambitions have found solid footing over the last year.

A distinctive building, the Frank Gehry-designed Lou Ruvo Brain Institute, is already being built. The planned Smith Center for the Performing Arts, which will anchor the site, got good fundraising news and hopes to break ground late next year.

Now, a wave of approvals and construction is expected to hit in early 2008, including the installation of utilities and roads.

The news hasn’t exactly transformed the perceptions of a skeptical public, said Rita Brandin of Newland Communities, which is managing development and marketing of the property on behalf of the city of Las Vegas.

But backers are making headway.

"There are more people outside of this market who believe in the vision of Union Park than there are inside the market," she said. "People are still cautiously optimistic, but they are beginning to see the reality of the deals that are being made.

"The Ruvo building actually going vertical really helped. When the infrastructure construction starts, I think there will be a much more real attitude — that this project may very well happen."

Action on three potential anchor tenants could come as soon as the first three months of next year:

• The World Jewelry Center, a 50-plus-story tower that would house jewelry designers, manufacturers, whole- salers and retailers, is expected to present its final plans to the Las Vegas City Council in January.

• They’re expected to be followed in February by the proposed five-star Charlie Palmer boutique hotel, slated for 400 rooms and one of the chef’s signature restaurants.

• Then, in March, the council should hear from Access Medical, which has plans for a 400-room business hotel (negotiations are ongoing with Kimpton Hotels, a four-star brand) and a medical office building anchored by a surgical training center.

Newland will be developing residential properties on the site, and talks have started for a casino-hotel on another parcel, which will be the development’s only gaming component.

Of the 21 parcels within the city-owned Union Park, all but three have been spoken for or are under negotiation.

Like other recent downtown endeavors, this one is not gambling-centric. It’s meant to serve as a cultural and community center.

And, noted Brandin, "we have very few nongaming hotels for business travel."

That’s right, said R. Donahue Peebles, a real estate developer who was one of several industry heavyweights courted recently by Mayor Oscar Goodman and other city leaders.

"After speaking with the mayor … I’m even more energized," Peebles said. "I believe there is a place for a five-star hotel, from a business perspective, to be in downtown."

He said his company, The Peebles Corp., found the Union Park site interesting three years ago, but it was already tied up with other plans. Peebles Corp. is working on a four-tower condo/hotel development near the Wynn Resort, but Peebles said he’d like to look around downtown again soon.

People believe the city is serious about its downtown dreams, he said.

"Las Vegas has the same challenge that any municipal government has … that is, the question mark of, ‘Will it get done?’" Peebles said. "The mayor has shown … that he’s not going to let time stand still and grass grow under his feet."

There’s been a lot of momentum generated for downtown development.

City leaders have been championing the cause as well as pumping money to downtown projects, sparkling high-rise condos have sprung up, and projects like the new Fremont East District have generated positive vibes for downtown.

But what may have cracked the code for Union Park is the approach Newland and the city adopted when Newland took over project management in 2005.

Instead of trying to be the sole conductor ushering along all of the site’s development, as previous developers had attempted, they broke it into pieces and let each part proceed at its own pace.

"If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, you keep seeing the same results," Brandin said. "There were very few developers who could, at least within a reasonable time period, make assurances that they could build 9 million square feet."

Now, she said, "you’ve got individual developers who do what they do best, who are going out with their history and their successes and getting their finances for their projects."

Goodman agreed, noting that the reason the city replaced a previous developer with Newland is that the previous developer couldn’t commit to a timetable the city wanted.

"That is a key difference," he said. "If we had had one developer develop the whole thing, it would’ve been done in incremental parts. Now we’re going to have a lot of development taking place at the same time on different parcels."

Others are eyeing Union Park, said Scott Adams, Las Vegas’ director of business development.

Adams went with Goodman on a recent cheerleading trip to financiers in New York City, and "there’s still interest in Union Park on the remaining blocks," he said.

Other investors may be interested in joining the ongoing projects, he added, and, in general, investors considered downtown Las Vegas worth examining.

"The momentum of everything we’ve accomplished downtown is to the point where they can get their arms around making a major investment," Adams said.

Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate@reviewjournal.com or (702) 229-6435.

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