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The City Within Sin City

The new visionary CityCenter may be the sparkling future of Las Vegas
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Chris Noth, May/June 2010

It's a Friday night on the Las Vegas Strip. All things appear to be as they should. Steve Wynn's twin monoliths slice the sky. The Palms logo sizzles in the distance. Caesars Palace beckons as it has for decades. A volcano erupts at the Mirage. Waters fronting the Bellagio do choreographed dance routines. And pirates parry swords on a big ship in front of Treasure Island.

Then you make your way to the spot where Harmon Avenue meets Las Vegas Boulevard. This is ground zero for CityCenter, MGM Mirage's recently completed, $8.5-billion hotel/casino/condo/retail complex. On the high wall of Crystals shopping mall, running parallel to the sidewalk, lights sparkle in the patterns of Louis Vuitton logos. Behind it, six towers stand in a curvy, glassy, sharply edged cluster. It looks more like Shanghai's instant high-rise neighborhood of Pudong than anything you'd expect to find in the sprawling Southwestern United States.

Compared to the rest of Vegas, the buildings of CityCenter may as well be a battalion of alien spaceships, freshly landed on the Strip. Located in a place that defines itself through unique designs and outrageous spectacles, CityCenter ranks as the most unique specimen in years. Ultra-modern and sleek, the so-called city-within-a-city skews your view of what Las Vegas can look like and feel like.

Previous resorts here have been all about expansive facades, airiness, and loads of empty spaces that add up to convey a sense of luxury. No less a visionary than Steve Wynn has touted expansiveness as an ultimate amenity. CityCenter, living up to its name, is intentionally dense, with its Manhattan block's worth of shimmering structures on acreage that approximates Bellagio's. Starchitects possessing international pedigrees designed the buildings-classic casino formulas were tossed out the window. When you stand on a CityCenter overpass, where cars below zip to and from the Strip, it's easy to imagine that you have stepped into Las Vegas's future-albeit, one that is fraught with uncertainty at this economically fragile moment.

Bill McBeath, the sharply dressed president and COO of CityCenter's Aria Resort & Casino, likes to tell a story about his first meeting with Cesar Pelli, the renowned architect who went on to design Aria. "He told us right up front that he doesn't do Vegas," says McBeath. "We said, ‘That's good because we're not doing Vegas either.' "

While CityCenter boasts two hotels (ultra luxe Mandarin Oriental and Aria), a condo-hotel (Vdara, where the rooms feel more like small apartments and are for sale at 30-percent off 2007 prices), a pure condo called Veer Towers and another partially completed hotel (the problem-plagued Harmon), there is just one casino to accommodate all of their players. Bobby Baldwin, CityCenter's president and CEO and a gambling man to the core, explains that this is by design.

He maintains that the single gaming space, inside Aria, is all that City-Center requires. "If you have the right casino, you need only one," Baldwin says, speaking in a somewhat dismissive tone, as if he's already had this discussion too many times. "Part of the appeal of the Mandarin [just a five-minute walk from Aria's front door] is that it does not have a place to gamble. And if the hotel did have one, it would be too small to be successful."

Despite its limited gaming options, CityCenter stands as the most audacious project ever undertaken in Las Vegas. It came in $1.2 billion over budget (thanks, partly, to a rise in global construction just before the crash, which caused material costs to spike) and qualifies as the largest privately funded development in U.S. history. Shopping mall Crystals sets its agenda with the fifth-largest Louis Vuitton store in the world, a Tiffany duplex and a nightclub/restaurant owned by the actress Eva Longoria Parker. All of this seemed ambitious back when Vegas was booming but came to seem suicidal after the bust settled in. Early last year the project tethered on the brink of insolvency, following a temporary pullout from ill-fated business partner Dubai World. That and other financial issues led MGM Mirage to unload its Treasure Island property in order to make ends meet.

Jim Murren, the former Wall Streeter who now serves as MGM Mirage's chairman of the board and CEO, describes last year as "the most challenging of my career." He acknowledges that at one point he feared the entire MGM Mirage company going bankrupt on his watch. "But that situation made the second half of 2009"-when things fell into place for CityCenter-"the most gratifying of my career." Tens of thousands of jobs hung in the balance, and, rightly or wrongly, Vegas residents viewed CityCenter as a make-or-break proposition for their collective future.

Right now, with the project completed and the worst fears allayed, MGM brass expect big things from CityCenter. Competing fat cats around town, of course, take more jaundiced views. In the throes of the Vegas downturn, on the eve of Aria's opening, restaurateur Paul Bartolotta publicly wondered if the city really needs 4,000 more rooms and a new fleet of upscale restaurants. Vegas arriviste Donald Trump categorized CityCenter as "a catastrophe;" Murren fires back by describing Trump's single Vegas property as "a popsicle stand." Steve Wynn, who clearly has more credibility than The Donald, isn't sure why a project like CityCenter even exists on the Strip. Same with Wynn's archenemy Sheldon Adelson, who wondered "Why would people want to go to New York in Vegas when they can go to New York?"

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