Desert Companion

The little 'hood that could

How one neighborhood got fired up, cleaned up and powered up to become a tight-knit community - and how yours can do the same

Sick of the perpetual garage sale or auto repair business going on at the house next door? Irked by the graffiti and dead lawns left on your street by the foreclosure crisis? You'll find inspiration in the story of the John S. Park neighborhood, to the south and east of Charleston and Las Vegas boulevards.

This 'hood is a force to be reckoned with. Between the mid-1990s and today, John S. Park residents have established a neighborhood association; cleaned up the area and rid it of crime; landed local and federal historic district designation; and garnered official blessing of their 120-page neighborhood plan from the Las Vegas City Council. Its latest accolade: The John S. Park Historic District was named one of the 10 Great Neighborhoods for 2010 by the American Planning Association.

"(Residents) didn't want to keep going to planning commission meetings to argue the same things every month," says Yorgo Kagafas, the Las Vegas City Planning and Development employee who shepherded the John S. Park neighborhood through its planning process. "Now, they have a plan. The community has spoken. It wants this; it doesn't want that. The plan isn't binding, but it carries a lot of weight."

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Think you and your block-party buddies could do the same thing? You could. But before you start knocking on doors, it's worth a trip down memory lane (and the red-tape highway) to see how John S. Park got where it is today - and how you can use its story as a template for improving your own neighborhood.

Tip 1: Pick a fight
(and win it)

Nothing unites people like a common enemy. For the John S. Park neighborhood, that enemy was a famous sinking ship. Around the time Bob Stupak completed the Stratosphere in 1996, he unveiled plans for a hulking, 280-foot-tall replica of the Titanic that was to hold a casino and hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard, just west of the John S. Park neighborhood.

Bob Bellis, who's been president of the John S. Park Neighborhood Association since its inception in 1995, recalls that the group had done some cleanup, code-enforcement and crime-prevention projects in its early years, but "it was this whole Titanic thing that brought us together. We'd get hundreds of people at the meetings, because they really wanted to fight it," he says.

According to the Historic John S. Park Neighborhood Plan, the Titanic Hotel and Casino would have cast a shadow over one-third of the neighborhood, pushed heavy traffic onto nearby residential streets and required the demolition of several homes on Fifth Place, the neighborhood street parallel to the Strip one block to its east.

Stupak asked the Las Vegas City Council for permission to rezone part of Fifth Place for commercial development. According to Bellis, Stupak tried to persuade homeowners on the proposed site of the Titanic to sell their properties to him. Vocal John S. Park residents who were against the ship-themed hotel packed a City Council meeting where the rezoning request was being considered. It was denied.

Kagafas says successful neighborhood groups are often the result of a battle fought and won. "Maybe a street is going to be widened and affect traffic in their neighborhood," he says. "Maybe the residents want a streetlight at an intersection. There is usually something that brings them to action together."

It helps to win. Then, Kagafas explains, a neighborhood realizes its power. Residents are galvanized to make other changes, beginning a cycle of positive reinforcement. "They're unstoppable," he says.

After defeating Stupak's Titanic, the John S. Park Neighborhood Association would go on to slay other dragons - a proposed vertical addition to the Olympic Garden strip club, a scheme for a rollercoaster extending from the Stratosphere over Las Vegas Boulevard, and the spread of adult-use businesses along Las Vegas Boulevard between Oakey and Charleston boulevards.

Taming the tide of commercial encroachment became one of the founding principles of the John S. Park Neighborhood Association, along with reducing decay and blight, renovating Mary S. Dutton Park, preserving historic features and banning low helicopter flights over the neighborhood.

Want to get fired up yourself? Code enforcement is a good place to start. The City of Las Vegas Neighborhood Services website lists the 20 most commonly asked questions of code enforcement, which clarify that, yes, it is a violation to park your car in your yard; no, you can't drain your pool into the street; and many more of the finer points of good citizenship.

Tip 2: Spread the
leadership around
It wasn't until the association sought professional help that things really started cooking. In 2000, Bellis contacted Las Vegas Neighborhood Services, which assigned Kagafas as the project manager for the John S. Park Neighborhood Association Plan. During the plan's development, Bellis was backed up by a co-chair, Keny Stewart, and 28 planning team members. The planning team was divided into three committees: one for historic preservation; one for the redevelopment of Dutton Park; and one for land use.

In order for a neighborhood association to succeed, it has to have "at least three resident owners in different properties that are willing to lead," Kagafas says. "If you just have one leading the charge all the time, and they have no support, it's like a dictatorship, and people tend to resent that."

Kagafas adds, "A leader isn't just a figurehead. You have to go to meetings - city council, planning commission - you have to respond to your neighbors' issues. It's almost like a proving ground for politics."

