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Vegas, Baby! 48 Hours in CityCenter, What to Know, What to Do

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Via Laughing Monsta: Daniel Libeskind mall, Helmut Jahn towers, Foster + Partners hotel
Last week, the much-ballyhooed City Center project in Las Vegas officially opened, and for 48 hours, we tromped our way through this $8.5 billion, six-building development that's billed as a city within a city. Created by an all-star team of architects (Pelli! Libeskind! Foster! and more!), CityCenter is modern and theme-free in its design: No faux Roman forums, no ship wrecks, no Excalibur swords. The Aria casino/hotel is the centerpiece of CityCenter, while the adjoining hotels include a Mandarin Oriental and a Crystals shopping mall. Full breakdown of all the buildings is here. And if the casino aspect--overall, gaming is a declining piece of the revenue pie for Vegas's resorts--is pushed at CityCenter, equally publicized are the restaurants, shows, and available condos. Basically, CityCenter is looking to attract a new tourist, bring in the crowd that "previously swore off Las Vegas as a cultural backwater," according to the Las Vegas Sun. After the jump, your complete backwater-free guide to CityCenter: What to know and what to look out for.

Jenny Holzer's LED installation in the Aria valet parking lot
Go check out the art: Big name art isn't new for the Strip given that you can dine next Fernando Botero sculptures over at Steve Wynn's Encore hotel. But CityCenter execs spent $40 million acquiring and commissioning 15 pieces of art, including work by Frank Stella, an LED installation by Jenny Holzer (seen above) and a sculpture by Maya Lin.

Lose Some Money—In a Good Looking Place
: Via the San Francisco Chronicle, a description of the casino (about the size of the casino at Bellagio), which has generally been well-reviewed: “Instead of a lobby the size of two football fields bathed by the glow of slot machines, I found one that could easily be crossed in seconds and was filled with natural light and comfy-looking furniture. No flashing marquees and not even a hint of cigarette smoke.” Here’s some DIY video shot right before the casino opened.

Marvel the Architecture: As you ponder the collection of buildings, here's what the critics have said so far: The Los Angeles Times' Christopher Hawthorne wonders whether the architects---a collection that included Daniel Libeskind, Cesar Pelli, Rafael Vinoly, Norman Foster, and David Rockwell--should have made the designs even more over the top (after all, this is Vegas). But he also notes the playfulness of some of the buildings: “Helmut Jahn's yellow-clad 37-story Veer Towers, set slightly askew, lean toward each other like a pair of drunken tourists careening down a hotel corridor at the end of a very long night.” Bloomberg critic James Russell is a fan of the Pelli-designed Aria building, but writes that the design of the Harmon hotel (see on right; now delayed in opening, and shortened due to construction defaults) "has been phoned-in from London by Foster & Partners."

The Mandarin Oriental, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates.
Marvel at the Cheap Rooms: People, Vegas is cheap! Advertised room rates for Vdara (where we were put up, courtesy of CityCenter) and Aria are currently $149 mid-week, while other resorts are said to be offering $75 vouchers for food and entertainment. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the average room rate for 2009 so far is $93.15, while the average room rate in 2007 was $132.09. Even if CityCenter attracts more visitors to Vegas, the flood of new hotel rooms to the city is likely to cause room rates to remain flat throughout 2010.

Check Out the Crazy Time Lapse Video of the building of City Center:
Watch this clip, and realize how quickly this whole project, which broke ground in April 2006, went up.

And Then Read This Series of Articles:
Alexandra Berzon, a then 29-year-old reporter at the Las Vegas Sun won a Pulitzer last year for her series on the high number of construction worker deaths at CityCenter, nicknamed CityCemetary by some workers. Over a stretch of 12 months, 8 workers died at CityCenter and the adjacent Cosmopolitan hotel development. The Sun's reporting led to Congressional hearings, and since June 2008, no workers have died on the Strip. Berzon was later hired by the Wall Street Journal.

Twist in the Mandarin Oriental
Eat and drink and eat and drink: Of the dozens of restaurants and bars opening at CityCenter, the most anticipated is Twist, the first American restaurant by Michelin three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire. Eater has more on CityCenter's restaurants.

