Before and After

Time and fortune are especially fleeting in Las Vegas, and both long ago ran out on casino owner Ann Meyers and her Queen of Hearts Hotel and Casino, built in 1964. The casino is closed, and the hotel is on life support—its brand of low ceilings, monthly rentals and weird smells no longer welcome. Barrick Gaming Corporation, known for its Golden Nugget casino in Laughlin, owns the Queen now. One day they will flatten it and repour the sidewalk outside at Lewis Avenue and First Street where, legend has it, once stood the small golden statue of an elephant that gamblers could rub for luck. A reputation for success reportedly kept a high shine on its posterior.

The pachyderm has disappeared, but casino owners and developers alike are betting hard on this part of town: now the Arts District, once a nondescript area of light industrial buildings, crack hotels, thrift stores and dingbats, right in the armpit of the Fremont Street Experience. Their currency is another kind of experience: that of living in a semi-traditional, vibrant urban downtown; something this is not, something Vegas does not have. It's hastened by the fact that, in its hundredth year, the fastest-growing city in the nation is now officially built-out—but it's inspired, somewhat weirdly, by New York—SoHo, to be exact—and Newport Beach. Newport? Actually, Newport lofts.

"On Newport, I think we're over 70 percent. We still have units left, but they're moving fast," says Grant Garcia, sales director for Newport Lofts Las Vegas, one of three huge loft projects going up just south of the Queen, near Fourth and Hoover streets. "Fifty percent of our buyers are out-of-state, and a good majority are from Southern California—mainly 'cause it's so close, and there's a lot of people looking to buy a second home."

Garcia doesn't know how many out-of-state buyers are from Orange County, but the splashy ads for Newport Lofts placed in the Weeklyand local magazines—featuring blond, bikinied, Paris Hilton-esque girls with blue-tinted eyes—can't have hurt that percentage. Nor can the setup for Newport, which, unlike the SoHo and another nearby loft complex, touts its rooftop pool to, er, the skies. Honestly—and it's not just those fat checks from Sam Cherry Development and Seegmiller Partners—these will be nice units when Newport is delivered in December 2006. Coming in at 900 to 1,700 square feet, these units have every bit the modern furniture (more Pottery Barn than Design Within Reach), stainless steel kitchen appliances and concrete flooring you'd expect for $500,000 to $1.7 million. They are very nice.

Except. For starters, they're selling coastal living in a place that is miles from any beach. This is hubris on a par with Bugsy Siegel, who 50 years ago had the unmitigated gall to build the city's splashiest casino—at what was then basically a truck stop for G.I.s. Then there's the whole downtown-urban-loft thing. Vegas should know better; this is a place built on gambling, not loft-living, a concept best reserved for cities with enough history to have vacant high-rise buildings that can be converted into lofts. That's how the whole architectural equation works: as reuse. In that context, everyone wins. A historical building is saved, yuppies get some swanky new-old digs and a formerly scummy area is revived. This part of town will have everything but the vintage high-rises.

Not that the lack of a suitable past will slow anything down. In fact, this could be why Seegmiller—which, coincidentally or not, is based in Newport—chose an Orange County area as the building's ideal. Newport has lofts too, particularly in its trendy Cannery Row area, where, just as in Vegas, they were built from scratch. Anaheim, Irvine and Placentia either have created or are contemplating building their own downtown areas. Irvine envisions a mixed-use mlange of condos, apartments, businesses, restaurants and theaters—but clean, a developer promised recently. Not like Los Angeles. And in Anaheim, the city went so far as to demolish a host of semi-historic buildings that, it was determined, just didn't work anymore.

On a slightly different note, a Garden Grove casino is still a possibility. In some ways, we're not different from Las Vegas at all.

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