It Takes a Village to Raise a City

August 2, 2012 in News & Events, Other Than That - news, business & other nonsense | Comments (0)


Downtown Cocktail Room - by day the offices of The Downtown Project

Next on the agenda after returning from the Zappos tour was a meet-up with Andy White from the Vegas Tech Fund and one of the leading players driving The Downtown Project.

Returning from Zappos about a half hour before I was scheduled to meet Andy in the lobby, I had two pleasant experiences. The first was slipping out of the sweltering heat into the cool air of The Ogden – a sensation that I had a feeling I’d appreciate more and more during my trip. The second was seeing an adorable black and white dog peering up at me with a doe-eyed glance from behind the legs of her master, a sandy-haired fellow with an easy smile. My dog-centric self immediately greeted the shy pup, chatting with her owner as we walked towards the elevator.

I mentioned that I was visiting and had my own dog, Truman, upstairs.

The man smiled and said, “Oh, you must be Cathy Brooks. Nice to meet you, I’m Andy White.”

That he knew who I was at all was impressive. After all, The Downtown Project can have anywhere from 10 to 50 people visiting on any given day. This particular day had more than that. I know I’d have a hard time keeping them all straight. That he knew who I was by my dog’s name endeared Andy to me immediately.

We chatted a bit while we rode up in the elevator, mostly talking about dog stuff – my main questions being about where people take their dogs to socialize and play in the downtown area. (The answer – they don’t. At least not yet. More on that later.) We reached our floor and parted ways as I headed to the apartment to take my own pup out for a bio break before The Downtown Project gathering.

Meeting up with the group in the lobby (our group would include a posse from Angel Fund along with a contingent of entrepreneurs from Kazakhstan) we headed up to the top of the building to Tony Hsieh’s apartment. He allows The Downtown Project folks to use the space for tours and meetings – partly because from the perch on this high floor at The Ogden you can actually see the physical city block area in which the revitalization is taking place.

In a room lined with architectural schematics, blueprints and urban planning maps Andy gave us a solid overview of urban revitalization as a concept, how this endeavor is different and what plans are underway.

Listening to the talk I couldn’t help but think how most of the urban projects I’ve heard of either fail or just never quite live up to the expectations that are set. Even if they do succeed, oftentimes the time frame that it takes to reach that success takes far longer than anyone anticipates. Another major issue that seems to plague most urban revitalization projects is that it’s either government run, which is of course a recipe for stagnation in bureaucracy. Then there are the attempts by a private organizations that swoop in and endeavor to foist a Draconian top-down process, which can’t work when the space on which this downward push gets shoved doesn’t have a sound foundation on which to build.

If I sound cynical, it’s because I am. I’ve lived in San Francisco for 22 years. Pretty much that entire time I’ve watched as the City and various private entities have attempted to clean-up, revitalize and otherwise rejuvenate the mid-Market sector of the city. While chunks of SOMA, Potrero and other bits of town have scrubbed up okay, for the most part it’s all whitewash. As the grunge and the people associated with it have been removed and brushed away from the Embarcadero/waterfront, and many parts of Potrero and South of Market, there’s a solid swath of mid-Market that just won’t clean up. Now that Twitter and some other businesses are moving into the area the thought is that this area will revitalize. I have doubts.

So when I heard Andy describe the various projects within the Downtown area that will be built, the services that will come and the businesses that will prosper, and then I heard him say that the Downtown Project intends to accomplish a major portion of the initial stages of this project by October 2013, I had to ask him to repeat himself. Twice.

Convinced I’d heard him correctly I found myself wondering whether the look on my face mirrored how incredulous I was at this. The idea that in 14 months time such exponential change could happen? I began to wonder if perhaps there was something in the water here.

Turns out it’s something better than that. It’s the influence of a company the culture of which is committed to giving back and making the world a happier place. Yep. Zappos. In October 2013 Zappos will be moving its headquarters into downtown Las Vegas, bringing about 2000 employees, not to mention all the visitors and business partners who would pass through to work with the company. These people would be needing a considerable boost to basic services, things like dry cleaners, pharmacies, restaurants and more. There would need to be more residential properties and, of course, parking.

As I noted, the mid-Market attempts in San Francisco are now being lauded as having a future with the movement of Twitter into the area. Candidly I think that the only way that effort can or will work is if Twitter takes a couple of pages if not entire chapters from Zappos’ cultural reference guide. Because it is the culture of Zappos that I believe may just be the secret weapon that could lead to the success of this effort in Vegas.

To be fair, this is not the first attempt to “fix” downtown Las Vegas. In fact for the last 6 years or so there have been any number of concerted efforts to revitalize this area. It could likely be claimed that these efforts, though failed, set a basic foundation on which this current project was able to get its footing. That said, while I am by no means an urban development expert, from where I sit, I’d posit that the very thing that will enable this to succeed is the Zappos DNA.

There’s another point to mention. This is not about Zappos coming in and instilling its culture to the area, however. Rather it’s about infusing the culture and philosophy that Zappos used to build and continues to use to maintain and grow its culture. To put a more fine point on it, it’s not about making other people adhere to Zappos’ culture, it’s about using the practices that Zappos used to build its own culture and empowering this community to find its own voice.

What does that look like? I have no idea, and frankly I don’t know that this area knows either. What is pretty clear from just the first exposure is that this is something quite unique yet with the promise of replication for other places should it work.

To be clear, the Downtown Project is not a Zappos business. While funded in significant part by Tony Hsieh, this organization is a wholly separate, privately-held entity that is not a Zappos business. That said, it comes woven tightly from the same fabric of cultural and philosophical beliefs and a chunk of the staffers did come from Zappos.

With that, I’ll dive in … can’t wait to see what I find.

You can see photos from our group briefing and short walking tour in this Flickr album.

And here’s my full interview with Andy White from the Downtown Project”

Andy White – The Downtown Project from Cathy Brooks on Vimeo.


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