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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

CityCenter's scale, construction unparalleled

16 May 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- For all the stories I've written about CityCenter, the largest construction project in the country, nothing could have prepared me for the experience of standing in the middle of it this week.

I felt captured inside a Jetsons-inspired cartoon.

It required me to adjust to a new scale. While Las Vegas miniaturizes landmarks — the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty — the CityCenter skyline towering above the 76-acre site seems larger than life.

The glass skin of the curving hotel called Aria is covered with louvered room shades, resembling so many glittering scales of a giant fish. The porte-cochere looks several stories high and is now a mass of bare girders, sticking out sharply from the building like whale bones. At 7.5 million square feet, Aria is the largest, most complex structure at CityCenter.

I am standing on what will become a traffic circle that will pass the Vdara condominium hotel, a crescent-shaped building made of patterned glass circling in front of the Aria. From the edge of the road, I can look down and see patches of dirt two stories down — the only untouched ground remaining on the site. Soon enough it will be a concrete roadway to thousands of parking stalls underneath the buildings.

North of the traffic circle, a rerouted Harmon Road flyover, supported by girders, passes through the narrow canyon created by the proximity of the hotel and the 1,495-room Vdara, the northernmost building on the site.

That building will tower over the pool area at the neighboring Bellagio, which is entirely hidden from my view. I feel swallowed by the two buildings closest to me — the Vdara condo hotel and the Aria. No other buildings on the Strip are visible save for the squarish Cosmopolitan resort, a dual-tower building that is under construction alongside CityCenter.

Wedging the Vdara close to the Cosmopolitan on the building's Strip-facing side isn't as daring as placing it a stone's throw from an employee parking garage at the rear of the site. It would be tough for a golf cart to slip between them.

If I'm standing in the Grand Canyon of high-rises, then Vdara's sharp, western-facing edge is the Narrows at Zion National Park. The concentration of high-rises will be its own attraction, much like the volcano at the Mirage and the fountains at the Bellagio.

"That's what high density is all about," said a smiling Bobby Baldwin, president and chief executive of CityCenter. Like me, he is squinting as the sun glints off thousands of pieces of angled glass that surround us.

Overlooking the convoluted-looking roadways feeding the rear of the property is a ribbon of suspended concrete for a monorail that will link CityCenter with the Bellagio to the north and the Monte Carlo to the south. The track snakes around the back of Vdara to the front before wending to the side of the hotel, where it curves around the building and disappears behind a sheer wall of glass like an updated, massively scaled ride through Disney's Tomorrowland.

Thousands of workers swarm over the site on this particular afternoon. Though largely unseen, they can be heard everywhere.

The bleeps of horns and work sirens, the kerchunk of building materials being lifted and put down, the whir of 17 cranes atop the buildings and the hiss of hydraulic systems echo across the construction zone, 24 hours a day.

Tradesmen toil inside towers framed by massive steel girders steadily being cloaked in glass. Only a few workers, standing in the sunlight at the edge of the hotel building, reveal themselves. Co-workers inside are enveloped in darkness as thick as in an underground mine, lighted in places by bare bulbs. Outside the building, dozens of lifts haul men up and down the unfinished floors, offering them spectacular views.

In less than two years, people who have paid hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, will claim those views as their own.