Whilst I agree with the many of the local resident’s detailed objections to the scheme – I feel that giving principal weight to the impact on the amenities of the residents of Blue Diamond village misses the plot. More emphasis needs to be given to the wider economic needs of Las Vegas – it needs much higher standards of integration in new development, housing permissions need to be limited at times of unprecedented housing surplus, and it desperately needs an overarching urban design strategy which starts to address the wastefulness of urban sprawl and the need to return to the lower energy lifestyles of the compact city. Such a strategy would recognise the tremendous future value of retaining an unspoilt Red Rocks Canyon, and using Blue Diamond Hill as an overspill recreational garden for the people of Las Vegas and the many outdoor oriented tourists who will increasingly be its lifeblood. Damage to the tourism potential of Red Rocks or its buffer zones will in the long term be highly damaging to the economy of Las Vegas a whole.
Over the last twenty years I have mainly worked in London England – latterly along the south bank of the Thames where the scale of development and impacts are enormous. One job I did involved assessing the impact of the proposed London Eye – a giant Ferris wheel located just opposite the houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. The scheme was turned down – with the result – that a much superior scheme was developed which met the criticisms head on.
I do feel that this is a landmark decision and that it is of great regional and even national significance. Getting it right would be something for Las Vegas to be proud of and a very important first step away from the culture which says “make money today and don’t worry about tomorrow”.
So I feel that as a foreigner I can help provide a less local and more international perspective for the momentous decisions to be taken at the meeting on August 17th.
So whilst I am aware of the scheme’s prejudicial implications for the Red Rocks canyon – and the amenity of Blue diamond residents and recognise these to be significant and important considerations, the bigger issue is the economic survival of Las Vegas as an important western city.
Please permit me to explain.
Place-marketing has become an essential component in the survival and growth strategies of medium sized cities like Las Vegas in both Europe and the United States. Almost all the high quality cites in the western North America have been pursuing sophisticated urban design, environmental resource planning, tourism strategies and place marketing for the last three decades. Starting with Christopher Alexander’s “Pattern Language” a manual of human centred urban design evolved in Berkeley in the late 1960s , these ideas have been adopted by many cities – Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Fe, Albuquerque and many others. For a while thirty years ago when the great post-modern architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown wrote “Learning from Las Vegas” it looked as though Las Vegas might join this enlightened club.
These cities know they are in competition with each other and know the need to provide the stability and environmental resources, schools and quality neighbourhoods necessary to compete and attract high quality business and staff. They know the importance of thinking beyond the next deal – and of committing themselves – laying down and following strategies and plans which are taken seriously and really achieve these objectives. In medieval times the great Italian cities such as Siena, Florence and Rome were in competition with each other. The records have survived and i am clear that they too only achieve great urban design after learning the same bitter lessons. Their important spaces were planned , were controversial and went through similar conflicts and processes of public involvement.
In the even more competitive environment of the 21st century, as the Decline of America advances in the face of oil price rises and turmoil in the financial markets, no city can afford to neglect having a consistent strategy which promotes their individual identity and protects their economy.
The County staff nine years ago produced a sound analysis of an earlier version of the scheme. I reproduce it below. For reasons that are hard to understand from outside, the current report is, by comparison, spineless and without principle in its accommodation to development interests – a typical put up job which tries to allow the elected representatives freedom to approve a terrible scheme. Sad, a disgrace to the city – but not untypical in the planning world. “Thus was it ever”. We have seen this sort of thing in many cities many times before.
Planning staff report and recommendation on fundamental problems with the 2002 Cielo Encantados scheme:
“Analysis Current Planning – Area Character and Land Use Plan Compliance.
“This major project is unique and unlike any other that has been submitted to Clark County for review. Many of the adverse impacts this proposed project may create in the area are not necessarily quantifiable. When considering issues such as historical, cultural, environmental, and visual resources, impacts can many times be qualitative, which makes it extremely difficult to provide for viable and practical mitigation measures? This area has many unique characteristics and lifestyle preferences unlike any other area in Clark County. The existing population of the area (Blue Diamond Road, west of Hualapai, Calico Basin, and the Town of Blue Diamond) is approximately 600 people. The predominant character of the area is low density residential, generally one dwelling unit per two acres. This development is proposing to develop up to 8,400 dwelling units with 51% of those units (4,320 units) being proposed under the medium residential (up to 18 du/ac) land use category. The expected housing typical of medium residential category is an attached residential product. Based on the estimated number of dwelling units, this project would generate an expected population of 21,025 people, an increase of 3,500% over the existing population of the area. That would be analogous to taking a population greater than Boulder City (15,000 people) and over an approximate six year period, insert the population on Blue Diamond Hill. Staff finds that is excessive and is out of character with the existing area.
