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Las Vegas bets the future on a game-changing new hotel complex

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010; F01

After just a day in Las Vegas's spanking new CityCenter, I was crystal clear about one thing: This was no place for anyone on a budget.

Strolling the promenade on a Friday night, I contemplated my dinner options. I thought there might be a good deal at the Buffet, but the $35.95 price tag gave me sticker shock. I studied the menu at a restaurant called American Fish. The bigeye tuna looked appealing; the price -- $38 -- not so much.

"It's a nice hotel; just don't eat here," said a man studying the menu beside me. "If you want something cheap, you have to go outside."

Outside, of course, the recession still reigns. But you'd be hard-pressed to remember that inside CityCenter. Recession realities notwithstanding, Las Vegas tourism officials and MGM Mirage executives who spent five years planning and building this sprawling, 67-acre complex of hotels, restaurants, shops and nightclubs are hoping it will pull the city out of its foreclosure funk. They're so optimistic -- they are gamblers, after all -- that they're predicting that CityCenter, which officially opened Dec. 16, will provide a tourism boost of anywhere from 2 to 5 percent this year.

Never mind that you can find cheaper hotels and meals all up and down the Strip. And considering that the city's hotel occupancy rate for 2009 was 86.2 percent through November, down 4.7 percentage points from the same period the year before, does adding more than 6,000 new rooms to the Strip make sense?

"History has shown that new properties increase visitation across the board," said Rossi Ralenkotter, president and chief executive of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, obviously sticking to the company line.

Added Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association: "I think this is going to give them the shot they need."

But that could come with unintended consequences, at least at first, said Tony Henthorne, professor and chair of tourism and convention administration at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "Will it cannibalize other properties? Probably so, within a short-term period," he said. "But when we pull ourselves out of the situation we're in, I think it will be a wonderful asset to the community, to the Strip."

I had my doubts, but I was willing to be convinced. So I made plans to meet up with my high school buddy Roy and headed west to check out the place.

* * *

Right off the bat, at Las Vegas's McCarran International Airport, a discussion with a shuttle driver underlined how badly residents want CityCenter to succeed. It has created 12,000 jobs, bringing hope to a community that has been one of the hardest hit by the recession.

"I hope they get the clientele," said Debby Cartier (like the jewelry store, she told me, but no relation). "I hope they don't lay off those people. It's scary."

Cartier and many others have watched the recession torpedo other projects that were supposed to boost the local economy. Construction has shut down on the Fontainebleau and the Echelon Hotel-Casino, two other properties that were expected to create thousands of jobs.

The $8.5 billion CityCenter, said to be the largest privately funded construction project in U.S. history, almost didn't make it to completion either, thanks to a March lawsuit by Dubai World, MGM's partner in the venture, which claimed that MGM mismanagement had led to cost overruns.

"We had many dark days last year, to be honest, where the outcome was very unclear," MGM Mirage chief executive Jim Murren told me as we sat in his gigantic office at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino. But Dubai World dropped the lawsuit, MGM raised more money, and construction workers raced to a December finish.

Does Murren think CityCenter is in the clear? "Absolutely not," he said. "We're not declaring victory at all. We are a year or two away from even having a chance to consider that."

He is optimistic, however, that tourists will buy into his vision, which was to create a pedestrian-friendly resort that's not centered on gambling (there's only one casino), where people can shop, eat, drink, admire art, watch a show, even live (the two Veer Towers have 674 condo units for sale). Hence the walkways, sky bridges, tram stop and mini-parks that unify and connect the six completed buildings, making CityCenter a small universe unto itself. You could easily spend your entire time in Vegas at CityCenter, never venturing beyond its borders, as I found myself doing until Roy dragged me out for a stroll on the Strip.

"I have felt for quite a while, as we continue to mature as a community," said Murren, "as we continue to broaden our reach, we have to continue to inspire people, entertain and create something they haven't seen before."

In that, he may have succeeded, for CityCenter strives to be a game-changer in a town that knows how to play.

For one thing, all the buildings (minus the casino floor, where smoking is allowed) have earned the LEED Gold certification, making the development one of the largest built to "green" standards. Air conditioning vents at the base of the slot machines shoot air upward, both to blow away cigarette smoke and to avoid cooling unused space near the ceiling. The limousines at the Vdara and Aria hotels run on compressed natural gas.

