Planned apartments would bring downtown Vegas vibe to Westside. Not everyone’s happy.
Planned apartments would bring downtown Vegas vibe to Westside. Not everyone’s happy.
December 11, 2022
The Nevada Independent
By Naoka Foreman
A new Historic Westside mixed-use project has garnered mixed responses from the area’s residents, who are skeptical after years of disinvestment in the neighborhood and plans not coming to fruition.
Project developer Sam Cherry — who brought luxury, high-rise condos to downtown Las Vegas in the early 2000s — said the new housing endeavor fits with his original goal of bringing “urban infill projects” to the area. The project, planned for the corner of D Street and Jefferson Avenue, will be the third iteration of his community-oriented, small-dwelling concept known as “Share Downtown.”
“It's all community-based,” he said. “It's the number one thing on our mind. How do we engage the building and how do we plug into the surrounding community, as well?”
The builder said his focus is making the 480-square-foot, one-bedroom apartments attainable to the average working person, with rent starting at $1,100 a month.
The 84-unit development, which is set to break ground this spring and open in 2025, marks the extension of Downtown Las Vegas into the historic neighborhood.
“To me, the Historic Westside is a major part of downtown,” Cherry said in an interview.
The historic area where Cherry will build the new dwelling was once home to a Black cultural renaissance while mid-century anti-Black laws confined African Americans to the west side of Las Vegas. Segregationist policies governed the Las Vegas Strip and downtown, but the subjugated Black community developed businesses, nightclubs, cultural events and casinos, including the Moulin Rouge, which made the front page of TIME Magazine in June 1955.
But the neighborhood has fallen on rough times following the integration of the city in the 1960s, Rodney King riots during the 1990s and high unemployment from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The estimated $18 million “Share Downtown Historic Westside” development is a partnership with the City of Las Vegas that includes a $1 million Community Development Block Grant toward construction costs, and a discounted cost of $1 per parcel. It will be on land now owned by the city after the New Jerusalem Worship Center transferred ownership in 2018.
The building is set to reflect the neighborhood's heritage in its design and “incorporate items that were salvaged from the church,” according to city leaders.
“This is an exciting new development planned in the Historic Westside,” Ward 5 Las Vegas City Councilman Cedric Crear said in a press release on Oct. 19. “Creating new jobs and making housing available to our residents is critical to ensuring the community thrives.”
After a request for proposals for the plot of land yielded zero “viable” responses, the city’s redevelopment agency (RDA) asked Cherry Development to bring mixed-used workforce housing — a term that means homes that are affordable to teachers, union workers, firefighters and retail workers — to the “highly distressed” neighborhood.
RDA, which is legally a separate entity at City Hall, plans to enter into a contract to lease a retail space in the 10,000-square-foot commercial area that will occupy the bottom level of Share Downtown Historic Westside to create a business incubator center.
“It rounds out our educational workforce development there,” Crear said in an interview.
The agency also plans to pay a portion of the tax increment generated by the project to the developer, Cherry, who sits on the Las Vegas Planning Commission after being appointed by Mayor Carolyn Goodman in 2015.
For decades, Cherry has developed condos and restaurants downtown with two partners. He said past projects such as the original Share Downtown, which debuted in 2020, and Share Downtown Fremont East, which will open in January 2023, led to a rise in developer interest in areas that were once neglected.
“We just love downtown – we're big advocates of it,” Cherry said. “Whether there's an oversupply or undersupply [of housing], our primary mission is to try to improve downtown and the lifestyle of downtown and leave it – [with] the little bit that we could do – as a better place for future generations.”
He said the retention rates are stable and that residents like the community aspect of the building, which includes free events on site throughout the year and close proximity to restaurants, bars and boutique shops.
“We really wanted to focus on getting to an [affordable] price point – that you can live, work and play, truly in downtown,” he said about his apartment brand.
To qualify as a renter for the new Westside development, an applicant has to meet certain criteria such as being employed and passing a credit check.
Amy Maier, a spokesperson for Cherry Development, said there are a number of factors that go into a “formula” to approve applicants, including the exclusion of people who make more than 120 percent of the average median income (AMI), or more than $70,000 a year.
“There are some limitations that we have as developers on the project,” Cherry said.
Cherry counted the income limitation as a benefit because it aligns with his goal to build small, attainable apartment communities in downtown.
He said when his company broke ground in the early 2000s for the 16-story Soho Lofts and 22-story Newport Lofts that are now part of the Las Vegas skyline, the intention was to create an “urban infill project” in downtown, not luxury, high-rise living with units that now start at $2,400 a month, but the housing market took his plan in a different direction.
With urban infill projects, developers increase the number of people living in a distressed area by building a dwelling on unused or underutilized land. Cherry said Share Downtown brings his original vision of “urban multifamily rentals” to life.
A plan in motion
Construction for the new apartment dwelling is expected to begin in April 2023, which aligns with certain goals in the HUNDRED Plan, or the Historic Urban Neighborhood Design Redevelopment plan, regarding housing diversity on the Historic Westside.
The revitalization plans include expanding housing to new and current residents, adding business incubators, improving streets and walkability (leaders broke ground on this project early this month), and reestablishing bustling Black culture through a state-of-the-art African American museum and performing arts center.
“It'd be a beautiful project and help beautify the community,” Crear said about the new homes.
Las Vegas councilmember-appointed city planners and the RDA are focused on implementing the first phase of the HUNDRED Plan to “revitalize” the Historic Westside, an area where the average median household income is $25,000 a year, or half of the city’s overall average.
The $232,600 city-led demolition project that tore down Greater New Jerusalem in February 2021 was funded by a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant that helps cities develop low-income areas.
