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Overcoming Controversy on the Historic Westside

Through UNLV's Downtown Design Center, architecture students learn vital lessons in collaboration during neighborhood redevelopment.

Business and Community  |  Jul 1, 2016  |  By Jason Scavone
renderings of maryland parkway

Head east on McWilliams Avenue in Las Vegas, in the shadow of Interstate 15, and slowly round the corner north on E Street. If you look to the right, there are spare low, flat buildings, stubbornly clinging to a dirt lot where grass intermittently and apathetically pokes through.

The rest of the Historic Westside is much the same, alternating vacant lots with distressed property. Look closely at enough at abandoned houses and you’ll see scorch marks scarring the windows. Ruined by squatters’ fire gone awry, these buildings may soon disappear from the map.

It wasn’t always this way. The Westside was once a crackling, buzzing neighborhood. With the vision of UNLV’s Downtown Design Center and the Historic Urban Neighborhood Design Redevelopment, or HUNDRED Plan, it is ready for major redevelopment.

Early last year, Las Vegas City Councilman Ricki Barlow, the Ward 5 leader who represents the Historic Westside, came to his alma mater looking for help. It wasn’t the first time a representative of the city wanted to do something about the neighborhood that for so long was the center of African-American life in Las Vegas.

“A couple years ago I took a look at the area and wanted to redevelop this historic area,” said Barlow ’08 BA Political Science, ’12 Masters of Public Administration. “I knew in order for me to do that I needed some input and a sound neutral body to come and assist in the raw data for what I was looking to embark upon.” He also saw a great opportunity connect UNLV research to the community and to get current students involved in a practical development project.

But there had been other plans for the neighborhood. Every time a new one was drafted, the community would get excited. And then nothing would happen.

“Since 1995, the community had four different plans done. They've got a long shelf life, but all the plans seemed to be gathering dust,” said Steven Clarke, director of the Downtown Design Center, a studio for UNLV’s undergraduate architecture and landscape architecture students.

When Clarke took over the Downtown Design Center in December 2014, Barlow had already asked the center to develop a proposal for the Historic Westside that could become part of the Vision Las Vegas Downtown 2035 Plan, a more expansive master plan for the entire area. Clarke read the initial draft. There were some good ideas, he said, but the community clearly had not been fully engaged in the planning process. Clarke wanted the Historic Westside portion to be rooted in practicality, history, and community — a plan that was actionable.  

 “When I looked at this very academic proposal I had inherited, I knew if we did what was in that proposal it would just sit on the shelf. … The community has to like the plan, because if they don't, then they're not going to be supportive of the plan. They need to be part of that process.”

There were two significant hurdles. The first was that the new Downtown Design Center director only had about a week to come up with something better. So he assembled a team of students, a group of local designers, and a small selection of international architects for a three-day charrette. Such intensive planning events not only involve community members, they make them authors of the plan.

The bigger problem, however, was that this particular community had been burned by years of broken promises when it came to Westside redevelopment. Residents were skeptical at best, hostile at worst.

Too often groups had swooped in with an attitude that they knew what was best for the community, said Katherine Duncan, president of the Ward 5 Chamber of Commerce and operator of the historic Harrison House on F Street. “So much so, it's been hard for us to keep our emotions in a manageable format. People have so many different concepts of what ought to be in this neighborhood. [Clarke’s team] was thrown into a sort of a hornet's nest.”

Contention to Collaboration

Any illusions Clarke had about a harmonious convergence of disparate factions was summarily shattered as soon as he walked into the first workshop of the charrette on March 3, 2015. Stakeholders in the neighborhood sat on one side of the room, designers on the other. Only the venerable Claytee White, director of UNLV Libraries’ Oral History Research Center, sat in the middle.

Accusations started flying. Was the Downtown Design Center working with local developers behind closed doors? Was Clarke profitting from the project? Why weren't African-Americans better representated on the team?

The first two questions were easy to clarify: No and no. But the third question cut right to the issue of a weary community, Clarke said. They wanted to work with people who had personal connections to the community. Fortunately, shortly before the charrette started, Barlow had introduced Clarke to UNLV alumnus Kelvin Haywood, then with the local firm KME Architects. Haywood, ’98 BS Architecture, is now project designer for the 14th Air Force and Joint Functional Component Command for Space at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Local architect and UNLV alumnus Kelvin Haywood with the international consultants at the charrette for Historic Westside redevelopment efforts. (Courtesy of Kirsten Clarke)  It was late in the game to bring another designer on board, but Haywood, who had previously worked on restoration plans for the Westside School, jumped at the chance to tackle redevelopment in the entire neighborhood. Because he was a late addition, though, Haywood, wasn’t officially part of the team — a fact not lost on community members. With tension mounting, one of the local architects pulled Clarke aside. He said he would volunteer to withdraw from the project if it meant Haywood could take his spot. It was a natural fit.

