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CityCenter: Vegas 4.0

The Las Vegas skyline now includes MGM Mirage’s collection of gleaming towers known as CityCenter.
Leila Navidi

Click here for Hugh Hart’s “Las Vegas Grows Up: Architecture Review.”

Deep inside MGM Mirage’s new CityCenter in Las Vegas is a gargantuan tree composed of dozens of colorful canoes hanging in surreal, precarious fashion over a road. You may think, from that description, that there is nothing remarkable about a piece of work so seemingly ridiculous in a city of seeming ridiculousness, where scale models of the Statue of Liberty and Eiffel Tower stand sentry a block apart on the Las Vegas Strip and near a pyramid-shaped building that is named for an Egyptian city that doesn’t have pyramids.

Except that this canoe statue is billed as something of an anti-Vegas construct, not a spectacular stunt. The sculpture is destined to be the most famous, best-seen work of one of this era’s most celebrated and unusual contemporary sculptors, Topanga Canyon–based Nancy Rubins.

In a destination proudly and famously built on over-the-top artifice and imitation, that sculpture is real, as is artist Maya Lin’s representation of the Colorado River, hanging inside CityCenter’s splendorous 61-story glass hotel designed by Cesar Pelli.

They are all part of an enormous project that represents a new reality for the world’s best-known — and currently most financially distressed — resort street. Las Vegas is being reinvented, again, not just more lavishly and expensively but with a distinctly new, and untested, point of view.

This new iteration is a master-planned concept for 67 acres upon which a stunning series of buildings will open this month. The aim is nothing less than manufacturing urban density from scratch, complete with buildings designed by top international architects, and public art from the likes of Rubins, Lin, Henry Moore, Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella and Jenny Holzer.

“This is building Rockefeller Center on the Las Vegas Strip,” says Hunter Hillegas, a Santa Barbara–based writer who blogs and podcasts about Vegas design and business at RateVegas.com.

This new cityscape includes a sharp-angled 47-story Mandarin Oriental hotel-condo tower; Vdara, a curvaceous 57-story hotel-condo; and two tilted yellow-checked 37-story twin condo towers called Veer. The structures are arrayed around a gleaming 4,000-room Aria Resort & Casino and a 500,000-square-foot shopping district designed by Daniel Libeskind. (Another tower, the Harmon, an oval hotel and condo building, was supposed to open this month as well but, because of construction defects, it has been redesigned, shorn of 21 stories, its completion delayed by at least a year.)

In all, the project takes up 18 million square feet of indoor space, and includes 2,400 private units, a proposition never attempted on any scale on Las Vegas Boulevard.

“The whole point of CityCenter when I first came up with it was not to build a resort,” says Jim Murren, CEO of MGM Mirage, owners of Bellagio, Mirage and eight other Strip casinos. “I firmly believe this is different. It’s not a resort in the middle of a parking lot. It’s not an isolated building. It’s an environment, a neighborhood, and that’s intriguing to people.”

That, anyway, is the pitch, the fingers-crossed hope of a once economically impervious city trying desperately to regain its swagger as it tops the nation in foreclosure and unemployment rates.

When announced in the fall of 2005, CityCenter drew a certain level of mockery for its stated ambition and eyepopping budget — $5 billion, but which would end up ballooning to $8.5 billion thanks to materials shortages, oil-price spikes and recession-based complications with the original financing package.

Humorist Brian Unger’s emblematic NPR commentary took note of the coincidence that plans for this, the most expensive privately funded construction project in U.S. history, were being unfurled the same week President Bush announced the most expensive publicly funded construction project in U.S. history, the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina.

“Call it ‘No hooker left behind,’ ” Unger intoned of CityCenter, predicting, “Inside, tourists can observe the gambler in captivity, where he eats from a buffet, loses his kids’ college-tuition money and is served divorce papers all in his bedroom slippers.” He referred to the prediction that in building CityCenter in the most arid desert on Earth, MGM Mirage could pave the way for sustainable development everywhere, the stuff of “the most ironic press release ever.”

Unger’s punch lines were clever, but they also summarized in damning prose the assignment facing MGM Mirage executives. They were somehow to scrub Vegas of its tawdry, hedonistic, exploitative, environmentally absurd image and deliver a game-changer: The Las Vegas Strip would become a classy place to visit and a livable, nay, desirable address.

