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City Center Las Vegas, Smash or Trash?

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by , 04-18-2012 at 05:07 PM

This week, I am going beyond the Disney theme parks to tell you about a pair of interesting things. First up, a very interesting talk and book about the planning history of Los Angeles. Then we'll take a look at the most expensive privately funded construction project in United States history - CityCenter in Las Vegas. Walt Disney thought that big. Does this project in the desert measure up?

Quentin Crisp took a look at the Los Angeles region and said, “Los Angeles is just New York lying down." Is the Los Angeles region a planning accident? Something that just happened by chance? The inexplicable yet inevitable outcome of booming population growth and real estate investment unconstrained by coordinated intentions or public policy?


On Saturday, April 28, in the Friend’s Hall at the Huntington Library and Gardens, the Los Angeles Region Planning History Group, in cooperation with the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, will be presenting “Planning Los Angeles: Myths, Realities, and Lessons." This event is all about refuting the persistent stereotype of an unplanned Los Angeles. Experts in the field will present information on more than a century of plans including the city’s first comprehensive plan; a state-of-the-art urban design for the last undeveloped area on the Westside; and innovative policies encouraging the amazing resurgence of a supposedly non-existent Downtown. Anyone interested in how our metropolis has been shaped and reshaped by purposeful planning should attend—and be prepared to discuss and debate possible lessons for the next generation of planners.

This event draws its speakers and issues from the new book Planning Los Angeles, a diverse collection of more than two dozen essays examining many aspects of LA’s urbanism and urbanization. I am one of those writers with an essay entitled “The Evolution of Entertainment Retail.” The book is published by the American Planning Association’s Planners’ Press, copies of the book will be available for purchase for $24.95 plus tax. Author/presenters will include David Sloane, Professor, USC Price School of Public Policy, Vinit Mukhija, Associate Professor, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, Vinayak Bharne, Director of Design, Moule & Polyzoides Architects & Urbanists, Ken Bernstein, Manager, Office of Historic Resources, LA Department of City Planning, and Todd Gish, Urban Designer and Historian.

Seating is limited and the cost of the event is $40 ($20 for students with a valid student ID). The price includes coffee, pastries, a box lunch, parking, and a day pass to the Huntington Library and Gardens. RSVP to Alice Lepis ([email protected]) or visit the LARPHG website ( Deadline for registration is April 24.


I finally got a chance to visit the humongous CityCenter development in Las Vegas. As an urban planner with an interest in these types of giant projects (after all, I did write a book about Walt’s EPCOT and a chapter in that APA book about malls), I wanted to see what happens when you go big and roll the dice to create something unlike anything people have seen before.

CityCenter is a gigantic, $11+ billion (that is with a ‘B’), 67-acre, mixed-use resort destination project on the Las Vegas Strip between Bellagio and the Monte Carlo. The facility dominates the Strip with more than a 1/4 mile frontage. The project was developed by MGM Resorts International and construction began in 2004. The project opened in 2009 just in time for the economy to collapse.

MGM brought together eight of the world’s most famous architects and one of the largest architectural firms in the world as master planners to create a something unique in Las Vegas. Something truly of its time. What they have attempted is to insert an ultra modern, forward leaning, urban experience into the heart of the Las Vegas Strip. CityCenter is not themed to a mythical past or another contemporary location. MGM has tried to create an experience that seems to feel like a truly indigenous piece of work in a land where being authentic is looked upon with suspicion. What they have tried for is not an easy challenge in the land of the ‘decorated shed,’ the industrial building with a pretty face. As we shall see, for the most part they are successful. But it is those little details that have been overlooked that remind me of the true genius of Walt Disney and how he would have overcome the project’s shortcomings.

To give you an idea of the scale of the project, imagine placing Disney California Adventure or Disney’s Hollywood Studios under one roof. Yes, it is that big. CityCenter brings together hotels, residential units, a casino, restaurants, and a high-end shopping center in a climate controlled pedestrian friendly experience. Parking has been hidden below or adjacent to the complex. The property is so vast that it comes with its own fire station, a PeopleMover transit system, and on-site power plant.

When I am evaluating a urban-planning project, I try to determine if the overall project and its various components are either Exceptional, Acceptable, or Regrettable. I will try and apply those standards to CityCenter

The first impression is quite impressive. From the street, it appears like the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. Unfortunately, the most prominent feature at street level is a giant exposed driveway. Why this could not have been decked over creating a new public space is a truly missed opportunity. It looks like the car has won. Got to love the tram high above giving the pretense that public transportation has been integrated into the project, even if that tram doesn’t really go anywhere. Arrival experience verdict: Regrettable.