Another difference: The architects strayed from the Vegas norm of themed casino hotels. (Think New York New York, with its copy of the Statue of Liberty, or Paris Las Vegas with its Eiffel Tower.) CityCenter's architecture is sleek and modern, standing out amid the gaudy buildings that line the Strip. It wasn't the first to take this tack: When Wynn Las Vegas opened in 2005, and its sister property, Encore, followed in 2008, they also stood out for their sophisticated and less gimmicky style. But CityCenter, so much more imposing, has upped the ante.

Instead of imitations of iconic structures from around the world, it boasts a $40 million collection of fine art, much of it commissioned from artists such as Nancy Rubins, Peter Wegner and Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin. Other properties, such as Bellagio and Wynn, have art galleries, too. But CityCenter's pieces are sprinkled in the most mundane places. The valet stand at Haze nightclub, for instance, is decorated with a 250-foot light installation by conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, whose work can be found in New York's Museum of Modern Art.

And then there's the sheer size and luxury of everything. Aria Resort, where I stayed, has 4,004 rooms and a 150,000-square-foot casino. Vdara is described as a 1,500-suite boutique hotel (first boutique hotel I've heard of with more than 1,000 rooms). And the Mandarin Oriental, with its 400 rooms, is the most exclusive of the bunch, with rates starting at $350. A fourth hotel, Harmon, is scheduled to open at some point with 400 rooms.

And let's not forget the 500,000-square-foot Crystals retail center. It's Madison Avenue in a mall, with stores by the likes of Tom Ford, Roberto Cavalli, Louis Vuitton, Bulgari and Cartier. Actress Eva Longoria Parker has opened a restaurant, Beso, and a nightclub, Eve. Wolfgang Puck and Todd English are scheduled to open restaurants as well.

* * *

My first thought upon seeing CityCenter as the cab pulled up: "This place is ridiculous." The sharp edges, planes and curves of the six buildings caught the light off the Strip, making them sparkle in the night. A fountain outside Aria turned from neon green to purple. The two Veer Towers leaned away from each other. "It looks like something out of a sci-fi movie," I overheard someone say.

Like any pedestrian-friendly urban zone, CityCenter was built for walking. And you can expect to walk a lot. There's so much ground to cover that getting from place to place was actually tricky. The front desk clerk had mapped out my route (on an actual map), but I still got lost on the way to my 11th-floor room at the Pelli Clarke Pelli-designed Aria. I walked into the casino and found myself searching for signs. I finally spied them, hanging rather inconspicuously from the ceiling. A few wrong turns later, I found the guest elevators. But my journey was far from over when I got to my floor. I had to make three turns and march down a long hallway to reach my room.

Once I finally stumbled upon it, though, I was pleasantly surprised. As I entered, the curtains opened and the lights and the television turned on. Floor-to-ceiling windows gave me a nice view of the Strip. The bathroom boasted a double sink and a vanity mirror. The large shower and bathtub sat right next to each other in an enclosed stall that made me feel as though I was in a spa.

The bed was so comfortable that I didn't want to get out of it. And I didn't have to. With a bedside remote control, I could adjust every technological feature in the room, from the lights to the TV to the temperature to the curtains. Instead of a wake-up call, I could program the curtains to open and the lights and the TV to turn on. But press the wrong button, and you could end up listening to Lionel Richie's cheesy "Stuck on You," as I unhappily did one night.

If you want pampering, Aria is a good place for it. It has four pools and a spa with heated-stone beds, an infused-salt room and eucalyptus steam rooms. Unfortunately, I couldn't afford any of the spa treatments, so I opted to check out the fitness center inside the spa instead. The walk there was a workout in itself. I made my way to the elevator, took it down to the promenade, walked past a gelato shop (not the kind of thing you want to see on your way to the gym), then made a few more turns past the pool and the salon before spotting the spa. At the desk, I was informed that there was a $30 fee to use the gym unless I paid for a spa service.

A guest shouldn't have to pay a fee, I protested. But no go. The desk clerk refused to waive it. Later, though, I realized that I could easily have sneaked in to use the equipment, because nobody at the door asked me for a receipt.