That proving ground is largely made up of - surprise - meetings. From 2000 to 2001, the John S. Park planning team led more than a dozen meetings. At team meetings, they would refine proposals to put before residents at community-wide meetings. Before each gathering, the team would plaster the neighborhood and flood residents' and businesses' mailboxes with announcements. Bellis estimates that he and the other leaders of the John S. Park Neighborhood Association have put in "thousands of hours" of work over the last 15 years.

One important distinction: Unlike homeowners' associations, neighborhood associations are "100-percent voluntary and grassroots," Kagafas says. "Nobody is forcing you to do anything. You do it on your own because you want to better your community."

He adds, "I've often heard people say, 'I don't want my neighbors telling me what color to paint my house,' but that's not what neighborhood associations do. They don't have the power to make rules, only to enforce what the city adopts."

Tip 3: Learn to love paperwork

The Historic John S. Park Neighborhood Plan includes carefully collected agendas, sign-in sheets and notes from every meeting. It has charts depicting property values, photos demonstrating significant architectural features and maps showing everything from streets that needed sidewalks to houses that needed roofs.

On Dec. 19, 2001, the Las Vegas City Council agreed to integrate the neighborhood plan into its own planning process - the closest thing to a perfect marriage between community activism and city bureaucracy.

In other words, the neighbors - not just the city - help make the rules - from the height of buildings (five stories or 60 feet), to the ratio of residential to commercial development (9-1), to the types of businesses residents support (coffee and barber shops, ethnic restaurants and delicatessens, hardware and book stores, travel agencies and medical offices). The city has to consider them when a planning request comes through that might affect the neighborhood.

Tip 4: Rally 'round a
point of pride

In addition to the benefits of a neighborhood plan, such as preventing the demolition of your neighbor's house, John S. Park gained the benefits that come with historic designation, notes Courtney Mooney, the city's urban design coordinator and historic preservation officer. Following its plan, the John S. Park Neighborhood Association obtained historic designation for a section in the northeast part of the neighborhood. It was added to the City's Historic Property Register in March of 2003.

"Historic designation can have economic benefits," Mooney says. "It has been shown that properties located within historic districts typically have higher sales values than comparable properties."

There are intangibles, too. Mooney points out that historic designation is the only way to safeguard meaningful architecture, a neighborhood's unique identity and - perhaps most important to ever-changing Las Vegas - its sense of place.

"This is what unifies residents and creates pride in ownership," she says. "Older neighborhoods contribute to lasting, sustainable communities where multiple generations can live and pass on their stories to new residents. They connect all city residents to real history; they tell about the development of the city, where founding fathers lived and raised their families, and how people lived during that time. Historic neighborhoods contribute to stable economies and environmental sustainability. They serve as architectural inspiration for new homes. It is history you can experience, not just read about."

Of course, not all neighborhoods in the Las Vegas Valley are historic, but finding a common point of pride can inspire a neighborhood to transform into a full-fledged community.

Tip 5: Stop fighting
(among yourselves)

The process can nevertheless be fraught with resistance. Just ask the members of the Westleigh Neighborhood Association, who unsuccessfully sought historic district designation in 2009. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, obstacles to historic district designation may include perceived incursions on private property rights, fear of additional expenditures, fear of displacement and gentrification, apathy, development pressure and lack of awareness of the significance of historical resources.

Bellis adds that such fears can cause resistance even if a neighborhood isn't seeking historic preservation. In the case of John S. Park, he says, a vocal minority of residents were against the neighborhood plan's exclusion of commercial encroachment.

"There were a few people on 6th Street and Park Paseo," he recalls. "This was during the real estate boom. They saw what was happening across Charleston and they thought, 'Hey, they can turn my house into a law firm.' They thought they were sitting on a gold mine. One guy put his house up for sale for $1.2 million."

Bellis says he still gets calls from attorneys trying to help neighborhood residents get around the plan and sell their houses for commercial development. "They'll plead with us to let them do it," he says, "but it's never going to happen. Never, ever, ever."

Tip 6: Believe in magic

But even with good leaders, a well-documented plan and lots of hard work, you could still fail. That's when you need the magic - affection, loyalty, things that can't be written in a plan. "We've always been a mixture of ethnicities, and I think that's a wonderful thing. I have the grandest neighbors. They're so friendly," says Kerin Rodgers, a 35-year resident of the John S. Park neighborhood.

The former hotel decorator and political activist is a self-described "trouble-maker" at neighborhood meetings, unafraid to voice concerns or disagree with the status quo. But as she rattles off a list of past and present VIP neighbors, from the Greenspuns to the Von Tobels, you sense that her concerns come from a deep-seated pride.

"We had chemistry," Bellis says. "There were old folks living there who'd been in the neighborhood for 50 years. There were young professionals who were willing to take on the work. There were businesses that were willing to come to the table. And there was the Titanic to bring us all together. It just worked."
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