The proposed land use pattern with corresponding land use ratios are not appropriate for the area. There are repeated policy statements in the Northwest Land Use and Development Guide that reaffirm that potential development should conform to the area’s available resources and should demonstrate compatibility with the area. The applicant should continue working with the affected stakeholders and develop a more viable land use alternative that is more compatible with the neighbourhood and community characteristics.
Transportation and Access
The applicant indicates that the project may employ a maximum of 3,200 people. With an expected population of 21,000 people, a majority of the expected workforce will have lengthy commutes to employment centers. Staff is concerned over the lack of geographic relationship of living areas and working areas and the impact it will have on air quality and transportation facilities.
Another concern is access to the project site. More detailed analysis should be completed prior to approval of this concept plan. That analysis should clearly quantify the impacts to Blue Diamond Highway and the proposed eastern arterial access. The submitted materials are very conceptual. The applicant has indicated that based on preliminary studies, the project, at full build-out, will produce between 42,000 and 50,000 external vehicle trips per day. That is a substantial transportation impact that may overburden an already overburdened Blue Diamond Highway.
It is a generally accepted sound planning policy that costs for servicing any population growth with infrastructure will be significantly less if future growth is guided into a more compact form. The location of this proposed project may have quite an impact to public services and facilities because of the need to expand and extend services beyond current service area limits.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area Impacts:
Staff also has concerns over the potential impacts this development will have on the adjacent Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. It is clearly understood that the original Act indicated that Congress did not intend to establish or lead to establish buffer zones or protective perimeters around the conservation area. It did not preclude more intense activities and/or uses on lands up to the boundary. Notwithstanding, staff finds this project as proposed may have adverse impacts on the adjacent National Conservation Area. A 3,500% population increase will have undeniable impacts on the surrounding area. It shall be incumbent upon the applicant to provide compelling reasons as to how they intend to mitigate those impacts, whether quantitative or qualitative. Therefore, based on the concerns and issues that are enumerated in this report, staff cannot support this request. However, it is strongly suggested the applicant continue to work with affected stakeholders and collectively develop alternative land use solutions.
Staff recommends denial. If this request is approved, the Board and/or Commission find that the application is consistent with the standards and purpose enumerated in the Comprehensive Plan, Title 30, and/or the Nevada Revised Statutes.”
Because of Red Rocks, because of the proximity to Las Vegas and the superb mountain environment – this has become the most important environmental area in Nevada and the most significant recreational green lung for the 2 million population of Las Vegas.
The contribution from gambling and entertainment to state revenues is well understood, but to compete, cities also need to preserve and enhance their natural environmental assets.
Red Rocks is also a top destination for the sort of non gambling tourists that Las Vegas is trying to attract. According to the website, the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area “is visited by more than one million people each year”. In marked contrast to a town geared to entertainment and gaming, Red Rock Canyon offers healthy recreational activities of a different nature including a 13-mile scenic drive, more than 30 miles of hiking trails, rock climbing, horseback riding, mountain biking, road biking, picnic areas, nature observing” and more. A city overlooking the main part of the canyon will certainly diminish that “marked contrast,” thereby detracting from visitors’ experiences and also disrupting natural processes there. The mountain in question buffers the conservation area from the big city; it should not become a satellite city.
Developers argue that the city will be hidden from view on most of Hwy 159 and the scenic loop.
The analysis is flawed, and in any case fails to acknowledge the views from the trails and cliffs. Shiny buildings have very recently appeared on the cliff-line of the mine property, and they are jarring to the view from Hwy 160 (and certainly from other points). Various forms of pollution (air, light) will also affect visitor experiences in the forested Spring Mountains which are above and behind Red Rock to the west.
Construction of this city would constitute leapfrog development, jumping over many square miles of undeveloped land on the Valley floor. This sort of development is against the premises of the Southern Nevada Comprehensive Regional Policy Plan, to which Clark County ascribes, which discourages non-contiguous development and encourages infill.
