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Best of Howard Stutz
Howard Stutz

The race to break the clouds

14 May 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- One down, five to go.

MGM Mirage officials will top out CityCenter's 57-story Vdara Condo Hotel today. The brief ceremony is something the company plans to repeat several times before the year is out. Vdara is one of six high-rise towers under construction within the massive $8.4 billion CityCenter complex.

"It's a good feeling because it's the next step in the process," said Bobby Baldwin, MGM Mirage's chief design and construction officer who also serves as CityCenter's president and chief executive officer. Baldwin has been involved with CityCenter since 2004 and seen more than his share of the development's conceptual models, both physical and computer-generated.

Now, Baldwin, MGM Mirage executives and representatives of Dubai World, which owns 50 percent of the project, can venture out on the 76-acre site, surrounded by 13 tower cranes, 6,000-plus construction workers and steel structures that are beginning to shape the development.

For example, the unique steel design of Crystals, CityCenter's 500,000-square-foot retail and entertainment district, can be seen from the Strip, as can portions of the tramway for CityCenter's above-ground people mover system. Structural steel is also giving shape to the Cirque du Soleil theater, which will host a production show based on the music of Elvis Presley.

"We're starting to get a pretty true sense of the scale of this project," Baldwin said. "We (MGM Mirage) already own 10 hotel-casinos on the Strip. We didn't want to build just another one."

The planned opening for CityCenter is November 2009. Baldwin said the next big step will be taken after the first of the year, when MGM Mirage starts to hire some 12,000 employees.

Vdara, which will include almost 1,500 studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, is nearly three months ahead of schedule. CityCenter's centerpiece, a 4,000-room hotel-casino, could top out by August.

Baldwin, who was involved in the construction of Bellagio, Treasure Island and The Mirage during his days as an executive with the former Mirage Resorts, said CityCenter is not the typical Strip casino development. Vdara, which doesn't have a casino, costs almost as much as Mirage Resorts spent on the $1.6 billion Bellagio when it opened in 1998, Baldwin said. And that's not a figure adjusted for inflation.

Vdara is also just one piece of the CityCenter puzzle.

"Vdara is a very expensive building, and CityCenter is a very different project," Baldwin said.

Part of the CityCenter budget includes about $600 million in infrastructure. MGM Mirage officials are extending Harmon Avenue from its yet-to-open Interstate 15 overpass through the development, creating Harmon Circle, a raised roadway with off-ramps into Vdara and the CityCenter hotel-casino. Harmon will continue underneath as an east-west connector.

Vdara is one of three nongaming hotels at CityCenter, joining Mandarin Oriental and the Harmon Hotel. Veer Towers, which features towers inclined at 5 degree angles, is CityCenter's only strictly residential building.

In all, CityCenter will have 2,650 high-rise residential units, more than half of which have been sold. During last week's quarterly earnings conference call, MGM Mirage executives said the company has sold $1.7 billion of a planned $2.7 billion inventory.