Toward that end, they recruited top international architects and artists. Combined with attaining LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for every structure in the complex, MGM Mirage believes it has achieved something dramatic and new.

Now comes the reality check.

The effort to build a Vegas of authenticity unfolds in stages over the first half of this month, until a December 16 grand opening of the project’s heart: the Aria Resort & Casino. CityCenter, its owners predict, will generate a flood of tourism in a town whose once-a-decade reinvention has always boosted tourism to new records.

The short-term issue is whether CityCenter is splashy enough to lure Californians out of their recession funk for a trip across the desert. Las Vegas is already offering steep discounts on rooms, meals, entertainment — even sin. Given that Southern Californians comprise about a quarter of the visitors to Las Vegas, curiosity about CityCenter and a desire to visit Vegas during a fire sale could go a long way toward healing Nevada’s economic hangover.

But the broader issue, one that will linger long after the recession, is whether CityCenter truly is the future of Las Vegas. It’s a notion as intriguing as the spectacular leaning towers at the heart of MGM’s glitzy new cityscape.

Is It Really A City?

To understand what MGM Mirage has built and why, you can begin with the sort of flack Murren took from his New York City friends when, in 1998, at age 36, he left his gig as a top equity analyst to become the chief financial officer for what was then MGM Grand Inc. He was a child of Gotham, growing up in suburban Connecticut and being taken into the city by his mother for doses of high culture “as often as possible.”

The notion of uprooting for a life in Vegas “was preposterous to my friends and family,” Murren said in an interview last month. “Why would you move to such a place as this, when you have all this in front of you, all the museums, all the cultural options, all the educational options?”

It certainly wasn’t because he loved gambling or fast times. While Vegas has long bred its executives unusually young for corporate America, Murren was unusual inasmuch as most of his counterparts had grown up in the green-felt jungle as the sons of casino bosses or inveterate gamblers themselves.

Murren, who ascended to company president in 1999 and CEO in 2008, applied his Wall Street know-how in finance to help his boss, majority shareholder Kirk Kerkorian, buy Mirage Resorts and then Mandalay Resort Group. The company now dominates the Vegas market.

As the years ticked by and Vegas boomed on the strength of increasingly posh hotels built by competitors Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson, the pieces began to fall into place for Murren to conceive of a Vegas his old Manhattan set could enjoy and even respect — Vegas 4.0.

The three earlier phases have been well-chronicled, moving out of the pre-1980s mob-riddled era into a Disneyland-for-adults-themed-casino epoch that by the turn of the century gave way to the naughty, sultry but also expensive “What happens here stays here” pop-culture-zeitgeist version.

So what reincarnation, pray tell, would be next for the mother of all tourist destinations?

Murren’s company sat on the last large undeveloped tract of land at the heart of the Strip. In 2004, when it seemed nothing could possibly pierce the ever-expanding Vegas bubble, Murren brought to the board a diagram that was the first iteration of CityCenter.

“Jim’s vision was that if we were going to step out and develop this land, we should do something extraordinary, and if we had the money and the inclination, we could set the bar so high that nobody else could ever get over it,” says Bobby Baldwin, then president of Bellagio, who would be tasked with overseeing the construction of CityCenter.

From the start, analogies to New York City were explicit. The acreage, a spokesman notes, was larger than Rockefeller Center, Times Square and SoHo combined. Among the first architects recruited was Libeskind, the then–World Trade Center reconstruction master planner, to design the Crystals shopping district.

And last month, Murren compared CityCenter to other structures along the Strip by bathing his remarks in New York references. The nearby Panorama Towers are “not Fifth Avenue. And Trump [International Tower] certainly is not Fifth Avenue, and it doesn’t have Central Park in front of it like CityCenter does.”

Central Park? In front of CityCenter? There are some trees and landscaping, and what’s being referred to as a “pocket park” — another NYC reference, natch — that features sitting areas around a classic Henry Moore sculpture of a woman and babe in repose.

But Central Park?

