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Local coalition to envision urban redevelopment decades down the road

Today, Maryland Parkway is like just about any other heavily trafficked commercial corridor in the Las Vegas Valley.

Six lanes of cars compete with bicyclists and pedestrians. Lots that once held strip malls filled with a variety of shops are vacant. When indoor malls were cool, Boulevard Mall and its 1 million square feet of anchor stores and assorted retailers on the east side of Maryland between Desert Inn Road and Twain Avenue dominated the shopping scene.

But urban planners with ideas that would change Maryland Parkway for generations to come see great potential for the thoroughfare, which connects downtown Las Vegas with UNLV and McCarran International Airport.

What would happen if planners with new ideas about environmental sustainability designed a transportation corridor catering to mass transportation, bicycles and pedestrians instead of cars? What if a new generation of designers and architects with new philosophies in urban living were given the green light to develop buildings that had retail shops on the streetfront and single-family residences upstairs? What if the ground floor were occupied by a public building — maybe a fire station or a library — while the top floors had apartment units?

That’s the idea behind Southern Nevada Strong, a coalition of planners from 13 public entities that are trying to envision what local neighborhoods would look like in 20 to 50 years. They aren’t planning for today’s residents. They’re looking to provide for millennials, a generation that would rather spend time with a smartphone or tablet communicating with friends during a commute on public transportation than spending money for a vehicle, gasoline, insurance and all of the other expenses that go with a car.

“We were trained to let nothing distract us from operating a vehicle,” said Michael Hancock, the most recent Denver mayor to carry the ball in the Mile High City’s efforts to spur urban redevelopment.

“But the culture of the young people of today is that nothing will distract them from their smart devices,” he said. “They are less interested in driving long distances and more interested in staying connected to the rest of the world. Moving people but not automobiles is the new calling.”

Hancock urged the 200 people attending the organization’s opportunity site summit on Wednesday to remember the day as the start of development turnaround for Las Vegas.

“As I reflect back to the turn of the century and when I was elected to the (Denver) City Council in 2003 and we began in this effort to invest in transit development, I look back and realize that those were some of the most important decisions and important moments that we could ever be a part of,” Hancock said. “Someday, I’ll look forward to driving my grandchildren around and say I was part of the critical decision-making process that made it possible to go anywhere in the metro area without touching a steering wheel or buying a gallon of gas.”

Hancock had a front-row seat during the days when Denver mayors made major urban-living decisions. One turned busy 16th Street in downtown Denver into a pedestrian mall in 1982. Today, it’s Colorado’s biggest tourism draw. Another mayor made the decision to build a new international airport that opened in 1994. Today, it’s the fifth-busiest airport in the United States and 13th-busiest in the world.

Now, under Hancock’s watch, the city will see the reopening of refurbished Union Station in downtown Denver, a transportation hub that not only is the center of Denver’s light-rail network but also a terminal for Amtrak as well as for Greyhound and the city’s bus lines. When it opens in May, Union Station will be a business centerpiece that crowns the redevelopment of LoDo, the lower downtown district, with $1 billion in construction projects underway today.

Hancock said the city’s light-rail system resulted in 41 transit development sites across six counties.

Could some of Las Vegas’ urban areas benefit from Denver’s experience and be regenerated with new ideas?

Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who represents the Maryland Parkway corridor, recognizes that a transit system on the street could better connect downtown Las Vegas with McCarran and UNLV. If apartments and second-story residences occupied the same buildings as office and commercial space, more people would be inclined to live where they work and be close to an important transportation link to education and the airport.

Southern Nevada Strong won’t file its final plan until fall. In the next three months, representatives will solicit public comments about what it likes and doesn’t like about the new ideas of urban living. The organization will make presentations across the valley and encourage people to offer feedback on portable kiosks that contain an easy-to-use visual preference survey. The public also can weigh in online at southernnevadastrong.metroquest.com.

Contact reporter Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow him on Twitter @RickVelotta.

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