Let’s say that money is no object. You just won big playing Keno. Crystals shopping center, at CityCenter, is for you. With elite brands like Tom Ford, Tiffany & Co., Versace, and Louis Vuitton, the mall is pure eye candy. The 500,000-square foot mall was designed by Daniel Libeskind in his signature style. The exterior is impressive from the street with its crystalline, glass-and-steel canopy. It’s just not very inviting. Inside, the mall is a vast open space filled with hard surfaces and warm colors. One of the best touches is the inclusion of exotic materials embedded in the floors. At the center is a seafood restaurant suspended inside of what appears to be the skeleton of a ship or the bones of a whale. There is an attempt at folly with a water feature designed by WET that will capture a child’s interest for a few minutes. Otherwise, this mall is all about the business of shopping. My biggest complaint may get resolved over time. For me, a successful shopping center has quality, variety, and surprise. Although the brand quality is there, there is a lack of variety and surprise. These stores are at every high end mall in Las Vegas. Verdict: Acceptable.

The 47-story Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas was designed by Khon Pederson Fox and combines a 400-room hotel with 207 residential units. The firm is best known for its Post-modern towers and they have shown a great deal of restraint with this hotel. The architecture does not compete with the other towers. The entrance is not obvious reminding the casual visitor that this is an exclusive club and you may not be welcome. Verdict: Acceptable.

Helmut Jahn’s Veer Towers is an experiment in bending the public’s expectations of a structurally sound building. The two 37-story glass residential towers contain 337 residential units. Jahn has always played at the leading edge of building technology and frequently showcases the structure as part of the design. Here he placed two inclined towers at opposing angles. Your first thought is “How is that standing up?” The interplay between the two towers is a delight. The sleek facades have a playful rhythm that is created by a well-thought out use of horizontal steel awnings. The base of the structures act like a pedestal lifting the residential units high above the complex. I would guess you get a sense of security and inclusion. I would imagine the views of the Las Vegas Strip are first-class. How you adapt to having 4,000 hotel rooms having a view of your residence is something you may want to consider. Verdict: Exceptional.

The 1,543-room Vdara Hotel and Spa is a smoke free, all-suite hotel designed by Rafael Vinoly of RV Architecture. The tower sits at the rear of the property and compared to most hotels on the Strip, this one seems to have a feeling of intimacy amongst all the steel and glass. Behind the front desk is a work by Frank Stella. I especially liked the lobby bar with its innovative outside seating area. What I did not like about the hotel was its placement in relation to the rest of CityCenter. They claim that the hotel is directly connected to Aria and Bellagio. True enough in the case of Bellagio. Just follow the signs to the back end of that property. But most guests want to pass through Aria on the way to the Strip. Seems simple enough.

The front door is right there. However, there is a huge traffic circle with a giant work of public art by Nancy Rubins featuring canoes arranged as a flower or something. To get from one front door to another means skirting along the edge of the traffic circle. You dare not cross or you will get smashed by a cab. During a very hot day the walk is just long enough to turn a lot smiles into a lot of frowns. You feel disconnected and are reminded that in Las Vegas, the car is still king. Verdict: Love the hotel but not the entrance -

If you are a fan of Mid-Century modernism, then prepare to be in heaven when you visit the Aria. This is my vision of what the Contemporary Hotel at Walt Disney World would look like if it were built today. The 61-story hotel was designed by Cesar Pelli and has 4,004 rooms. From the street, the structure appears to be a gentle glass and steel crescent with each bay of the front facade skillfully set back so that the alternating repetition creates a shimmering effect.

In keeping with the theme of the here and now, the industrial size lobby features an elegant front desk and a massive window overlooking the entrance to the shopping mall. The lobby furniture features stone slabs and plenty of earth tones.

At a hotel, one way to save energy is to reduce the need for air-conditioning while the guest is out of the room. Instead of relying on the guests, the Aria relies on technology. As you open the door, the room will come alive. The shades will automatically retract and the lights will come on. When you are ready to leave, all you have to do is push one button right at the door to reset the room. Heck, just playing with the power curtains is a reason to stay here. You can adjust the lights, the curtains, the temperature and the television through a panel near the bed. The beds and the bathroom fixtures are what you would expect at a five-star hotel. Our room was configured so that the bathtub looked out through a floor to ceiling window at the Strip.

So far the experience is Exceptional.

