Better Luck Next Time, Las Vegas?

The Las Vegas economy and construction market is showing signs of new life, with unemployment on the decline, and new building on the rise. But as home building improves, and construction cranes begin to populate the strip in increasing numbers, I have to wonder if the rebounding Las Vegas has learned from the sins of its past?

The Great Recession hit Las Vegas hard. Very hard. In fact, Las Vegas’ economy during 2008 and 2009 was the fifth-worst among 150 metropolitan areas worldwide, according to a Brookings Institution and London School of Economics study, as reported in the Las Vegas Sun.

The ramifications of the city’s withered economy were brutal, particularly to the local construction industry. When the economy tanked, the Las Vegas Strip was littered with halted cranes, stalled projects, and abandoned plans. In 2007, an additional 51,000 hotel rooms were expected to come online by 2012. By 2009, only 19 percent of those rooms were on track to be completed.

Las Vegas is known for its overindulgence. But, that overindulgence stretched developers in the city to overbuild. In the rush to build, the quality of work suffered. (See a mid-recession glassblog, “All’s Quiet on the Vegas Strip” for details on both the stalled projects and construction problems).

The Harmon hotel tower is one of the most infamous examples of Las Vegas’ building boom, and subsequent bust. (Read a 2010 GreatGlazing feature to learn about the project itself. It is pretty spectacular from a glass point of view).

"More than anything, the Harmon, designed by the noted architects Foster & Partners, stands as a symbol of overconfidence and an overextended construction industry rushing to keep pace with a boom of building and profits that gripped Las Vegas 10 years ago: an era when few people could foresee a day of too many hotel rooms and gambling tables, of an economic downturn so severe it could keep tourists away," described Adam Nagourney in a 2013 New York Times article about the project.  

Last month, a judge approved the floor-by-floor demolition of the never-occupied Harmon—or, Las Vegas' most expensive billboard, as it has become known. (The only use of the $275 million building since its construction has been its high-profile advertising real estate, with giant banner ads hung across the front façade.)

The dramatic story behind the now notorious Harmon tower could occupy its own glassblog series, from its celebrated beginnings as the cornerstone of the iconic CityCenter project, to the discovery of major construction defects, to the release of findings that the tower was too unsafe to occupy, to the quagmire of legal challenges and financial problems, through the final decision to demolish.

The Harmon is perhaps Vegas’ greatest construction catastrophe of the Great Recession. But it is one of many, evident in the shells of unfinished buildings still lingering on the Strip that will “mar the skyline for years to come; their decay a testament of false hopes,” said columnist David G Schwartz in a 2013 Vegas Seven article. For more examples, see the $3 billion Fountainbleau, expected to be demolished before it was even completed; the unfinished Echelon (though word has it that project will be revived as part of a resort); and the dozen or so others listed here.

I am delighted to hear about the pick-up in the Vegas economy—it is good for construction, and good for glass. And it’s just in time for the industry’s largest show, GlassBuild America, where new products and building solutions can redirect for stronger, longer lasting construction and communities. A smarter, more sustainable building boom could keep the city's economy jumping for a long time to come.  

Devlin is editor of Glass Magazine. Write her at kdevlin@glass.org.

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