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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston
 

Boardwalk Closing to Clear Way for CityCenter

16 September 2005

By Liz Benston, Las Vegas Sun

LAS VEGAS -- Without revealing a specific date, MGM Mirage expects to close its aging Boardwalk hotel and casino within a year to make way for Project CityCenter, the company's $5 billion casino resort, hotel and condominium complex on the Strip and the largest privately funded construction project in U.S. history.

MGM Mirage has already begun to help its estimated 600 Boardwalk employees look for jobs elsewhere at the company, said Bobby Baldwin, president and chief executive of the company's Mirage Resorts division, which is overseeing the development of CityCenter.

"We think these people will have continuous employment," he said.

MGM Mirage began construction on a parking garage for employees at the nearby Bellagio property who have been parking on a surface lot behind the Boardwalk. The 5,300-car garage will be complete in June and will clear the way for the company to begin work that month on the centerpiece of the 66-acre urban village -- a 4,000-room hotel and casino.

The first phase of CityCenter, which will open around November 2009, will also include two 400-room, boutique hotels, about 500,000 square feet of retail, dining and entertainment venues and 1,640 units of luxury condominiums.

MGM Mirage has hired Taubman Centers Inc., a Michigan-based real estate developer and investor, to help attract tenants for the more than 70 storefront cafes, bars, art galleries, jazz clubs and other venues MGM Mirage envisions. Some of the condos would be loft-like units above the storefronts.

The second phase of the project would include 2,600 condo units across five towers, built across the rear of the property and closest to Interstate 15.

MGM Mirage is finalizing a management agreement with Mandarin Oriental to run one of the hotels, which would feature about 500 residential units. The Light Group, which created the Light and Caramel nightclubs at Bellagio, will operate the other boutique hotel.

Mandarin Oriental has a flagship hotel in Hong Kong and operates about 30 luxury hotels in Asia, Europe and the United States.

Mandarin is a "preeminent" hotel brand that is well-known in Asia and Europe, Deutsche Bank stock analyst Marc Falcone said. The five-star CityCenter hotel would be the top of its league in Las Vegas and on a par with the Four Seasons hotel at Mandalay Bay, he said.

Light Group owner Andrew Sasson has never operated a hotel before. Sasson's first restaurant, Fix, opened last year. And he is building his first high-rise condominium project with other investors, Panorama Towers, across I-15 from the Strip.

"I love a challenge," said Sasson, who was selected out of a host of worldwide hotel operators.

Sasson has partnered with MGM Mirage on most of his Las Vegas developments. He said he will once again have the creative freedom to pursue something different.

"People know me as the nightclub guy," he said. "But this is not going to be a nightclub dropped down in a hotel. It's going to have a very different look, design and theme ... that's unique to the United States. We don't want to be the Hard Rock or the Palms."

Gregg Jones, associate principal with Cesar Pelli & Associates, will be helping to design the 4,000-room hotel and casino building. The Connecticut company participated in a 60-day "brainstorm competition" with MGM Mirage earlier this year.

"(Bobby) Baldwin was very open" to new ideas, Jones said. "He pushed us. He said, 'What else can you do? We'd like to do something new, something different.' "

"It was informal and interactive," he said. "We didn't take anything for granted. In the first month we dissected just about every kind of hotel on the planet."

The CityCenter concept is the result of months of pre-planning with urban planning firm Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects, a global firm that has redesigned urban areas. The company is in month nine of a 20-month design process.

"We don't want to build things consumers want now. We want to build what they will want 10, 15, 50 years from now," Baldwin said.

Thursday, MGM Mirage unveiled a list of top-tier architects who will be working on CityCenter -- further evidence of the company's plan to not only create Las Vegas' first major "live and work" environment but to influence contemporary urban design.

Envisioned as a self-sustaining "vertical city," CityCenter "reaffirms the growing sophistication and maturity of Las Vegas and sets a benchmark for new growth," MGM Mirage Chief Executive Terry Lanni said.

The executive architect is Gensler, the world's largest architecture firm and the designer of the Moscone West convention center in San Francisco and the JetBlue airline terminal at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Rafael Vinoly Architects designed a new performance hall at Lincoln Center in New York City and convention centers in Boston and Pittsburgh.

James KM Cheng Architects, designers of multiple high-rises in Vancouver, British Columbia, will craft a 100-unit residential tower with a twisting design.

Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates will design the exterior architecture for the Mandarin Oriental hotel, the gateway to CityCenter on the Strip. The company has designed several major hotels, including the Mohegan Sun casino and many branded properties such as the Four Seasons, Conrad and Hyatt.

Foster and Partners will design the exterior of the Light Group-managed hotel. The company designed the Beijing International Airport, the new German Parliament in Berlin and a wing of the British Museum. Chief architect Sir Norman Foster is a Pritzker prize winner, the highest honor in the field of architecture.

"I think it would be an understatement to say this project is an architect's dream," Gensler Chairman Art Gensler said.

Gensler said CityCenter will "add to Las Vegas' impact on the world" by creating a complete urban environment from scratch.

Ronette Riley, a New York City-based architect and chair of the American Institute of Architects' design committee, said CityCenter has an "exciting" design that will be crafted by an "excellent" roster of architects at the top of their game.

"It's everything I think is missing from Las Vegas," said Riley, who is not involved with CityCenter and did not bid on the project. "It's modern and they're using quality materials. It's not setting up some Disneyland-like theme like fake Venice and fake New York."

But Riley is less certain about MGM Mirage's lofty goal of transforming Las Vegas to a major urban center.

"For all the positives Las Vegas has, it's missing in the arts," she said.