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Sixteen Months Later, CityCenter Has Yet to Hit its Stride
As Spectacular as CityCenter is, it has Become Las Vegas' Tower of Babel
Serving as a Symbol of What Could go Wrong

By Buck Wargo, Las Vegas SunMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

April 25, 2011--It's a big celebration that is quintessentially Las Vegas.

I discovered upon moving here from Southern California in 2005 a casino opening is part birthday party, movie premiere and New Year's Eve all rolled into one. Locals even have a childlike anticipation as if they're waiting impatiently to see what they're going to unwrap on Christmas Day, hoping it's the shiny new toy they always wanted.

That's how I looked at it when I attended the December 2009 gala opening of CityCenter's Aria. It was going to be one of the biggest openings ever in Las Vegas and the place to be.

That's a long way from when then-MGM Mirage understatedly announced in a November 2004 news release its plans to build a multibillion-dollar "urban metropolis" of hotels and condominium towers on 66 acres. At the time, CityCenter was projected to cost about $4 billion for the 4,000-room hotel with a casino, three boutique hotels, 550,000 square feet of retail shops and 1,650 condominium units. The plan called for the creation of more than 7,000 construction jobs and 12,000 permanent jobs when it was completed. That city-in-a-city dubbed "Project CityCenter" was about to be unwrapped.

Entering the complex for the first time that night didn't disappoint. The scope of the project and architecture of CityCenter was undeniably impressive. Could it live up to its hype?

Many had expected it to be the crowning achievement on the Vegas Strip that would reset the center of one of the most famous streets in the world. It was called a sign of what's to come and the cherry on top of Las Vegas' sundae in a community that thought the good times would never end.

More than two years later, as spectacular as CityCenter is, it has become Las Vegas' Tower of Babel--serving as a symbol of what could go wrong.

It says more about the mentality of Las Vegas and why the city has felt the recession like no other metropolis in America.

This story is about the hubris of Las Vegas itself--that the good times will never end and snake eyes will never be rolled on the craps table. Wall Street was willing to invest in Las Vegas and whatever shiny casino it built--the attitude was more people will come to gamble. The mentality has been "who needs diversification when you have the casino industry leading the way?"

When CityCenter was announced, Bill Thompson, a UNLV professor who specializes in gaming, said the psychology of the Las Vegas gaming industry was to grow and grow until it busts. The city and casino industry have the spirit of the gambler, and that's not easily overcome. He turned out to be a prophet.

"Our spirit is to keep growing--to always look to the future," Thompson says. "Our survival is tied to what the gambler calls his bankroll--staying power for the times when bets go bad. Now that may be questioned. CityCenter was trying to do too much."

Las Vegas is nothing if not resilient and over time will rebound economically, and many fully expect CityCenter to ultimately live up to much of its much-hyped potential.

Years from now people will only see what's in place and not the back story of how it brought a casino giant to its financial knees; how it didn't bring about the immediate growth in jobs and tourism that many expected and instead cut into other casinos' profits and their employment.

When you take on the largest private construction project in U.S. history, resources, personnel and oversight get stretched to their limits. Six construction workers died in 2007 and 2008, and workers even walked off the job for most of one day to protest safety practices of Perini Building Co.

Construction defects halted work on the Harmon hotel with work done on just 27 of its planned 47 stories. It faces demolition once litigation is resolved, and its only use is a place to put signage to direct people to CityCenter.

No one could envision any of this in November 2004 when MGM billed CityCenter as a departure from the usual adult playground. It was called the next evolution of Las Vegas. The final cost of the project was $8.5 billion.

Despite MGM bringing in Dubai World as a 50-50 partner in CityCenter in 2007, it came close to filing for bankruptcy protection in March 2009 when it made a $200 million equity payment to keep the project going.

The CityCenter team can't be totally faulted for initiating such an ambitious project during the boom, observers say. The Vegas brand was extremely popular and a flood of capital was flowing into real estate across the country, especially Southern Nevada. And few anticipated the depth and breadth of the Great Recession. At the same time, the Las Vegas housing and commercial markets were being overbuilt.

Some suggest still that if CityCenter would have been built in phases instead of all at once, and just focused on the casino and hotel, it would have turned out better.

"It still amazes me the intensity of the hubris that took hold in between 2000 and 2006 when many believed that we'd really Manhattanize Las Vegas," says John Restrepo, a principal at Restrepo Consulting. "I assume if MGM could go back in time, knowing what it knows today, it wouldn't have made the high-rise residential component such a major part of CityCenter."

