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Arnold M. Knightly

Strip tower given a trim

20 November 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- A Texas-based developer's dream of building the tallest building west of the Mississippi River on the old Wet 'n Wild site on the Strip took a big hit Monday after federal officials lopped nearly 500 feet off the project's proposed height.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Crown Las Vegas's planned hotel tower could be 1,064 feet high, the agency said in a letter to developer Christopher Milam.

Milam had originally hoped to build a 1,888-foot-high tower but lowered his sights to 1,550 feet in a letter to the FAA dated Sept. 14.

The Stratosphere, less than a mile north of the Wet 'n Wild site and the tallest structure in the West, is 1,149 feet tall.

The FAA considered approach and takeoff paths for all airports in the county, including McCarran International Airport and Nellis Air Force Base, while considering Crown Las Vegas' request. The agency said a tower higher than 1,064 would pose a hazard to air navigation in Clark County.

Milam declined to comment on the FAA decision Monday pending hearings before Clark County officials.

If Milam and his partners don't file an appeal of the FAA decision by Dec. 19, the agency's determination will become final Dec. 29. An appeal could also be filed by other interested parties such as airlines.

Clark County Commissioners were scheduled to hold a hearing on the project today, but the item was held pending appeals.

Milam first brought plans for his 1,888-foot tower before the Clark County Planning Commission in November 2006. The commission approved the $5 billion, 5,000-unit mixed-use project for use permits and design reviews pending an FAA determination on the height issue.

As a matter of policy, the County Commission does not issue waivers to allow buildings to exceed FAA recommended height limits, but it can set lower height limits.

The new height recommendation replaces an earlier FAA decision arguing that any structure on the site that was higher than 708 feet would pose a hazard to air traffic in the area.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the new limit does not set a precedent for other developers to build 1,000-foot projects up and down the Strip.

"It really depends on the location," he said. "You can't say this clears the way for other similar construction because every building review is based on its own characteristics."

Paul Murad, a resident of Turnberry Place bordering the site to the south, said he wishes the FAA had kept the lower height.

However, issues of environmental impact and traffic flow for the area are bigger concerns for area residents, he said.

"It's about sustainability," Murad said. "It would be very helpful if we could see a model. We would feel a lot more comfortable about the future of the area."

Milam held a series of meetings in early November with residents in the area who will be affected by the project while waiting for a ruling from the FAA.

Crown Las Vegas is a partnership between Milam's Austin, Texas-based IDM Properties, Australian billionaire James Packer's Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd., and New York-based private equity firm York Capital Management.

The Wet 'n Wild site is currently being leased by its owner, Archon Corp., as a construction site for the neighboring $2.8 billion Fontainebleau project.

Milam and Archon entered into an option agreement in June 2006 of $450 million for the site. The price was raised in the summer to $475 million adjusting for rising land costs.