“It’s beautiful out there,” Roelands says of his gated subdivision, tucked away 10 miles to the west. “But the average age is like 50. I’m 28, man, so I can’t really relate. Maybe we drive the same car, but that’s about it.”
For locals like Roelands, who are too young and liquid to waste their lives in the vanilla sprawl that has become the Vegas exurbs, the Strip condos are giant antennas for the energy that drew them to the town in the first place. About a third of the buyers, Turnberry estimates, will be full-timers. “This is the center of the universe,” says Roelands, gazing out into the inky neon sky. “It’s going to be a totally different experience living here.”
Of course, not all of Vegas’ 1.7 million permanent denizens want to walk out their front door into a pirate show. That’s why Oscar Goodman, the city’s mayor, is banking on one of the unlikeliest segments of the booming market: Vegas’ neglected downtown. Goodman hopes high-rises can transform the city’s ramshackle grid of pawn shops and wedding chapels into a place more suited to a burgeoning metropolis. “The average person who comes here for three days, he’ll probably hit the pool, see a show, have a great meal, and go to the tables,” says Goodman. “But we who live here, I think we’re entitled to be taken to the new level of what I consider to be urbane sophistication.”
On a recent Wednesday night, the man who will deliver on that wish is drinking a Budweiser longneck at Dino’s, a dive next to the Olympic Garden topless cabaret. At 27, Sam Cherry, a developer with $180 million in projects under construction, has a Manhattan-like vision for Vegas, stuffed with edgy lounges and condo lofts. His workers are already pouring floors on a nearby $87 million project that he has grandlyif pretentiouslynamed Soho Lofts: wide-open floor plans, industrial high ceilings, buffed concrete floors.
“Loft is a buzzword around the country,” says Cherry, in his Chicago Cubs cap and a red Puma jacket. “It’s come to define everything young and cool.”To market his project to like-minded scenesters, Cherry took over part of a half-empty arena of fast-food chains, and created a 1,584-square-foot model loft. There are publicity photos of Beck and Bowie on one wall, black-and-white snapshots of Old Vegas showgirls and neon signs on the other. You can see how Cherry, who never finished high school and made his money buying up and developing empty land around Vegas, is trying to bottle two competing visions of Vegas. The Rat Pack cool of Sammy and Dino, and the grease-stained self-awareness of a guy with two turntables and a microphone.
There is a risk, of course, that all this frenzy could reach a saturation point, because there’s virtually no precedent to test the limits. Only two high-rise residences have been erected in Las Vegas over the past 30 years. Although the market’s hot, banks generally won’t even front developers the cash until they’ve presold a majority of their units. The projects are so costly that loans have to be “syndicated out” to various lenders to share the burden-. And the cost of steel, as well as land, has spiked so much lately that latecomers to the game will have a tougher time offering competitive prices while earning the 10 to 20 percent profit typical of these deals. “It’s important to keep in mind that not all these will be built, and some of this hubris will subside,” says Dr. Keith Schwer, an economics professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, who specializes in local markets. But with 7,000 new residents a month, 38 million annual visitors, and a circling flock of international investors lured by the scent of a weak American dollar, some analysts aren’t so sure it will.