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Arnold M. Knightly

CityCenter ready for debut after months of headlines

30 November 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- In the 61 months between the announcement MGM Mirage was creating an urban metropolis on the Strip called Project CityCenter and Tuesday's planned opening of its first hotel, Vdara, the $8.5 billion development seemed to be on constant life support.

Almost as soon as MGM Mirage imploded the shuttered Boardwalk casino on May 9, 2006, to clear a major portion of the CityCenter site, the project seemed to be shrouded in bad news.

The recession, which led to the collapse of the credit markets, and other outside financial factors nearly derailed CityCenter, which saw its budget more than double beyond the initially announced $3 billion to $4 billion.

The project came within hours of filing bankruptcy at the end of March, which would have halted construction and shelved the jobs of 8,500 construction workers. With little time to spare, MGM Mirage was given permission to make a $200 million equity payment to keep the project funded.

The demise of the high-rise condominium market forced MGM Mirage to cut prices for CityCenter's 2,400 residential units by 30 percent in order to spur sales.

Meanwhile, the tragic deaths of six construction workers between February 2007 and May 2008 overshadowed CityCenter's promise.

Members of building trade unions walked off the job for a day in June 2008 following the death of the last construction worker to protest safety concerns. CityCenter safety issues were discussed as part of congressional hearings in Washington, D.C., in June 2008 and October.

However, Union Gaming Group principal Bill Lerner, whose company advised MGM Mirage on some of its corporate financial matters earlier this year, believes the public will look beyond the negative news now that CityCenter is opening.

"Not to diminish or downplay the deaths or its financial problems by any means, but consumers coming back to Las Vegas are going to hear about this $8.5 billion thing that is supposed to be incredible from a design perspective that they need to look at," Lerner said.

To MGM Mirage officials, CityCenter is viewed as a paradigm shift of how Las Vegas is looked at by the world. They hope the unveiling of Vdara and the openings later in the week of the Crystals retail center and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel will begin to change public perceptions of the project. Aria, the project's centerpiece hotel and only casino component, will open Dec. 16.

"I believe in my heart that Las Vegas is evolving as a metropolitan community," MGM Mirage Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jim Murren said. "CityCenter takes us to another level."

The project is a mix of hotels and high-rise residential buildings designed by world-renowned architects and surrounded by high-end retail and dining. CityCenter displays more the $40 million worth of public art by some of the world's most revered artists. The project also earned a half-dozen gold certifications for environmental and sustainability aspects.

Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada and a longtime observer of the gaming industry, said if the economy hadn't tanked, CityCenter would have a vastly different community image.

Instead, Green believes it could be as long as a decade before any company tackles a Las Vegas project the size of CityCenter, if ever.

"Frankly, everything that has happened in Las Vegas over the years has been a leap of faith," Green said. "CityCenter is no different. You're hard-pressed to find any kind of comparison with CityCenter and anything else ever that has been done in Las Vegas. MGM Mirage is probably the only company that could have pulled this off."

CityCenter nearly bankrupted MGM Mirage.

The recession and rapidly disappearing revenues compounded the Strip casino giant's corporate financial health while the company tried to manage CityCenter's ever-growing cost structure.

In late March, MGM Mirage's 50-50 joint venture partner in CityCenter, Dubai World, sued in an attempt to break the deal. The legal battle nearly caused the project's bankruptcy. The public feud ended five weeks later and CityCenter was fully funded.

Murren is considered the visionary and driving force behind CityCenter. He believes the project will grow tourism in Las Vegas next year between 5 percent and 10 percent. Completing CityCenter was one of his primary goals when he took over as CEO in November 2008.

"This community would have lost a real opportunity that we would have not been able to replicate," Murren said. "The promise would not have been realized for a decade. I really know that this is going to work."

Construction problems, however, seemed to haunt CityCenter from the outset.

The city's building trades never tackled a project the size and scope of the 18 million-square-foot development along the Strip's west side between Bellagio and Monte Carlo.

Building costs soared. Safety concerns over the use of certain construction materials forced MGM Mirage to change the scope of the Harmon Hotel, delaying its completion until next year.

The six construction-worker deaths caused a rift between the unions, general contractor Perini Building Co. and MGM Mirage over safety at the site and another Perini work site at the Cosmopolitan.

The one-day shutdown and picketing activated talks about safety. Perini agreed to address the union's concerns, which included a safety assessment of the work site, on-site training for all construction workers and full access to the project for union and safety officials.

While trade unions and workers were busy expressing outrage about the lack of safety, a few of their peers raised an issue about worker responsibility.

Ten construction workers were observed by a Review-Journal reporter and photographer consuming alcohol before entering the CityCenter site. Perini expressed shock at the photos, quickly working with subcontractors to terminate all the workers who could be identified in the photos.

Perini officials and union leaders refused to discuss CityCenter last week.

Some analysts have questioned whether CityCenter should have been built in phases, which would have helped manage costs and construction issues.

Murren said that would have gutted the entire vision of CityCenter.

"How do you create an environment in phases?" Murren asked. "What do you do? Create a beautiful casino resort and have signs around the rest of the campus saying, 'Coming Soon'? You just can't do that."

