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November 19, 2006

Building Las Vegas, Slowly

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm posting this from Las Vegas.

Nancy has timeshare condo and we've been coming here Thanksgiving week since we started seeing each other. That's because, when I was working, I could spend seven days in Vegas while only talking three days of vacation time from the office thanks to the two-day holiday the governor and legislature kindly gave us.

Seeing the town at regular intervals is vaguely akin to stop-motion photography: some features remain constant while others flicker in and out of view.

Taken as a whole, the Vegas metro area is growing like the proverbial weed. We visited Lake Las Vegas for the fourth year in a row and saw massive amounts of new construction. This is an upscale area containing Hyatt and Ritz-Carlton hotels as well as the homes of Vegas Strip stars such as Celine Dion. About a year ago, architectural restrictions were modified so that multiple houses with the same floor plan could be built, thereby lowering costs (from strictly custom-designed units) and stimulating demand.

Southwest of Las Vegas, far less-expensive developments are being rolled out. Billboards in the area proclaim future new projects and forthcoming phases to existing projects.

Along with new housing is new retail square-footage, usually in the form of strip-malls.

Near the Strip itself, several high-rise condominium structures are rising to join others built in the last few years -- a new wrinkle in the town's housing stock. I should add that some high-rise projects have been put on hold or else scrubbed, demand apparently not strong enough to keep up with the supply surge.

So if Vegas is growing like stink, why did I used the word "Slowly" in the title, above?

It's the big casinos / hotels.

Old casinos are being demolished, usually to make room for new ones. But the new casinos, which can cost more than one billion dollars, sometimes take years to build. For example, the hotel tower of the Wynn stood empty for two of our visits while the casino and shopping area at its base took shape. A shopping area next to the Venetian, across the street from the Wynn, has taken more than two years to emerge, and still wasn't open for business as this was written.

There are all sorts of reasons why projects can take years to complete, including financing problems, labor delays, bad weather and design errors requiring fixing. But I suspect that the main reason for the seemingly slow progress experienced by some recent Vegas casinos has to do with opulence.

Some Vegas casinos, as the saying goes, have to be seen to be believed. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to check out the Venetian, Wynn and Bellagio (among others). Save your pennies.



posted by Donald at November 19, 2006


The pace of construction in Las Vegas, even on the most opulent casino-hotels, proceeds at hyperspeed compared to what happens (or, more accurately, doesn't happen) in New York. Sorry examples of the latter abound. There's the reconstruction of Ground Zero, which after more than five years has made, well, zero progress. A couple years ago there was a ceremony for the laying of the Freedom Tower's cornerstone. Not long after, with no idea when if ever actual construction would begin, workers removed the cornerstone and hauled it off to a warehouse, where it continues to gather dust.
Examples of incompetence from the subway abound. There's the connection of the 63rd Street subway tunnel to the Queens Boulevard mainline, which took seven years to dig 1,500 feet of tunnel.
Another subway example is the elevator providing handicapped access to the southbound IRT local tracks at Penn Station. Construction was just beginning when I started using Penn Station in late 1997; the elevator was completed in 2002 (and is usually broken).
Construction began on a high school on the West Side in the early 1970's and was completed 14 years later. And there are many stories of street repaving projects - the sort of things most cities would complete in just a week or two - dragging out for months and months, with the construction-related disruption invariably killing off many businesses along the streets being repaved. The desparately needed expansion of the Javits Convention Center, currently ranked no. 17 in the country in terms of exhibit space, has been in the talking stage for years and if it ever begins will take several years.
Still, New York's most pathetic example is the Second Avenue Subway. It was first planned in the 1920's; older but perfectly serviceable elevated lines on Second and Third avenues were demolished in the 1940's and 50's in anticipation of its construction; two separate bond issues were supposed to pay for its construction; and about a mile's worth of tunnels were dug in the 1970's but abandoned. Now the city claims that construction (on an abbreviated portion) might start in 2008, and will take over a decade to complete. Sure.
All I can say is that competency levels is Las Vegas are miles and miles ahead of those in New York.

Posted by: Peter on November 20, 2006 12:34 AM

This is strictly in the way of a pass through comment as I have never been a resident of Las Vegas...but: the thought of living in one of the housing developments sprouting up there (admittedly seen only from the highway) gives me the willies. What I saw were substantial sized tightly packed detached homes receding to the vanishing point horizon, with zero trees! In fact, if memory serves, with nothing in the way of greenery. I'd go mad there. But millions seem to want that. So what do I know?

Posted by: ricpic on November 20, 2006 5:06 PM

Nevada has no state income tax.

Posted by: Kodiak on November 21, 2006 5:20 PM

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