Last month at a symposium focused on Wynn’s lush new Encore Las Vegas resort, Wynn’s longtime interior designer, Roger Thomas, offered this backhanded slap: “I don’t think that when you have a panel about the design of CityCenter, you’ll have a landscape architect as part of it, as we do here today.”

Other observers aren’t convinced CityCenter is really a major departure for Las Vegas. “It’s the nice new casino resort in Las Vegas. Is it anything more than that? I don’t know yet,” says gaming stock analyst Robert LaFleur of the Susequehanna Financial Group.

Hillegas, of RateVegas.com, also plans to wait and see: “They like to say that CityCenter is unique, and you won’t find the word theme anywhere in their press material,” he offers. “But it’s city-themed.”

Reading those comments somewhere in MGM Mirage’s posh corporate offices at Bellagio, Murren may just release a primal scream.

“What we were trying to create was not just another resort, not just another mall, but an urban environment that doesn’t exist here, and to create the energy and the interest and real urban planning and be thoughtful about parking and vehicular circulation and pedestrian circulation and parks and open spaces and an art program and world-class architects was very intriguing,” he says.

“I think people around the world, particularly those who have visited great cities, will be very intrigued by this because it is in microcosm a very ambitious master-planned community.”

Again, though, willingly inviting direct comparisons with New York or other urban centers may be asking for it from critics like Dave Hickey, the vaunted pop culture observer and MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” recipient who teaches at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Noting that there’s no grocery store anywhere in CityCenter — MGM Mirage failed to persuade Whole Foods to open at the Crystals — he wondered if Murren has forgotten that “urban living is about having everything and anything close at hand. When I lived in New York, I lived steps from the cleaners. They may be talking about urban living to a level to which you and I cannot aspire, for people who can call out for groceries and never need a magazine or stick of gum.”

Who will actually live in these buildings remains an open question, in large part because of the implosion of the economy, the freezing of the credit markets and the precipitous drop in the value of real estate across the Las Vegas region. Units in the various towers cost a minimum of $500,000 and top out at $9 million, and as recently as May the company defiantly insisted it wouldn’t reduce them. Then, in October, facing a revolt from prospective owners, MGM Mirage announced a 30 percent price cut and efforts to help secure loans even if the company itself has to behave as the lender.

Even Murren acknowledges, “The residential part already went very wrong from its original economic proposition.”

But in the long run, he is convinced that not only will these condos be viable second homes for the jet-set class but also primary residences for childless locals “who will live on the Strip, in and around the Strip, who have nothing to do with the gaming industry other than that they want to be around it instead of having a house in Summerlin, where they have to pay someone to cut their grass.”

Is It What Tourists Want?

Everything new in Las Vegas comes with the same promise from its creators, that it will “grow the market.” That’s wonk-speak for drawing new tourists who wouldn’t have considered coming before.

Wynn delivered on this promise three times in his career: when he opened Mirage in 1989 and brought in a mainstream audience; when he opened Bellagio in 1998 and made the Strip interesting for the upper class; and when he opened Wynn Las Vegas in 2005 to tap into an even more exclusive, elusive grade of wealthy travelers.

It is, too, the vow issued by MGM Mirage with CityCenter. It would be easy for Murren to predict, as he does, that the number of tourists will rise 7 percent in 2010 and to simply attribute that to both curiosity among Vegas lovers yearning to see something new and an inevitable economic rebound in which the miserable data of 2009 are easily improved.

Murren goes much further out on a limb, though: “The people of the world have heard of this project. They’ve heard of Rafael Vinoly and Cesar Pelli and Norman Foster and Daniel Libeskind, and they’ve stayed at the Mandarin. They are multibillionaires, centimillionaires, some of the wealthiest people in the world, people who are doing business in Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Mumbai. People have heard of this, new people who don’t come to the Bellagio or the Venetian or the Wynn.”

LaFleur is baffled by such boasts. He’s willing to grant Murren his 7 percent growth, although he also predicts that average room rates — already 25 percent lower in 2009 than in 2008 — will continue to drop, as CityCenter adds another 6,000 hotel rooms to a market that already has 141,000 it can’t fill. But who, he wonders, didn’t already know Las Vegas existed?