There is just one thing. The view when you look down. While many of the rooms have a view of the Las Vegas Strip (and the airport, which can be hypnotizing at times), the magic is lost when it comes to the view of the HVAC equipment on the top of the Casino and the primary parking structure adjacent to the Mandarin. Of course, the roof of the mall is a work of art. Maybe that is why I was let down with the rest of the complex.

Walt Disney knew better. In his vision for EPCOT, hotel guests would have been looking down at an exercise deck with gardens. CityCenter should cover the top deck of the parking structures and plant gardens. They should cover the equipment with better screening. And then they should think even bigger. Cover the massive entry driveway with a pedestrian deck. CityCenter suffers from something rather simple - benches. If you want to sit you better be gambling or eating or drinking. Otherwise, pedestrians are not welcome here.

The 165,000-square foot Casino was also designed by Cesar Pelli. Earth tones dominate and all of the hard edges have been softened through the use of fabrics and other organic materials in all of the right places. Throughout the facilities are nice spots to get away and people watch. The Casino is one of the highlights of the entire property and the one that will influence all of the other casinos to come. Verdict: Exceptional.

There is one tower on the corner across the street from the Cosmopolitan that currently functions as a billboard for the Elvis show inside the Aria. The Harmon Hotel was designed by Foster and Partners and never opened. The building was deemed unsafe and has been condemned. Structural issues with regards to the rebar was cited as one of the reasons and the building could collapse in an earthquake.

Another fun feature is the public art program. The developers wanted to make a statement and invested more than $40 million in public art. They have gathered works from some of the most renowned sculpture artists, including Maya Lin (a metal ribbon behind the Aria front desk), Claes Oldenburg (a giant eraser), and one of my favorites, the scrolling text of Jenny Holzer in the valet parking area.

A special mention must be paid to the water fountain at the front driveway from WET, which puts on its own miniature version of the World Of Color. You can pick up a guide to the art at the Concierge desk.

I was impressed by CityCenter but something did not seem quite right. In the end, the complex does not contain that timeless quality of building. It has all of the efficiencies of a theme park without any of the emotional connection. This conflict is embedded into the design. If you have been there what did you think?


One of the benefits of writing a book, like Walt and the Promise of Progress City, is the opportunity to speak to groups about Walt Disney and urban planning. Below are some upcoming events. Sign up to my Facebook or Twitter pages to get updates. If you are a local blogger or podcaster, please contact me and let’s get together.

May 3 @ 10:30 a.m to Noon
460 East New England Avenue
Winter Park FL

May 3 @ 6:00 p.m. to 8:00
Albertson Room
101 East Central Boulevard
Orlando FL

May 5 @ 6:00 p.m.

May 6 @ 2:00 p.m.
Italy Pavilion at EPCOT

May 6 @ 7:00 p.m.
Was Walt Disney a New Urbanist?
With Chad Emerson Project Future

May 7 and 8 Walt Disney World
Meeting with various Cast Member teams.

May 20 @ 11:00 a.m.
Griffith Park in Los Angeles
Home to the birthplace of Imagineering

There's more to come in June and July. Thanks for your support.

Follow Samland on Facebook and Twitter.

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  1. mratigan's Avatar
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    Thanks Sam I have been to city center but onley for an hour
  2. StevenW's Avatar
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    I don't understand why Walt Disney needs to be quoted when it is clear that the Epcot of today is not his vision. Nonetheless, gardens on roofs might seem like a good idea in Southern California, but not Las Vegas. And roof gardens have a way of collapsing. They are not as eco-friendly as claimed.

    I do agree the traffic circle is a mistake. Getting around City Center is very difficult. The tram should have been better designed to circle the property instead of just bringing guests from outside properties.
  3. sir clinksalot's Avatar
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    Great article Sam.

    I'm intrigued by the Planning Los Angeles event. As a native "Valley Boy" and somebody who has done his share of driving around all of SoCal I just assumed that there was no planning done, because who in their right mind would have planned this.

    Unfortunately I don't think I can make it that day but I hope you'll do an article about the event for those of us who are unable to attend.
  4. TCadillac's Avatar
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    I have stayed at the Vdara and was really impressed. It is a great hotel to relax without the craziness of the strip, but like you mentioned walking to the strip is a nightmare. The best way to access the strip is to enter from the Bellagio. I wish this was designed better.
  5. SpectroMan's Avatar
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    CityCenter is one of the most boring features of the Strip for me. I like riding the Peoplemover but it's just one big concrete jungle mess. I'm sure I'd feel differently in one of the suites at Aria, Vdara or Mandarin Oriental but I'd much prefer a laid out Stardust or Sands of the 50's than this abomination.
    The prettiest thing in the group is the Harmon - love the blue windows - what a shame it'll soon be gone.
    SirClinks - LOL @ the Valley being "planned" - maybe once upon a time but today....??
  6. Wren's Avatar
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    I always felt that CityCenter was one of my least favorite and least visually appleaing area of Las Vegas.

