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Gaming Guru

Joe Schoenmann

Magnitude of CityCenter plan is enough to leave you speechless

22 January 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- In his poker-room days, Bobby Baldwin was known as "The Owl" because, as Card Player magazine put it, he was "a 15 percent better poker player than any man alive."

Walk into the room that holds the models of MGM Mirage's $7 billion gamble, Project CityCenter, and if you're an investor, you pray The Owl is still on his perch. He is shepherding the project to its scheduled opening in November 2009.

The magnitude of this thing isn't for the dull of mind. Baldwin gave the Las Vegas Sun a rare glimpse for those outside these cloistered offices.

The model resides in a space reminiscent of the map room in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Enter, and words seem to fail you. It's one thing to build, say, a single structure of inspiring scope and innovation such as Hoover Dam. Try wrapping your mind around seven major structures, designed by separate architects, built to open the same day.

They are there, laid before you, sprawling over a good 30 feet - miniature buildings, cars, trucks and roads struck from clay and balsa and glue and plastic. From the Jetson-esque, circular offramp-thing on Harmon Avenue meant to enable drivers to valet their cars with ease, to the spaceship-shaped lighting pods lining a pool of fanning waters, to a roof designed to be a work of art from on-high, there are too many variables to comprehend.

Now in his mid-50s, Baldwin revels in the explanations. He describes how things go together, how many hours of work are involved in various elements, how much money went into this or that roof or wall or roadway.

He walks between two sections of the model, held on tables 4 feet high, and points to works of art and fascination that he guarantees will be one of a kind, given that MGM Mirage spent several million dollars for research and development "to do products not seen anywhere else." You want to break out a cell-phone camera, but photos aren't allowed, in part because nothing is set in stone. The architects are constantly working and tweaking various pieces. A tower designed by James KM Cheng, a firm from Vancouver, British Columbia, was eliminated to make room for open space.

"We've had many, many models, some of which are crushed," Baldwin says. Then he smiles: "Some are crushed by me."

Everything about CityCenter is outsized. Even the "construction trailer," the building we're standing in, is part of a two-building, $40 million complex that is something of a rarity. Not only was it meant to bring together this team of some of the best architects, bean counters, contractors and artists in the world, but after construction, it will be demolished to make way for future expansion of CityCenter.

Baldwin chuckles about Vegas one-upmanship, as casino owners try to outdo each other with even bigger, even more fantastic. CityCenter jumps along that spectrum, if for no other reason than it is the most expensive private project in history.

A few more figures:

At its peak, Baldwin says, CityCenter will employ 8,000 construction workers.

When finished, it will employ 12,000 people, adding to MGM Mirage's employment base of 60,000, the largest in Nevada.

The people-mover alone, linking all the buildings in the 18 million-square-foot project, will cost $150 million.

The place is full of other wonders, including a self-shaping ice sculpture that will consist of several vertical blocks of ice, each of which has metal rods at its core that reach different temperatures along its length, creating irregular blocks as the ice melts.

"Ice Henge," one reporter whispered.

In the main retail building, which acts as CityCenter's entrance from the Strip, ceilings will reach to 100 feet because of a Daniel Libeskind-designed roof that is a multifaceted and sky-lighted structure designed to save condo residents the visual blight of looking down upon a plain roof.

"And it won't have a painted sky," Baldwin said, referring to the Vegas-style casino staple of faux blue skies and painted clouds. "Here, you can actually look up and see the sky."

Asked by a wiseguy where the bowling alleys and buffets will be found, Baldwin smiled. "It's not a place to get the buffet. This is definitely a tourist destination ¦ It's not designed to cater to locals."

On that point, CityCenter is a disappointment that falls short of its original billing two years ago. It was foreseen then as a "live-work" community. Residents working in CityCenter office buildings would take the people-mover to their CityCenter condos. The idea stopped urban planners in their tracks. It was hailed as a potential model for cities the world over.

In its most recent incarnation, however, no plans exist for office buildings. If you work at CityCenter, you're more likely to live in the suburbs than in one of its $500,000-and-up condos.

Some buyers, however, are obviously interested in the place. Only two weeks after public sales began, CityCenter has reservations for 1,500 of 2,700 condominiums.

It's gone so well, in fact, Baldwin says he's starting to think about keeping the planners, designers and others together to do something more, perhaps on MGM Mirage's 300 acres of under- or undeveloped Las Vegas land.

"After you figure out how to do one of these things, you think economy of scale" and how keeping everyone together would enable another project to be done at less cost. "Let's have some fun."

At a smoky table in Binion's Horseshoe, where Baldwin won the World Series of Poker in 1978, you can imagine The Owl saying the same thing.