Crystals, the shopping mall
Ponder the Notion of a Stand-Alone Mall in Vegas: One of the tricks of Vegas is that everything is connected. Like a rat in an maze, tourists have to navigate a set of pathways--usually lined with upscale stores, boutiques or restaurants--to get to the casino, for instance. The Daniel Libeskind-designed Crystals shopping mall is stand-alone building, while he was also able to open up some parts of the roof to let in natural light. "It’s not just a cynical exploitation of money," Libeksind told us, taking about the overall design of CityCenter. "This is a space that’s real. It’s not just a fake space."

The Vdara, a hotel/condo hybrid, Rafael Vinoly
Take a Tour of the Condos: Vdara, the Mandarin, and Veer (opening next year) are all selling, and prices have already been knocked off 30 percent at CityCenter, which is touting the whole project as 50 percent sold. How's everyone feeling about how these condos? Will they sell? Neil Schwartz, real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Las Vegas, tells us: "To be honest, I can’t even guess. Right now, based on the economy, it’s not going to be a pretty picture for a while. The Mandarin has a great reputation internationally, but we are going to have to see what people want?the economy has to recover locally, and it's going to have to recover internationally."

The Aria, the main hotel/casino (no condos here)
And Think About Strip Living: The majority of buyers at CityCenter are expected to be second, third and fourth home buyers, and investors. According to Brian Gordon, principal analyst at Vegas-based Applied Analysis, a financial consulting services, projects like the Turnberry, an all-condo tower which opened off the strip in the late 1990s have been successful, but "the luxury condo market in Vegas is still in its infancy stage," says Gordon. "It's not like Miami or New York." Another gamble CityCenter is taking: Its Vdara project is a condo-hotel hybrid, in which buyers purchase a condo and rent it out, a formula that hasn't always worked in Vegas.

Lobby of Aria
Sniff the Buildings: Part of a plan to build memory and association, all MGM Mirage's properties have smells piped into the common areas of the buildings, according to MGM Mirage Sr. VP of Public Relations Gordon Absher, and at CityCenter. Vdara, the non-gaming hotel, smells vaguely vanilla-like.

Take An Adult Swim: No, there’s no topless pool on the premise: So-called European pools may be growing in popularity in Vegas, but Aria's Liquid, billed as an over 21 pool, won't be topless. Opening in spring 2010, Liquid will be managed by the popular entertainment management company Light Group.

Watch the Titans Clash: Donald Trump, who runs the Trump Las Vegas project, called the CityCenter development "an absolute catastrophe," and " architecturally unappealing." Meow. Yes, there's a feud underway between the Don and MGM Mirage chairman and CEO Jim Murren.

The tram!
Realize CityCenter is The Grove's Wealthy, Sophisticated Uncle: A step above Americana/Grove developer Rick Caruso's trolley, two 95-foot long electric trains ferry passengers to three stations throughout CityCenter. And the fountains at CityCenter were done by WET, the same Los Angeles water fountain design firm which worked at Americana at Brand.

Take the Real Estate Crash Tour: The under-construction $3.9 billion Cosmopolitan casino/hotel sits right next to CityCenter. Owned by Deutsche Bank after the lender defaulted on $760 million loan, yhere’s been some speculation that CityCenter may eventually try and buy the project, now at least $2 billion over debt, according to Bloomberg. At least in the short term, it’s not going to happen. “We have our own set of bills,” MGM's Absher told us. “Right now we don’t need to take on more bills. But never say never.”

Via Las Vegas Deluxe
Take in a Show--An Elvis Show: You'll have to wait till February for Aria's Cirque De Soleil show, Viva ELVIS, a "harmonious fusion of dance, acrobatics and live music, is a tribute to the life and music of Elvis Presley," according to the press release. That's Elvis on stilts, people. Look at those ladies, they're losing it over that Elvis pelvis. Viva CityCenter!
· CityCenter [Official Site]
· CityCenter Archives [Curbed LA]