    Compared to the whimsey of the casinos themed to far away places or times, CityCenter feels cold, and indulstrial and too 'real' for my tastes.

    I'd rather stay a night in a giant glass Pyramid, than another steel and glass tower
  7. StevenW's Avatar
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    Shopping in Las Vegas is best done at the discount outlets. I highly recommend the outlet stores at the outskirts of Las Vegas or at Primm or Barstow. You can get some great bargains especially at the Disney outlet stores if you have your Disney fixation.

    CityCenter best appeals to the urbanite. It seems to want the sophisticated city dwellers and it offers a contrast to the suburban sensibilities. I usually prefer the other resorts that offer unique amenities. It seems like there are no distinct pools at the CityCenter. There is more appeal for me to visit Mandalay Bay or Caesar's Palace or The Wynn.
  8. Atomobile's Avatar
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    I have not been to City Center yet. It was not completed on my last visit to "Lost Wages", it is however probably going to turn out to be a real boondoggle, because from everything I've seen about it, it is a jumbled mess of soulless monuments to excess and consumption at their worst.

    In the better hotels of Las Vegas, one can get a sense of the fun and human at work underneath the trappings. Something almost universal in appeal that allows one to attach a memory or emotion to something on the property beyond the spending of money... As one hotel after another tries to out do each other however, there has become a kind of generic sameness that is permeating the town, and as far as I've seen, this is totally embodied by City Center (it's not even at the center of the city of LV, it just bills itself as such). One usually can get much accomplished in a city's center beyond drinking, gambling and eating... as a matter of fact, MOST city centers are for everything BESIDES these activities. Not that I think one ought to be able to get one's Nevada Driver's License there, but it DOES ACT like it wants to be an arcology, yet somehow seems to fail at even that. Calling a massive grouping of hotels around a fancy mall "City Center" is pretty high-handed even for MGM and LV. That there is even a totally new, modern and yet condemned building amongst the collection points to mis-management and "Tower of Babel" building at its self satisfying nadir.

    Great article Sam, as usual. I'm happy you tackled this assignment and shared with your usual sensible commentary on the right and wrong of a themed, planned urban setting meant to entertain.
  9. Dustysage's Avatar
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    There was so much potential in City Center. I just stayed at the Aria. While I LOVED the Aria itself (beautiful rooms, great casino, beautiful nature inspired decor) I just wasn't thrilled with how difficult it was to get from one place at City Center to the next and know where you were at any given time.

    I held an event for 100 people at Crystals (In the Maestro's Steak House that looks like a wooden treehouse). The restaurant was really fantastic and our guests loved it. But the mall is just a mess and VERY poorly laid out. They have walkways that dead end. You have to go to the 3rd floor and way out of the way to get to the people mover tram thinggy (that doesn't really take you anywhere anyway).

    Overall City Center is so difficult to get in and out of, that unless you plan to spend the bulk of your trip in the hotel you are staying in (Aria, Vdara, etc) it probably isn't worth staying there.

    I still love Mandalay Bay and Bellagio more than anything I saw at City Center.

    Wonderful article and thank you for sharing your unique point of view with us. Not being an Urban Planner myself, it is so interesting to see things through your well trained eyes.

  10. waltopia's Avatar
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    More nice work Sam. I haven't been, so this was my best look at City Center yet. Sad to hear it's a mess no matter starting from scratch with THE lush budget. (isn't that about 2 billion per building? with a lemon, not including Cosmo next door.) I was hoping for excellence, as Cesar Pelli's interlocking curves remind me of the planned EPCOT Tower.
  11. Werner Weiss's Avatar
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    I've never been to City Center, but I'm fascinated by its scale and ambition. I've followed the news about how the Harmon, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build, will apparently be imploded once it's no longer needed as legal evidence for lawsuits. Sam's article provides a succinct, insightful review of how City Center serves guests. Here's my verdict of Sam's article: Exceptional.
  12. composerboy's Avatar
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    I wanted to do a group Halloween costume with a bunch of fat dudes in blue, white and grey plaid shirts walking around as a group and call it "City Center."
  13. composerboy's Avatar
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    Also, the Maya Lin sculpture is a representation in sterling silver of the path through the earth that the Colorado River carves.