Desert Companion

One downtown to rule them all

Downtown Summerlin

And that will not be “Downtown Summerlin”

It’s the name that bugs people. “Downtown Summerlin” — it scrinkles the bearded faces of urban hepcats, for whom there is only one “Downtown,” and it’s epicentered at Fremont and Fifth (what the young people these days refer to as Las Vegas Boulevard).

That wasn’t the original name. Not so very long ago it was called “Summerlin Centre,” featuring a shopping mall called The Shops at Summerlin. Summerlin Centre is a name you would expect for a suburban commercial-entertainment district, the “re” instead of the “er” adding the vital touch of faux sophistication. The “Shops at” construction added another subtle packet of master-planned flavor.

Everybody was fine with “Summerlin Centre,” because it wasn’t pretending to be anything it was not. It was going to be a vehicular destination for the many valley residents who enjoy a patio lunch at Claim Jumper and a credit card slide at Nordstrom Rack. No harm, no foul.

But “Downtown Summerlin” (set to debut in October) is something else. It’s a provocation. It’s a throwdown of a name, suggesting Summerlin Centre is hopping on a one-speed Schwinn with wavy handlebars and owning the right lane in search of trivia night.

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It’s a provocation in search of a conflict, though, because nobody seriously believes “Downtown Summerlin” will have any resemblance to a municipal downtown, even one as scattershot and low-slung as the one in Las Vegas.

Downtown Summerlin, for all its aesthetic and commercial comforts, will lack the essential ingredients of an actual downtown. It won’t have demonstrative lawyers devouring gourmet mac and cheese in local eateries after their courtroom wins and losses. It won’t have gaggles of nerds debating Game of Thrones plot points over sips of PBR. It won’t have dumb-drunk tourists posing for pictures with sickly street performers dressed as Bret Michaels and Wonder Woman. And it certainly won’t have homeless people sprawling on sidewalks or shouting at light poles on street corners.

These are the features of a true downtown, and Downtown Summerlin not only won’t have them but doesn’t want them.

It also won’t have a Mob Museum or a Gold and Silver Pawn Shop, or nondescript motels and strip centers converted into restaurants, shops and art galleries. It won’t have an independent bookstore (coming soon to the actual downtown) or historic neon signs. The distinctions are distinct.

A few years back, I noticed that a lot of people I knew were spending a lot of free time at Town Square, the shopping and entertainment mall at the south end of the Strip. I was one of those people, drawn like a cat to a trickling faucet by the Borders bookstore, the Yard House restaurant and occasionally the new-tech movie theater.

Noticing this trend, I declared, via our virtual downtown, Facebook, that “Town Square is the new downtown.” I anticipated — in fact, relished the prospect of — an avalanche of fuss, and here it came.

This was before the Zappos-ification of the true downtown, when plenty of folks still questioned whether Las Vegas really had a downtown at all, and if it did, whether it was worth anybody’s trouble. Back when Fremont East was East Fremont.

Nonetheless, the downtown loyalists snorted at my audacity. Even as some of them admitted spending quality time at Town Square, imbibing, buying Apple computers, etc., they insisted it was nothing more than a shopping mall. How could I possibly?

Indeed. Because words have meanings that should be respected. “Downtown” should mean what it means, and not be poached by suburban developers who mine marketing data for cleverness opportunities. Downtowns are history lessons. Each parcel and building has a story. Downtowns are an ongoing archaeological dig, where the past is never dead, and the future is built upon — and inspired by — thick layers of heritage.

Downtown Summerlin sounds like a winner. I’ll go there for sure, because I’m one of those people who enjoys the Cheesecake Factory/Macy’s/cineplex Saturday afternoon.

I really wish they’d dump the name, though. Inevitably, “Downtown Summerlin” surfaced during a conference room brainstorming session. Inevitably, it was pondered, prodded, tested out for suitability, durability, sustainability.

With such careful consideration, though, it should not have made the final cut.

If Nevada, like the ancient world, has seven wonders, Summerlin could be one of them. At 22,500 acres, it’s an amazing piece of development work. It’s big, it’s smart and it’s attractive. It has great places to live, clean places to work and wide-open spaces to play. It’s a model for modern desert living.

It’s true that the one thing Summerlin has lacked is a nucleus — a gathering place big enough and desirable enough to accommodate both the 100,000 people who live in Summerlin and the hundreds of thousands more who want to spend time and money there.

“Summerlin Centre” reflected that vision. The actual components of “Downtown Summerlin” still reflect that vision, but the name is trying to reflect something else.

Here’s my proposal for Howard Hughes Corporation: Get the old brainstorming team back together, bring in some bagels and re-create the list of names you came up with a few months ago. Take a fresh look at all of them — except “Downtown Summerlin,” of course — and pick the best of the lot.

Irvine, Calif., which was a master-planning inspiration for Summerlin, revolves around the Spectrum Center. The Woodlands, a big master-planned enclave outside Houston, calls its commercial hub Town Center. Celebration, Florida, brought to you by Disney, also went with Town Center.

It’s not too late. Names change all the time. Just ask Samuel Clemens, Sean Combs or the Imperial Palace. And when it comes to naming new places, it’s especially easy to do before they go live. Walk away from “Downtown Summerlin” while you still can, and return to your suburban roots.

Downtown Las Vegas has made incredible strides in recent years, thanks to vast infusions of money, creativity and enthusiasm. It’s still a work in progress, but the changes have been significant, and the last thing it needs is some poseur vying for its good name.

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