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Open containers a welcome addition to downtown Las Vegas

If the goal was to change the way people look at Las Vegas, the Container Park is already a success, at least at first glance.

On Monday the long-awaited retail and entertainment center partially built with recycled shipping containers opened for the first time to the public.

The Container Park is only three blocks from the faded glitz of Las Vegas’ Fremont Street casino corridor, but to people who poured in shortly after the 1 p.m. opening it might as well have been 1,000 miles.

“I didn’t expect this at all in Las Vegas,” said Kathleen O’Brien of San Antonio, “because it is not an old gambling hall.”

About 100 people gathered on the sidewalk near the intersection of Fremont and 7th streets for the soft opening. A larger grand opening with more fanfare is planned for Dec. 5 at 10 a.m.

A few minutes past 1 p.m., the gates to the center swung open and the crowd poured in, passing beneath an elevated container with the words “Container Park” cut into the facade that doubles as a second-floor hallway. Inside, the crowd explored myriad restaurants, shops and design elements meant to encourage people to linger.

“You want all these people in a relatively small area, colliding,” said Tony Hsieh, CEO of online retailer Zappos, who was himself wandering through the center.

Hsieh is also the primary investor in the $350 million Downtown Project, which developed the Container Park as part of an overall effort to rebuild Las Vegas’ urban core more int he image of an upscale part of Austin, Texas than the downmarket gambling destination people tend to associate with Fremont Street.

Container Park is the Downtown Project’s highest-profile development to date. It consists of dozens of purpose-built steel cubes and actual containers centered around a plaza with a children’s playground.

Container construction was originally seen as a potential cost-savings over traditional methods. But as the project grew in size and scope the developers said the cost increased as well, making it no less expensive than other construction. They stuck with the containers and cubes even as the cost increased because they give the project a defining look and style.

The builders didn’t disclose rents and tenants said leases are negotiated individually.

A 30-foot-tall tree acts as the anchor for slides, steps and bridges that can take people to the top of a 40-foot-tall, vertical container. From there adults and children alike can take a circular slide back to ground level.

The entrance is dominated by a large, fire-spewing praying mantis first constructed for use at the Burning Man festival in Northern Nevada and converted to a showpiece in downtown Las Vegas.

On the opposite end of the plaza from the entrance, near a railroad caboose converted for use as an old-time barbershop, there’s an entertainment stage with a lawn of real grass.

The restaurants and retail businesses are mostly built in the manufactured steel cubes that are insulated, fitted with high-efficiency glass and customized for everything from food and beverage service to art studios. Stacked two and three-high around the perimeter of the property, all but a half-dozen spaces on the top floor near the northwest corner were occupied on Monday.

“This experience, people are going to love coming here,” said Ann Pirone, one of the owners of Las Vegas Trikke, who sells and leases a line of three-wheeled, electric and people-powered vehicles.

Las Vegas Trikke occupies 12-by-20-foot ground-level container where Pirone and Steve Garcia were showing off the product to potential customers. To make the most of the space they hang helmets from customized hooks and use a customer counter with stools that slide under the counter-top when unoccupied.

Pirone, whose young son attends a Downtown Project-backed private school, said the Container Park adds a much-needed family-friendly element to downtown.

“This is one of the missing puzzle pieces to the overall vision,” Pirone said.

Hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays and closing on midnight on weekends, although the hours may change. Parking is on surface streets and lots in the area.

Contact Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com and follow him on Twitter at @BenSpillman702

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