“It is no great secret that Las Vegas exists in the southwest corner of the state of Nevada and that there’s quite a sufficient number of high-end hotels, and that you can go there and buy a nice Rolex and have a steak dinner,” says LaFleur, who this fall downgraded MGM Mirage stock.

“At the end of the day, the product is the gaming experience broadly defined. There’s nothing unique in the product offering. People don’t go to hotels because of the architecture of a hotel on a recurring basis. You go to a hotel because you like the hotel, you like the service, you like the ambience.”

As ambience goes, though, CityCenter certainly delivers something that does not exist in Las Vegas: It’s a reversal of the more intimate, sedate direction Wynn had been heading when he opened Wynn and, more recently, Encore.

“CityCenter is nothing if not grand,” Hillegas says. “The sheer magnitude of the thing is something to behold. They’re pumping a lot of stuff into a relatively small parcel.”

Until this dream team of architects was deployed, the most interesting building on the Strip was the pyramid-shaped Luxor, the rest being Y- or L- or C-shaped hotel towers dressed up to appear Parisian or Italian or medieval. CityCenter provides a Whitman Sampler of shapes, colors and styles, each with different appeal and functions that, in and of themselves, Murren asserts, will be the primary attractions.

What you don’t hear Murren or his people discuss a whole lot is the casino. Aria has many intriguing Vegas-standard facets — a new menu of star-chef eateries, a pretty buffet, several water features from the whizzes behind the Bellagio Fountains, including one that freezes and unfreezes in midair. But the casino itself is one public space not bathed in natural light or adorned by any art worth mentioning. Its 140,000 square feet, which includes 1,950 slot machines, is the only gambling parlor on a campus of 18 million square feet. “It doesn’t feel like a place built by a gambler,” Hillegas says.

Indeed, Murren has spent much of the past few years trying to reframe MGM Mirage as more of a hospitality company than a gaming one, embarking on hotel-only ventures in Egypt, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and mainland China. To show just how differently he views CityCenter, he eschews the question of whether it is an evolution for Las Vegas or a total departure, touting his ignorance of the two most recent Strip resorts to debut.

“I’ve never been in Encore, when did it open up?” he asks. “I’ve never been into Palazzo. It’s not that I don’t care, I just don’t need to go. I have nothing against either one of those guys, especially Steve Wynn. I like him a lot. But CityCenter is not just going to be for most people the same as just another resort opening up. It’s different. It’s special.”

Will Anyone Care About Art, Sustainability?

If it surprises you that the likes of Maya Lin or Nancy Rubins would create for the Strip, it frankly surprises them, too. Neither artist had set foot in Las Vegas until they came in 2006 to meet with CityCenter art consultant Michele Quinn and other MGM Mirage brass.

Lin, the sculptor of such somber sites as the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., actually burst out in giggles as she made her way through the casino at Bellagio. “They were gambling in the middle of the day,” she marveled. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Rubins had a similar response: “I never in my mind thought a sculpture of mine would live in Las Vegas, but one’s work ends up in all kinds of places.”

To hear Quinn tell it, the selling point for both artists, as well as many of the architects involved, was CityCenter’s unprecedented efforts to build green, which paid off in recent months with the USGBC’s highest rating, a clean sweep of LEED Gold certifications.

While many mock the idea that anything built in Las Vegas can be considered sustainable, entire cottage industries for recycling construction waste, providing sustainably produced wood and divining more water-efficient high-end faucet spouts sprang up thanks to the incentive to do business with an $8.5 billion project.

CityCenter has its own co-generation power plant equipped to capture and reuse heat that otherwise would dissipate. “I think to execute the vision of CityCenter, you had to believe at the end it had to be a city of the future, and what we found was that universally it was believed that the city of the future had to be sustainable,” says Cindy Ortega, MGM Mirage’s senior vice president for energy and environmental services. They imploded a small casino, the Boardwalk, which sat on the property, for instance. “We were going to use as much of the demolition waste as we could, but there wasn’t a company in Nevada that could do it so we capitalized the company.”

There is one area that LEED exempted: the casino. Ortega said the company decided it was unfeasible to ban smoking. More than half of Asians smoke, she says, and this is a critical piece of any high-end Vegas gaming enterprise. Permitting smoking is an automatic no-no from USGBC.