Even with the challenges, CityCenter has already achieved milestones.

Every component of CityCenter received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, making the project America's largest sustainable development.


Description: The centerpiece of the CityCenter complex, Aria is the only hotel-casino in the development. Aria's hotel has several connected glass and steel towers with the tallest standing 60 stories. Aria will employ 10,000 of the 12,000 employees hired at CityCenter. Architect: Cesar Pelli of Pelli Clarke Pelli

Rooms: 4,004 hotel rooms, including 568 suites. Room rates average $179 to $799 a night while suites cost $500 to $7,500 a night.

Amenities: Aria has a 150,000-square-foot casino with 145 table games and 1,940 slot machines; 300,000 square feet of meeting and convention space; and a 215,000-square-foot pool deck. Aria's 1,800-seat theater house will host the Cirque du Soleil-produced Viva Elvis show.

Restaurants and bars: 13 restaurants, including offerings from Chef Masayoshi Takayama, Chef Shawn McClain, Chef Michael Mina, Chef Julian Serrano, Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Chef Sirio Maccioni, Chef Brian Massie and Chef Jean-Philippe Maury.

Vdara Hotel

Description: A 57-story nongaming hotel and condominium tower, Vdara is connected to Bellagio via a pedestrian walkway and is adjacent to Aria.

Architect: RV Architecture, led by Rafael Viñoly

Rooms: 1,495 deluxe, one- and two-bedroom suites, all with fully equipped kitchens, plus penthouse units. Nightly rates will range from $159 to $2,000.

Amenities: Vdara has an 18,000-square-foot spa; 10,000 square feet of meeting space; and a 40,000-square-foot pool deck.

Restaurants and bars: Chef Martin Heierling's Silk Road. Bar Vdara is situated in hotel's center lobby.

Mandarin Oriental

Description: A nongaming luxury hotel and condominium tower, the 47-story Mandarin Oriental is the first Las Vegas venture for the international hotel group. The property, which features the hotel and residence lobby on the 23rd floor, is designed with unique angles and features.

Architect: Kohn Pedersen Fox

Rooms: Mandarin Oriental has 392 hotel rooms and 225 condominium residences. Residences are above the 23rd floor and hotel units are on the lower levels.

Amenities: Mandarin Oriental has a two-level, 27,000-square-foot spa; 12,000 square feet of meeting space; and the 23rd floor Sky Lobby.

Restaurants and bars: The hotel's signature restaurant, Twist from award-winning celebrity Chef Pierre Gagnaire. Amore Patisserie. In the Sky Lobby are the Mandarin Bar, the Tea Lounge and MOzen Bistro.

Veer Towers

Description: CityCenter's only purely residential development. Two 37-story glass towers, inclined at 5-degree angles give the project its name. Veer is expected to begin closing on its condominium sales in late January.

Architect: Helmut Jahn

Rooms: 335 residences in each tower. The condominiums, which include studio units; one-, two- and three-bedroom residences; and penthouses, starting at 500 square feet and ranging up to nearly 3,300 square feet.

Amenities: Pools, sun deck and cabanas on each tower rooftop. estaurants and bars: Both towers are connected directly to Crystals, CityCenter's retail and restaurant area.


Description: Originally planned as a 47-story hotel and condominium tower, MGM Mirage announced in January it was delaying the Harmon's completion until next year and changed the scope of the project. Construction issues surrounding improper placement of reinforcing bar, commonly known as rebar, caused the general contractor to replace construction materials on several floors.

The 200 condominium units were scrapped and the 400-unit hotel tower was stopped at 27 stories.

The outside of the building was completed and the tower will be lighted, but MGM Mirage officials said it wouldn't finish the Harmon until next year.

Architect: Foster + Partners

Amenities: The Light Group was expected to operate the nongaming hotel.

Restaurants and bars: The Harmon had been expected to include MR CHOW, a branch of the Los Angeles restaurant operated by Michael Chow.


Description: CityCenter's 500,000-square-foot retail, dining and entertainment district, the three-level Crystals will contain 75 tenants. Crystals' multi-faceted exterior includes a glass canopy depicting a quartz crystal and an abundance of natural light. The interior is a park celebrating nature and the seasons with abstract hanging gardens and a lush flower carpet.

Architects: Studio Daniel Libeskind designed the exterior; David Rockwell and Rockwell Group designed the interiors.

Tenants: Large-format luxury retailers include Louis Vuitton, Prada, Tiffany & Co., Ermenegildo Zegna, Roberto Cavalli, Christian Dior, Versace, Bulgari, Cartier, Hermes, Bally, Van Cleef & Arpels, Mikimoto, Emilio Pucci and ILORI. Retailers opening their first locations in Las Vegas include Tom Ford, Carolina Herrera, Miu Miu, Paul Smith, Kiton, Marni, Assouline, H. Stern, Tourbillon, Porsche Design and de Grisogono.

Restaurants: Eva Longoria Parker's Beso; two new dining concepts from Wolfgang Puck; a pub concept by Todd English; and Mastro's Ocean Club.

CityCenter ready for debut after months of headlines is republished from