A Parkway Divided: Is Midtown UNLV a pipe dream or an inevitable outcome?

Moyer Student Union

A year after announcing plans for a vibrant and enlivened University District surrounding UNLV, university President Carol Harter is still staring into the bright vision of Las Vegas’ academic future.

In her 2004 State of the University address, she announced the concept of “Midtown UNLV,” a master plan co-conceived by developer Mike Saltman to revive and enrich UNLV’s campus and its surrounding areas.

“Mike Saltman and his architects have created some highly imaginative conceptual drawings that illustrate a vision of what the area around campus might look like,” Harter said in that address, “a neighborhood of restaurants, cafes, outdoor gathering places, small-scale galleries, and welcoming residential and retail opportunities.”

Rendering of Midtown UNLVAt the university’s annual Planning Retreat in August, Harter asked participants to imagine what UNLV might look like “10 years down the road.”

“Although I don’t have H.G. Wells’ time machine,” Harter said, “I’ll ask you to figuratively close your eyes and envision the year 2015.”

Harter went on to describe an ultra-modern urban environment where faculty and students live side-by-side in lofts and condominiums, where coffee shops and fine dining establishments line the two-lane Maryland Parkway.

“You are heading to campus to dine in a quaint French restaurant,” Harter said of future community members visiting Midtown, “after which, you have tickets to the 35th Anniversary Barrick Lecture featuring keynote speaker President Hillary Clinton. As you safely make your way across Maryland Parkway, you become captivated by the art fair that is taking place along the main mall of the campus.”

It’s an idyllic future Harter has laid out for future students, faculty and community members, but the real challenge, as she noted at the retreat, is to “determine if and how we get there.”

* * *

These days, the stretch of Maryland Parkway from Flamingo Road to Tropicana Avenue is sharply divided between its west and east sides. One the west side sits the ever-growing, increasingly modernized UNLV campus. Looming like an overgrown Tinker Toy creation over what was once a parking lot is the steel frame of a new, under-construction student union. The face of Maryland Parkway, at least on the west side of the six-lane thoroughfare, is rapidly changing.

New Student Union construction at UNLVOn the east side, however, the story is a little different. Decades-old shopping centers with little more in common than their obviously aging exteriors and interiors are strewn across the parkway, inconsistent in design, color, tenants or clientele. Those walking the sidewalks are less likely to be students as they are to be derelicts, residents of the surrounding neighborhoods or CAT bus riders biding time between routes.

Now, picture Maryland Parkway as a center of cultural activity, where both college students and the creative class of Las Vegas come to study, socialize, dine and shop. Independently owned coffee shops are filled with academics and intellectuals alike. A top-grade record store such as Tower Records serves as a premier destination for local musicologists. Bars and clubs are buzzing with live music, flowing taps and warm bodies. At night, people casually walk from retail stores to cafes to bars, making the parkway a culturally aware alternative to the tourist-trapping Strip.

This vision of the University District as a pedestrian-friendly, bustling cultural community is not the imagined Midtown Harter envisions for the area 10 years from now. It is the memory of a scene that actually existed, approximately 10 years ago.

* * *

In the mid-1990s, when UNLV was still regarded mainly for its athletic programs and President Harter was just starting to feel her way around the hallowed halls of the Flora Dungan Humanities building, Maryland Parkway was simply the destination for the “creative class” that Harter has spoken of ever since she picked up Richard Florida’s book, “The Rise of the Creative Class.”

Arguably, the rise of Maryland Parkway as a cultural center was jumpstarted when Lenadams Dorris moved his downtown Las Vegas café, The Newsroom, into the lower floor of the Promenade at Maryland Parkway and Harmon Avenue in 1987, placing it directly across from UNLV. With it, The Newsroom brought a dedicated clientele of diverse interests and backgrounds.

“Unlike any other coffee joint before it,” wrote Michael T. Toole in the Aug. 12, 2004 issue of the Las Vegas Weekly, “The Newsroom was about doing the New York Times crossword puzzle over a good cup of herbal tea, playing chess, flipping through the 600-plus magazines from all over the world without interruption, and just watching a most diverse selection of people: young and old, liberal and conservative, gay and straight, atheist and proselytizing Christian, all just hanging out.”
Cafe Copioh

Cafe Copioh, circa 1997By the mid-‘90s, Maryland Parkway was lined with other independent cafes such as Café Rainbow, Cyber-City Café and Café Copioh. The Newsroom changed owners and names, becoming Café Espresso Roma. Tower Records anchored the University District along the parkway to the north at Flamingo Road, with Benway Bop!, an underground record store, at the south end, just shy of Tropicana Avenue. Interspersed were bars such as Tom & Jerry’s, the Sports Pub and Moose McGillicuddy’s, along with various independent and franchise eateries. A two-story Kinko’s next to Espresso Roma was the largest and busiest in the valley.

Live music, poetry readings, underground dance parties and works from local artists could be found in the bars, cafes and shops at any given time. The customers and denizens of Maryland Parkway hangouts were as likely to be commuters to the district as they were to be residents living in the low-rent apartments to the east of the parkway. For many, the “street scene” on Maryland Parkway during the Lollapalooza era — most of which died as businesses closed one-by-one — is deeply ingrained into their cultural memories.