That said, the casino makes certain strides for Vegas, creating a 50-foot-wide no-smoking region that cuts through the center of the gaming floor to create the prospect that “a nonsmoker is never exposed to cigarette smoke.” Powerful air-handling systems avoid having it waft into other parts of the casino. “The air will often be cleaner than outside air,” Ortega gushes. Card dealers are shielded from secondhand smoke exhaled by customers by an air curtain that, she says, pushes the air skyward before it reaches them.

All of that is great, but is any of this high-minded stuff a tourist magnet?

“I don’t think people go to Las Vegas for a hard dose of reality,” LaFleur says. “They go to be entertained and have a good time and to escape their everyday existence for a period of time. The appeal of CityCenter to the Architectural Digest crowd probably makes sense, but to be a mass-market player, you need people with fanny packs to come in and play the slot machines.”

Ortega agrees that the leisure traveler may not care, but corporate-meeting planners do: “It is definitely a differentiating factor. A convention can and will and has not selected a venue because it didn’t have a sustainability plan.”

Murren believes that eco-minded travelers, especially the quarter of the market that flocks in from Southern California, “will find all of this very interesting, very appealing.”

An Economic Cure or Poison?

A year ago, on the brink of opening Encore, Steve Wynn was furious about the state of the economy and, more specifically, the condition of Las Vegas. Pacing his Picasso-adorned office in a rage, he took note of the fact that every one of his competitors teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in large part because they had taken on huge amounts of debt.

“It’s disgusting what’s happened to my city,” seethed the man who conjured up the Mirage, who single-handedly set in motion the Vegas mega-resort era and whose office Murren now occupies at Bellagio. “It’s disgusting what they’ve done to this community.”

Murren, not surprisingly, begs to differ. True, he says, MGM Mirage has “more debt than I would like.” True, the company came days away in March from defaulting on a bank covenant, spinning into bankruptcy and having to shut down construction on CityCenter. But intense negotiations and fancy accounting helped to avert that, and now the project has created 12,000 new service-sector jobs at a time when Nevada’s unemployment rate exceeds 13 percent, an all-time high.

“We as a community were lulled into a sense of confidence that was undeserved,” he says. “I’m part of it. ... Even the most bearish people of the time, because they did not get the financial crisis and the layering of that on top of the global recession.”

Yet being lectured on risk by Wynn clearly sticks in Murren’s craw. Wynn’s attacks seem to ignore that he, too, relied on huge debt loads and faith in his own vision of a new, uncharted Las Vegas when he built the Mirage and Bellagio.

“We didn’t get here because we sold out and went private so some shareholders could make a lot of money,” Murren says. “Our company’s debt went up dramatically because we’re trying to do something for the community and for ourselves, something different. It’s not going to be our competitors, it’s going to be this company that will single-handedly pull us out of the two-year decline in visitation and drive more people here.”

This is, in fact, a prolonged era of despair for Las Vegas. Two multibillion-dollar resort projects — Echelon and Fontainebleau — were halted halfway through and now stand as mocking monuments to the hubristic optimism that once pervaded this town.

So a one-industry city of 2 million residents is hoping that Murren’s vision proves appealing enough to spur recession-weary Americans and dollar-rich foreigners to come again — and again. The buzz starting to percolate across the Internet has been almost uniformly positive, a sea change from years of construction in which most of the national publicity involved a rash of worker deaths, a story so huge it netted the muckraking Las Vegas Sun a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering a shameful level of safety standards and lax regulatory oversight.

That’s why it must relieve Murren to hear someone like Hillegas, whose eager readers have been picking over every emerging design factoid about the project for years, say this: “They bet it all on black, and it looks like a pretty good bet right now. If nothing else, the place is an amazing achievement. They created a miniature city out of nothing.”

Or something like a city, anyway. But lest anyone worry that Murren has completely dispensed with the Vegas-ness of it all, two days after Aria opens, the property’s signature show begins previews. Even if the rest of the project appears uneasy with its lineage, this one has none of that ambivalence.

It’s a Cirque du Soleil production, of course. In a custom-built theater that backs up to Frank Sinatra Drive. And it is scored by Elvis Presley.