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Throwing ‘the code at it’?

Shipping containers – those innovative, corrugated steel boxes that allow freight to be hoisted off ships and lowered directly onto railroad cars or truck trailers – have been used as the basic building blocks of urban retail developments around the world, from Box Park in London to DeKalb Market in Brooklyn to Proxy in San Francisco.

Now they’re proposed as a way to bootstrap the yuppification of downtown Las Vegas.

Since the Downtown Project – backed by about $350 million in private investment from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and others – moved into Las Vegas, it has attracted arts, technology and service entrepreneurs eager to join Mr. Hsieh’s vision for a vibrant urban environment.

But Mr. Hsieh and others with the project were surprised to learn that, despite an epic real estate crash, finding appropriate commercial space downtown has been difficult.

“You see all these empty lots, right?” asks Josh Bowden, 31, who’s helping shepherd the project to build bars and restaurants in shipping containers. “We really have a lot of businesses; we just don’t have space.”

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 the Fremont and Seventh Street Container Park.

Plans show steel containers stacked on elevated decks, with restaurants, bars and small shops facing inward toward a central plaza on what are now two empty lots, one on Fremont Street owned by Exber Inc. (affiliated with the El Cortez) and another on adjacent land along Seventh Street to the south owned by an affiliate of the Downtown Project.

Developers seek waivers from site plan, streetscape and architectural design requirements.

Whether the plan could actually work, it’s too early to say. Presumably plumbing, food preparation and fire safety problems have been overcome in Brooklyn and San Francisco, though neither of those locales enjoys quite the challenge of getting people to enter a steel box during the triple-digit temperatures of a Las Vegas summer.

What will be most instructive to watch, however, is how the proposal fares when it’s presented to city officials in the near future. Will proponents encounter the same kind of response that architect, developer and former city planning official Arnold Stalk met when he brought a similar proposal before North Las Vegas planners?

“If you throw the code at it, you are going to run into all sorts of limits,” Mr. Stalk says, describing a North Las Vegas meeting in which building officials insisted on stucco facades, red tile roofs and even planter boxes on the structures. “The meeting was a nightmare.”

Real logistic and economic concerns may or may not be solvable. What would be a shame, though, is to see entrepreneurs with both the enthusiasm and the wherewithal to try something new, turned away because of bureaucratic indifference or hostility.

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