“I played my first gig ever at Copioh,” said Frank Salvo, a local musician. “I saw Wax at Benway. I remember playing the conga at (the) Underground. My best friend worked at Tower on Maryland.”

Andrew Ramsay perhaps put it best in a May 11, 2000 Las Vegas Weekly article:

“The lifeblood of this city is Maryland Parkway.”

* * *

“Midtown UNLV and the proposed overall University District is still very much a work in progress,” Saltman said. “The goal is still to get to a Las Vegas version of Mill Avenue in Tempe.”

View of Rebel Plaza from inside ChipotleMill Avenue, which runs through the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., has been held as the major point of reference for Harter and Saltman since Midtown’s announcement. From aesthetic and fiscal standpoints, it makes sense why.

Twenty years ago, Mill Avenue was in worse shape than Maryland Parkway is today. Yet now, it’s the beating heart of Tempe, a pedestrian-heavy street filled with trendy clothing stores such as Urban Outfitters and the Gap, clubs, cafes, ethnic restaurants and an entertainment complex. It caters as much to the campus community as it does to Tempe’s movers and shakers.

Looking at Maryland Parkway now, one might find it difficult to envision that kind of retail wonderland appearing in less than 10 years where the current collection of head shops, dive bars and thrift stores now sits. Of course, not everybody thinks that such a change needs to happen.

“The thing that worries me is the tendency for developers in this town to ‘think’ they know what an area needs without communicating to the people in that area first,” said Maggie Verderame, owner of It’s Yoga, a yoga center located across from UNLV on Maryland Parkway.

Verderame said that she is not alone in her concern over the potential redevelopment of the corridor. According to her, some of the small businesses in the area have had informal discussions about what their fates may be if a Mill Avenue-scale cleansing comes to their stretch of the road.

“We haven’t really strategized anything,” Verderame said, “but there is concern about the concept of building a center intended to attract the ‘creative class’ when many of the businesses there are already run by and catering to the ‘creative class.’”

The It’s Yoga owner also has her own concerns about some of the businesses already struggling on the parkway.

“My hunch is that the small, artsy/independent businesses, like Balcony Lights, would not be able to afford raised rents,” Verderame said.
Hilarie Grey, special assistant to Harter, thinks such worries are a little premature.

“It’s such a long term project from that overall vision standpoint that it’s a little surprising that businesses are already worried about being displaced,” Grey said.

Of course, the current economic environment on Maryland Parkway isn’t ideal either. On Monday, the aforementioned Balcony Lights Books & Music announced it would be closing in December, after five years of critical — but not financial — success.

* * *

On the west side of Maryland Parkway, progress marches on. Aside from the new student union, two other major facilities are under various stages of construction: a new student recreation center on the south side of campus, near the Thomas & Mack Center, and the new Science, Engineering and Technology building on the north side. By the fall of 2006, construction should be under way on Greenspun Hall, the new home for the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs.

“Besides Greenspun Hall, there are other key campus-side buildings and initiatives being planned,” Grey said, “like a new campus gateway entrance — a ‘Black Mountain Institute’ building — that would be home to the International Institute of Modern Letters.”

All of this is part of Harter’s vision for UNLV to become a premier research institution, whose presence “is a huge advantage in the creative economy,” according to Dr. Florida’s book. There are other steps being taken, outside of infrastructure and Harter’s “Invent the Future” capital campaign, to ensure UNLV attains its goals.

One major step is Harter’s push to raise the admissions standards of UNLV. Originally, there was a 10-year plan to increase grade point average requirements to 3.0. At the next meeting of the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents, Harter will request the GPA increase be advanced from 2010 to 2007.

It is likely that Harter will get her wish. Both Board Chair Bret Whipple and NSHE Chancellor James Rogers are behind the idea of raising admissions standards at UNLV and the University of Nevada, Reno.

“Only the top high school graduates, those who have excelled in the most demanding courses in high school, should be brought into the rigorous academic life of our fine universities,” Rogers said in his State of the System address on Thursday.

Almost like peering into a crystal ball, Harter’s Planning Retreat vision of UNLV in 10 years predicted such loftier standards.

“Academic requirements to enter UNLV had become very competitive,” Harter said to the imagined student of the future, “and you are glad you have made it this far.”

Not only does Harter have the support of her superiors in making her university a more elite academic institution, she also has the representative support of the student body, or at least of its elected president, Peter Goatz.

“With the addition of Nevada State College,” Goatz said, “we are able to be more selective with our students and really make a true college experience similar to that of UCLA, USC, and the other schools within our range.”

* * *

From Saltman to Harter to Grey, it seems most of the involved parties want to remind the world that Midtown is a long-term plan, and one that is far from fruition. Of course, looking at the pace of progress on the university side of things — new buildings, increasing admissions standards — the reality doesn’t seem so far away. On the private side, however, Maryland Parkway is still trying to redefine itself without any help.

“Multiple studies are underway,” Saltman reassures, “and the outcomes are still down the road.”

Those outcomes will undoubtedly be a boon to the campus, but it remains to be seen just how they will affect the organically developed businesses on the other side of the parkway.

“It would be really exciting if Maryland Parkway was stylish, but not forced or fabricated,” Verderame said. “I believe that will only come with time and a natural evolution of businesses continuing to open there.”

Comments are closed.