“In order to make projects price accordingly … we work with developers to give them the land at a very low cost,” Crear said. “And then they'd be able to build at a lower cost, which in turn the units would be rented at a lower cost.”
In 2020, Crear and then-Commissioner Lawrence Weekly released an updated rendering of the HUNDRED Plan, alerting people that leaders were moving forward with the plan for the “beloved Historic Westside neighborhood” amid new resources.
“My commitment to this project supports the city of Las Vegas in every way possible,” Crear said in the 2020 letter attached to the HUNDRED Plan. “The strategies will steer how we work with a number of partners to advance investments in vital areas, and how we support this community in just and equitable ways.”
The HUNDRED Plan lists a number of policy changes that have been proposed but not brought to completion, such as an ordinance that would lift liquor license restrictions, strategies to prevent displacement of existing residents, a resolution to define equity, and technology investments to promote WiFi and cellular service access.
To move things along, city leaders are using a tool called “formed-base coding” that involves zoning amendments. The nationally used tool allows a governmental body to bypass zoning restrictions to contribute to cohesive and eclectic neighborhood development, mainly in a historic district.
“We vowed not to let the HUNDRED Plan in action stop,” Crear said. “And so we have been pushing forward with other initiatives.”
Following the 2020 announcement about moving forward with developments, installations such as new Historic Westside signs – made to attract tourists – and the $3.2 million Westside Legacy Park were quickly constructed. Crear said there is another request for proposals out on four parcels of land, but unlike the plot on D Street and Jefferson Avenue where Share is being developed, the city has received responses from developers.
He said city leaders are steering clear of “cookie cutter” projects on land that they control and are more focused on creative, unique developments that are cohesive with the redevelopment plan.
“So we'll evaluate [proposals] and see if it makes sense for the project and the parcel that they're going on,” Crear said. “And then we make a determination. And then we move forward.”
The Las Vegas RDA was launched in the late 1980s “to revitalize downtown Las Vegas and the surrounding aging commercial districts,” according to a city website. During its 1986 launch, leaders focused on the neighborhoods between Charleston Boulevard and Washington Avenue, stretching from Martin Luther King Boulevard to about Eastern Avenue.
Though many plans came before the HUNDRED Plan, according to the city website, it was not until 2015 that the Historic Westside became a designated area by the RDA.
“We need to redevelop the entire community. You can't just do one project at a time,” Crear said, explaining the purpose of the HUNDRED Plan. “You have to look at what it's going to take to revitalize the entire community.”
While city leaders plan the future of local working-class communities, sometimes they experience backlash from residents who are fearful that the changes would displace resources. One example is from February, when Crear came face to face with the mistrust of residents after seeking to move, upgrade and expand the West Las Vegas Library.
In Capital City, a book by Urban Planning Analyst Samuel Stein, research revealed that for dozens of urban areas across the nation, revitalization meant a fractured community, gentrification and “incremental” displacement.
Gentrification is described by geography expert Leslie Kern as the process of commodifying a place, or practice, in a way that diminishes its cultural heritage. Meanwhile, “incremental gentrification” defines the practice of making a neighborhood look and feel unfamiliar through small investments and changes, causing displacement stress.
“I vowed that we wouldn't let another plan … sit on a shelf again,” Crear said. “I love my community and I want to see it prosper.”
Downtrodden and forgotten
Following decades of neighborhood shrinkage, the announcement of the mixed-use project didn’t immediately win over nearby residents and business owners.
Pierre Dickerson, 60, who is part owner of a clothing store on the corner of D Street and Jackson Avenue, said after years of hearing about plans of reinvestment, community members have gotten used to “nothing.” He said the main thing the Historic Westside needs from leaders is “love.”
To Dickerson, love means a reliable commitment to the well-being of the neighborhood, the “downtrodden” people who occupy it and the hardworking business owners who have outlasted political neglect and multiple attempts of revitalization.
“It sounds good,” he said about the new housing development. “And it is going to be a good thing. But it's not going to do nothing for this community.”
Residents said over the years the area quietly changed through both building demolitions and additions such as bicycle lanes. Some business owners closed their doors, hoping to earn a small fortune if they could sell their property to city leaders, while others remained open, passionately attached to the neighborhood's history and pushing back against looming cultural displacement.
Dickerson said the Historic Westside community needs reinvestment that would help the downtrodden residents in the area. He suggested a rehabilitation center where people can “mentally get back strong.”
“It's just sad,” he said. “How you've got all this negativity that's being said about the area. Okay. What do you expect, when no type of love is being shown?”
Antonio Woods, 42, once owned a small market on D Street in the heart of the Historic Westside and said new housing “might be good” as long as it is accessible, stating that many people live in the area because the “run down apartments” accept residents with criminal backgrounds.
“It might be good for the community and hopefully give people a place to live,” he said. “But, honestly, it's hard to get a place to live with your background. They do a lot of checking just for you to live.”
He said the new development could help current residents obtain upgraded housing if property managers work with people who have criminal records as well as people who might have a low credit score.
But the price could be another barrier, Woods said, because residents in the area are accustomed to paying about $600 a month for a one-bedroom unit. He said a thousand dollars for a one-bedroom apartment will not help people currently living on the Westside, and also expressed doubts that it would attract people from outside the area
“This is the Black community,” he said. “And everybody ain't gonna want to move here.”
Woods and Dickerson said the area continues to devalue as businesses remain closed and the number of empty plots continue to grow.
Dickerson said the area can easily thrive if businesses reopen. The problem is that many businesses need reconstruction after fires and damages accumulated over time.
“But it's like, what do you expect when it's been forgotten?” he said.