How Tony Hsieh Tried to Single-Handedly Transform Downtown Las Vegas

How Tony Hsieh Tried to Single-Handedly Transform Downtown Las Vegas


Natalie Young had quit her job as a chef on the Las Vegas Strip just a few months before she was introduced to Mr. Hsieh by a friend who ran a coffee shop in downtown Las Vegas. She recalled on Saturday that he had once asked her, “What size restaurant do you want?” and had later offered her a $225,000 loan. With the money, she opened her first restaurant, Eat, in 2012, and it became a hit. As her own business grew, she also saw her downtown neighborhood change.

“I remember standing on the corner at Eat and looking both ways and seeing nothing — like, nothing,” she said of the time before she opened her restaurant. But after it opened, and as Mr. Hsieh’s investments attracted more businesses and people, downtown became a destination, she said, and suddenly parents and children were arriving on bicycles at her restaurant’s front door.

As much as she loves the new downtown, Ms. Young acknowledged that it had come with trade-offs; the coffee shop that her friend owned closed in 2016 and was replaced by a restaurant that is part of a California-based chain, exactly the kind of business Mr. Hsieh once said he wanted to avoid in favor of unique shops.

“That kind of stuff made you sad, but it’s also a part of growth,” Ms. Young said.

In recent years, as Mr. Hsieh became less involved in the Downtown Project, it was increasingly run “like a traditional urban planning project,” focusing on real estate and investing in more lucrative projects, Aimee Groth, who penned a book about Mr. Hsieh and the project, wrote for Quartz in 2017.

Leah Meisterlin, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University, said on Saturday that Mr. Hsieh’s project was an early attempt to bring a fast-moving Silicon Valley approach to city planning. Despite his generous investment, Ms. Meisterlin said, the project may have been slowed in its ambition because cities can benefit more from slower, careful changes.

“They didn’t have any experience in urban planning, but what he had was over $300 million of his own wealth that he was ready to invest,” Ms. Meisterlin said. “What he chose as his subject — a city — necessarily slowed him down, whereas many endeavors might not have, and I think that was ultimately for the best.”

Mayor Carolyn Goodman of Las Vegas, whose city boundaries do not include the Las Vegas Strip and its many landmarks, wrote on Twitter on Saturday that Mr. Hsieh had been a visionary for the city’s downtown.





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