During its announcement, MGM had billed CityCenter as more potentially profitable than a typical megaresort in part because money raised from about $1 billion in sales of Manhattan-style high-rise condominium units would help offset the project's debt.

With the condominium market in the tank, MGM in 2009 discounted its high-rise units by 30 percent and even then could only close on about 450 of the 2,387 it had on the market or one third of the 1,300 it had under contract.

In a city with an abundance of hotel rooms, the desire for condominium living hasn't panned out. The desire for condominiums has traditionally been in high-density markets with panoramic water views and high incomes.

"Many in the community actually believed we could manufacture Manhattan-style living in the middle of the desert. Well, we manufactured replicas of New York, Paris, Venice and other locales," Restrepo says. "So we couldn't also manufacture high-rise living on a large scale here as well. At one point, there were tens of thousands of high-rise units on the drawing boards. It was just completely overblown. That large-scale high-density living only happens organically over a long period of time was looked at as old-school thinking. We were able to convince ourselves that the Strip at night, with all its colors and lights, was the same as water views."

Did CityCenter create a city within a city as was billed? Despite all the challenges facing CityCenter, many see it setting in a positive light a new standard for design and amenities that will be considered by future resort developers in Las Vegas and other markets.

The architecture is stunning with renowned architects Daniel Libeskind, and Rafael Vinoly and Cesar Pelli, but not everyone sees it that way.

"Hats off for them trying to create the next generation of Las Vegas," says David Edelstein, president of TriStar Capital, owner of the Miracle Mile Shops across the street from CityCenter at Planet Hollywood. "I salute their vision, but this isn't what Vegas is about. Are you trying to create something that doesn't fit with why people come here? People come here to leave all that high-rise stuff behind and that formality behind and uber-architecture behind, to have fun and not take things so damn seriously."

The project has 1,200 feet of Strip frontage, but even tourists and residents didn't know where CityCenter began when Cosmopolitan opened in December.

It isn't the most accessible for people walking along the Strip. The addition of the building wrap on the Harmon has letters and arrows pointing out where Aria and Crystals are. Crystals feels more like a museum than a retail center. It lacks energy you feel at the Forum Shops and other resorts with retail centers, and its high-end retailers leave many people window-shopping at best.

"Even if you take that, they went beyond that," Edelstein said. "They took Madison Avenue, Rodeo Drive and Champs-elysees to the highest-end retailers and put them in the Guggenheim Museum. It's not a shopping experience. It's a visual architecture experience."

Even months before it opened, Las Vegans were still hoping CityCenter would be the panacea that softened the blow of the recession that led to fewer tourists spending less money and casinos cutting jobs.

But as the opening approached, economists at UNLV dismissed suggestions that CityCenter's opening would boost the economy, as had been the history of resort openings with the excitement and increase in room demand.

They said CityCenter wouldn't boost the local economy, that its profits would come at the expense of other properties by lowering room rates with increased competition--and that appears to be the case. Many analysts aren't expecting another casino to be built in Las Vegas for at least a decade.

Restrepo says the story of CityCenter symbolizes the view of Las Vegas as immune to the laws of economics because it sustained itself during other recessions and people kept coming and spending. He jokingly paraphrased economist John Maynard Keynes that everything works out over the long term.

"It's still a marquee project. Like all other projects, you have to judge CityCenter over time," Restrepo says. "We haven't seen its ultimate impact changing the face of Las Vegas. We can't grade it fairly until we get through the recession."

So, has Las Vegas learned anything in this recession? Is hubris still in vogue?

"Often times it takes going through a trauma to take you to the next level," Restrepo says. "Pittsburgh went through it with the steel industry and it happened to the textile industry in the South. New York City went bankrupt in the 1970s and even Boston redid itself with high technology. It takes a crisis to rethink the future and lose some of that hubris."

Long term, I believe Las Vegas will be served by the construction of CityCenter. Like the Mirage, Caesars Palace, Bellagio and other megaresorts, an ever-increasing number of worldwide gamblers will be lured to this still great city to experience what's inside.

And with one of the best locations on the Strip, what are now empty condominiums will eventually be bought and occupied. No condominium development tops it for what it has downstairs, and it's a place I would live without hesitation. In a heartbeat.

But if CityCenter also serves as a monument that helps Las Vegas learn to keep its ego in check and take a path that leaves it less vulnerable to future recessions and real estate downturns, then that just may be its most important lasting legacy.


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Copyright (c) 2011, Las Vegas Sun

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