Has The "Sin" Left Sin City?
Louis Vuitton store at Crystals at CityCenter; CityCenter
For years, the wildly successful marketing phrase: "What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas" has helped draw people to the Strip in search of the risky or risqué. But with the unveiling of the new CityCenter development -- a multi-billion dollar cluster of soaring concrete, glass, and steel -- has the city finally turned its back on sin in favor of sophistication?
Developed by MGM Mirage to the tune of $11 billion, CityCenter is the largest privately funded construction project in U.S. history. With 18 million square feet on 67 acres smack in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip, the development weaves together seven buildings, each designed by different top-tier architects -- including Sir Norman Foster, Helmut Jahn, Kohn Pedersen Fox, Pelli Clarke Pelli, and Daniel Libeskind -- connected by sidewalks, roads, and a tram.
While three-quarters of CityCenter is up and running, once the full development opens (still to be confirmed in these troubled financial times) there will be over $40 million of modern art on view, over 320,000 square feet of convention space, over 6,000 hotel rooms, around 30 bars and restaurants, and 2,400 condos. Impressive by any standards, but CityCenter isn't only high design on a grand scale, it's also environmentally friendly high design; each building has received a coveted Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, and over 80 percent of the demolished Boardwalk Hotel was utilized in the development.
Tom Blair, a journalist who has been covering Vegas for many years, supports CityCenter making "a big deal out of being green," but questions whether or not that should be a selling point to consumers. "It's nice to take care of Mother Earth, but gamblers are way more interested in the green felt of a blackjack table."
If CityCenter had opened five years ago, the message might have been different. But now the focus is less on the party and more on eco-luxury. "Vegas is not as hedonistic as it used to be," says Ronald Smith, a fashion consultant in his late thirties living in Las Vegas. Smith has been in the city long enough to see it all but ditch the family market, a move fueled by the economic boom. Vegas became America's little Amsterdam -- a place where all the rules could be broken. "These things still happen, but it seems with much less frequency or brazenness," he says.
If there's any hedonism going on in the upscale development's three hotels, it'll be behind closed doors. The elegant Mandarin Oriental, favorite of CEO's and brand loyalists, is the most luxurious of CityCenter's offerings, while Aria Resort & Casino has become the darling of the business traveler, with common areas outside the convention rooms that are flooded with natural light from a wall of tilted glass, and competitive rates. Vdara Hotel & Spa is not only casino- and smoke-free, it also has some of CityCenter's biggest art scores on view, such as a 35-foot Frank Stella piece from 1969 (a stay here might have you questioning if you're even in Vegas).
Sin City has been getting design conscious for a while now. Back in 2003, THEhotel opened with a refreshing lack of reference to Egyptian pyramids or Venetian canals. Instead, it had a palette of chocolate browns and beiges along with clean-lined furniture and unfussy spaces. And while THEhotel provided immediate access to the Mandalay Bay casino, it was a non-gaming property, a move away from promoting Vegas purely as a gambling destination.
Crystals, CityCenter's luxury mall, continues to push Vegas's shopping experience upmarket, with a list of stores that matches Via Bellagio, the Wynn Esplanade, or the Shoppes at Palazzo, including Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Cartier. While chef Pierre Gagnaire's Twist restaurant adds to Sin City's many top-notch dining options such as MGM Grand's Joel Robuchon or Caesars Palace's Guy Savoy.
But if Vegas now rivals every other major resort with the arrival of high-end boutiques, blissful spas and household name chefs, could it be in danger of rubbing out its own unique (and sinful) selling point? L.A.-based photographer, Tom Casey, has been traveling to the city on assignment for over a decade. "In Vegas, every new resort one-ups the last. But there's a point where you've simply called in every top-name chef, every fashion label, and offered every massage. Then your city simply has it all. Does luxury become boring? Maybe architecture's the thing that will invigorate it all. I don't know but I must admit, I'm glad those CityCenter buildings don't look like Shangri-La."
Smith, who stays connected to doormen and club owners so he can entertain visiting friends, doesn't think Vegas' dark side is going anywhere. "The party can still be found, you just have to look a little harder," he says. "I figure, as long as we have a Playboy Club, this will be Sin City."
However, at the end of 2010 Playboy Enterprises is also opening up a second location of their Playboy Club atop the Sands Casino in Macau, the up-and-coming gaming destination in China that's poised to give Vegas a run for its money. The Macau Playboy Club will include a 30,000-square-foot Playboy Mansion, upping the ante from its Vegas undertaking. The Sands is located on the Cotai Strip, an area of Macau that's beginning to look more and more like Vegas itself -- with a Wynn Resort, Venetian, MGM Grand, Mandarin Oriental, and dozens of other casinos all concentrated in one area. So if Vegas does get too sophisticated for its shot glass, a place like Macau will be ready to carry the title.
"Vegas is still Sin City," says Blair, "and it always will be. It's just harder to find the sin amid all these steel and glass hotel blocks."