Certainly, Haywood had the professional skills, but he also knew he could help bridge the divide in the room simply by "being someone who looks like them," he said. "I don't get into Oh, I'm black, he's white — the work needed to get done. The decision (for me) was: ‘You're a professional, you're a designer, and we need an architect. You have a vested interest in this neighborhood. Come aboard.’ The answer was absolutely.”

‘Best Experience, Period’

No one working on the HUNDRED Plan got caught in the middle more than the students. Not only were they facing a skeptical community, but they found themselves under the kind of deadlines and pressure normally reserved for established professionals.

It may have been trial by fire, but the students were forged in the flame. It started with them listening to concerns from the community. After the charette, they ventured into the community, even on weekends, to strengthen connections with the people who lived there and organized another community workshop. They overhauled earlier proposals to incorporate input from neighborhood stakeholders and held yet another public meeting to present their ideas.

Westside resident Shondra Summers-Armstrong, left, talks with architecture students Mohamed Al Jaonni, Sandra Conteras-Chavez, and urban designer Joaquin Karakas of MODUS. (Courtesy of Kirsten Clarke)

Sandra Contreras is currently pursuing her masters in architecture at UNLV. She was a senior last year during the charrette. “When we went there and talked to people, it felt like they were almost screaming for help,” she said. Or rather, for someone to listen. “It was a real-life experience where you talk to the people and they tell you what they need. You do your homework and try to put together the best you can to fulfill their needs.

“I met people that I didn't even know how they confronted the situation they had because they're living in that community. I'm friends with people nowadays that live there and leaders of the community. It was something really important to be a part of. It was the best experience in school, period.”

The Big Moves

By the end of the project, the contentious situation had evolved into a functioning collaboration. Ideas from the community were incorporated. Concepts from the students, the international team and the local team were resolved. The scope was edited down to something practical, and one final plan was drawn up.

The HUNDRED Plan calls for a series of eight “Big Moves,” catalyst projects that can jump-start redevelopment in the area. There’s no one silver bullet project that can overhaul the neighborhood overnight, Clarke said, but by starting with basic infill into vacant buildings and empty lots, the catalysts are aimed at spurring growth.

They cover everything from the cosmetic (establishing clearly marked gateways that greet visitors to the Westside) to infrastructure (creating complete streets and repairing the edges of the neighborhood to benefit commercial growth) to entertainment (developing a mixed-use Moulin Rouge Entertainment District, a music district on Washington Avenue) to creating a vital heart for the community.

It’s that last one that was at the top of most stakeholders’ wish lists for plan goals. Specifically, the revitalization of Jackson Avenue into a vibrant, bustling thoroughfare, to be known again as Jackson Street.

Anchored on the west at H Street by a reborn Walker African-American History Museum and on the east at James Gay Park, the plan calls for a Jackson that would become the de facto center of neighborhood life. It envisions corner shops, coffeehouses and restaurants; sidewalks, trees and street festivals.

Similarly, Washington Avenue between D and H streets would be reborn as a live music and entertainment district that can be home to an annual music festival. The old Moulin Rouge site would be developed into an entertainment district to take advantage of proximity to the Tenaya Creek Brewery, which opened in fall 2015, but could also see use as the site of a vocational training school.

Beyond entertainment, the plan specifies infill of vacant lots with dense housing that fits the scale of the neighborhood, either cottage cluster housing, laneway housing, apartments or townhouses, all bordered by streets designed for pedestrians, bikes, and cars alike. Vacant land owned by some of the dozens of churches in the area could be used to build senior housing and create a reciprocal system where seniors are able to live next to churches, and in return, help staff church events as volunteers.

The plan, though, is ultimately only as good as its implementation. On June 15, the city voted to adopt HUNDRED as part of the overall Downtown Las Vegas 2045 Vision Plan, which means the plan now is officially in the city’s hands. Next, a community development corporation is to be created to oversee implementation. To help grease the wheels, the city already has tapped into some development funds through federal and state agencies, and further work to these agencies should lay the groundwork for private investment.

There’s still plenty that has to go right over the next five years for the plan to come to fruition. Infrastructure projects have to stay on track. The persistent homeless issue in the area has to be addressed. Private business has to be lured back to an area that has a reputation for crime and questionable safety. But for now, there’s more reason for optimism than there has been in years.

“The Westside seems to be a unique community,” Clarke said. “I've never felt so such involvement. A lot of people disappear after you have the events. This is the one time in my 20-year career I can say it was different. It's like Las Vegas is a very different city. It is the Las Vegas factor.”