Vegas Ups the Ante

By Ross von Metzke

Originally published on Advocate.com February 09 2010 9:00 AM ET

The Las Vegas Strip’s first hotel-casino opened just as the Great Depression was coming to a close. Built in 1941 for under $500,000, the El Rancho Vegas triggered a high-stakes development game that now translates into $6.1 billion in annual gaming revenue, more than 37 million yearly visitors, and a gay following that adores the anything-goes spectacle of it all.

So perhaps it’s a sign that the city’s latest megadevelopment, CityCenter, has opened at what most of us are hoping is the tail end of the greatest recession since the El Rancho opened. Since breaking ground in 2006, MGM Mirage and Infinity World Development Corp. (a subsidiary of a Dubai-based investment company) have spent more than $8 billion transforming 67 acres between the Monte Carlo and Bellagio resorts into a vision of Vegas’s future. It’s a city within Sin City—a quartet of glistening high-rise hotels and a residential pair of golden-checkered glass sheaths that tilt like Pisa’s iconic monument.

Instead of the Disney-for-adults design that proliferated during the 1990s, CityCenter continues the sleek aesthetic that took root when Mandalay Bay opened its sexy, casino-free tower, THEhotel, in 2003. There are no mini Eiffel Towers in sight, and the only great pyramids are filtered through a cubist lens in Studio Daniel Libeskind’s sprawling Crystals, a retail and entertainment complex that houses a who’s who of luxury retailers, including the inaugural Las Vegas boutiques from Tom Ford and Paul Smith.

The site also pops with green spaces, elaborate water features, and a $40 million fine art project with existing pieces and commissioned installations straight out of the MoMA playbook: Maya Lin’s 84-foot silver cast of the Colorado River dangles in Aria’s lobby while Henry Moore’s abstract travertine sculpture of mother and child rests in CityCenter’s public park.Next to Crystals at CityCenter’s entrance is Las Vegas’s first Mandarin Oriental Hotel, a 47-story smoke-free ode to opulence that eschews gaming in favor of a 23rd-floor sky lobby, meeting space for 600, and a 27,000-square-foot spa designed to evoke 1930s Shanghai. At the heart of the development is Aria, which combines 4,004 hotel rooms in two curvilinear glass and steel towers with a 150,000-square-foot casino, an Elvis-inspired Cirque du Soleil production, and restaurants from culinary masters Masayoshi Takayama (Masa, New York City) and Shawn McClain (Custom House in Chicago).

Set back from the Strip’s bustle, the 57-story, all-suite Vdara also takes the smoke-free, gaming-free path, wooing its guests with a 40,000-square-foot elevated pool and lounge and an eco-conscious spa. It’s no surprise that in a town where fortunes are easily made, green is CityCen-ter’s color of choice. The 18 million-square-foot project received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification based on its sustainable site development, materials, energy efficiency, water savings, and indoor environmental quality.

The final tower on the scene, the icy-blue Harmon, is the sole reminder of a lengthy construction process that weathered its share of delays and bankruptcy rumors; condos are no longer part of the mix, and the tower will open in late 2010 as a 400-room luxury hotel.

One of the best features of the development is the prices that come with all the new rooms. CityCenter has added a whopping 6,000 hotel rooms to a city that wasn’t hurting for them to begin with. With room rates drastically reduced, the off-season has become nonexistent. There are unbelievable bargains to be easily struck simply by calling hotels directly. For example, compare rates for the March 26-28 weekend at the Mandarin Oriental ($375 per night) with the same hotel in New York ($795 per night).

Some might be surprised that City- Center made it to opening day at all in the middle of a U.S. economic meltdown, but it’s all just a little bit of Strip history repeating. If it weren’t a gamble, it wouldn’t be Vegas.