Views west from Las Vegas and the Clark County’s shield:
The new scheme will also be damaging to views out of Las Vegas – from the city side to the west over the mountain and into Red Rocks. These are important heritage views which remind us of the suffering of the early 19th century travellers on the old Spanish trail. The 100 year old shield of Clark County to be found behind the Commissioners and facing the public in the auditorium has as its backdrop the Spring Mountain skyline as seen to the west from downtown Vegas.
This mountain skyline was the source of the springs which desiccated early 19th century travellers journeyed to in search of water on the arduous Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe to Monterrey then capital of California. These springs were a day’s horse ride west from the meadows of Las Vegas – and were named Cottonwood Springs. Located at the foot of the mountains they later enabled a park to be built and so became the focal centre of the mining village of Blue Diamond. The shield’s mountain skyline will become a historical curiosity in contrast with the new urban core to be constructed in the hill. It reminds me of the 16th century English poet, Edward Spenser’s image of the lilies which then grew alongside the Thames in London – “Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my song”.
Managing housing supply: The time to grant permission for a housing schema is when the housing is needed and it is clear that the housing will be of the right kind and in the right place. This is the essence of a Housing strategy. There is a huge amount of undeveloped land within the urban boundaries of LV.
Credit crunch Las Vegas is already a huge and sprawling city. Since the credit crunch LV has had the biggest oversupply of housing in the US and has experienced an average fall in property prices of 60%. That means that if you paid $400,000 for a house in 2007, its now worth $160,000 – so if you took out a $350,000 mortgage you would owe the bank after selling your house and paying them every penny you sold it for – another $190,000. On the other hand you can now buy a new house for less than half the price it would cost to build tomorrow. The banks have the highest foreclosure rate in the US. Huge numbers of houses are being kept back from the market by the banks in an artificial attempt to avoid house prices crashing further.
Corruption Corruption in the panning system is worldwide, endemic, and not confined to |Nevada. The potential for corruption needs to be identified and steps taken to prevent this happening. I am informed that several years ago in connection with an earlier version of this development, four of the seven members of the commission were involved with corrupt practices and that one Commissioner was actually imprisoned for corruption.
In this situation it is strange that there should continue to be such close connections between developer and Commissioner. In England a law has been introduced requiring any councillor on the local planning committee to declare if he has ever met a developer socially – and to then leave the room and be absent from any decision making meeting concerning that development. Not so in Nevada.
It is therefore surprising that politically astute commissioners do not take steps to disassociate from developers. This would protect them from allegations of corruption. It would also help ensure an end to granting too much housing , or housing development which is (as in this case) both economically unbuildable and in the wrong place.
Oil and compact City: The decline in oil availability will certainly reinforce the need to direct development, foster urban design and create the compact city. This is not pie in the sky, much is already in the Regional plan.
Leaving the Las Vegas Laissez-faire dream world: Las Vegas is still living in a laissez faire dream world – there’s a romanticised tolerance of corruption in the planning process, its poor urban design, its sprawl, weak planning policies and lack of clear measurable planning standards. In the decline of America the winners will be those cities that plan, that brand their city appropriately, that place-market themselves, that manage their housing supply, that protect their environment, fostering tourism, investing in public transportation and education.
We don’t like it but what can we do? This is not the hardest of arguments to answer. Because it argues that it is right to make the wrong decision – because making the right decision would be unpopular or difficult to sustain. There is a time when a politician has to stand up to a bully. There are many ways in which the commissioners could say no – many have been indicated here. What cannot be done is to make an example of Rhodes or to be vindictive to one developer. It is only necessary to be driven by clear principles and to be consistent. Seeing the issue broadly rather than exclusively in terms of the interests of Blue Diamond residents. Above all it is necessary to have an eye to the future and to have the political will . Commissioner Rory Read last year put it nicely when he said he did not want the shame of this scheme to be his legacy. Saying no is the first step towards an effective planning system.
Conclusion: Why would you want to destroy this mountain skyline?
When I was a child the west coast of Ireland was a beautiful unspoilt traditional landscape. of green fields, old cottages, and a gorgeous coastline which was the envy of the world and, to the cognoscenti, a major cultural and tourist attraction. Corruption and weakness in the Irish Planning system has resulted in thousands of ugly modern concrete cottages each exploiting a view and by its presence spoiling it – Ireland’ s west coast landscape has gone forever – like the lilies on the Thames. It is not too late for Nevada to save its beautiful landscape.
Steve Gould 9th august 2011