So the next morning, I just waltzed right on in.

* * *

You have to go to the 23rd floor of the Mandarin Oriental, several people told me, for the killer view of the Strip. But first, I had to find the hotel.

I asked one of the many Aria employees in maroon blazers and black pants for directions. Take the elevator downstairs, he told me, make a right, snake your way around the casino, then walk out the door past the fountain. I made it as far as downstairs before I got lost. I sought help from the guy at a counter for the Haze nightclub. He had never been to the Mandarin, he said, offering me a free pass to Haze.

I spotted another man in a maroon blazer, who gave me better directions.

At the Mandarin, men in top hats opened the door to the first-floor lobby, where the Asian-inspired decor made for an elegant introduction to the 47-story hotel. The trip to the 23rd floor was well worth it. On one side of the building, you get a stunning view of Paris Las Vegas. I took a seat at a table on the other side, where the windows look out on an equally blow-you-away view of New York New York and the MGM Grand.

My enthusiasm faded when I looked at the menu. The cheapest drink was a $16 glass of wine.

After downing one glass, I returned to the Aria and made my way to the casino, hoping to win some money to pay for dinner. I'm not really a gambler, so I headed for the slot machines rather than the blackjack table, where, the night before, Roy had lost a bundle as I watched in horror.

I chose a machine called the "John Wayne Spinning Streak" and put in $5. Just as I got down to my last dollar, the machine lit up. I'd hit a spinning streak and won $15. And so it went for a while: I'd lose a little, then win a little more. In the end, I made a $14 profit. I have to say, it was kind of a thrill to win, even if it wasn't even enough to cover my glass of wine at the Mandarin.

* * *

If you're not a gambler and you can't afford Tom Ford, what is there to do in CityCenter? Eat.

It's been a recent trend for some of the most celebrated chefs in the country (and the world) to open restaurants in Vegas. Now, almost two dozen have opened venues in CityCenter. The Mandarin has Twist by Michelin three-star-winning chef Pierre Gagnaire. Aria recruited such top chefs as Julian Serrano, Michael Mina, Sirio Maccioni and Vegas newcomers Masayoshi Takayama, who owns Masa in New York, and Shawn McClain, who owns three restaurants in Chicago. Vdara has Martin Heierling, who runs Bellagio's Sensi.

Roy, another friend and I hit Julian Serrano, a Spanish tapas bar in the lobby of the Aria. Serrano serves traditional tapas such as chicken croquetas and a Spanish tortilla, but he also offers what he calls "new tapas," such as the amazing avocado canelonne, made with Scottish salmon and seaweed. A shrimp seviche with yellow and red peppers was less satisfying, but the grilled Angus flatiron steak was tender and delicious.

At McClain's Sage, we ordered the Pacific yellowtail crudo and the Vancouver Island kusshi oysters. The crudo was light but filled with texture, and the oysters were fresh. But nothing could match the roasted loin of Spanish Iberico pork. The loin was so tender and the pork shoulder cannelloni so flavorful that I had to stop myself from eating the whole thing. (The gym was $30 a visit, after all, and I couldn't bet that I wouldn't get caught the next time I tried to sneak in.)

One morning, Roy and I had breakfast at Silk Road, the only restaurant at Vdara. I've rarely seen a menu with morning sliders, so I had to order them. One came with grilled tenderloin and tomato confit, the other with Vermont cheddar, bacon and a fried egg. Both were in a brioche bun, and both were scrumptious.

But the best thing about Silk Road was the chef, who likes to circulate around the colorful room. The German-born, New Zealand-raised Heierling told me that he's ecstatic about opening another restaurant in Vegas. "I always think Vegas is the epitome of the American dream," he said.

I couldn't help thinking he was right, somehow. So of course we couldn't leave town without seeing that proto-American show, Cirque du Soleil's "Viva Elvis," a musical salute to the King.

After waiting in a long, slow line, we got into the theater a few minutes too late for the opening scene. But no matter. It was all about singing, and the singing was terrific. Much of the show featured clips of Elvis, then performers doing their renditions of his songs. The "Love Me Tender" performance was so beautiful that Roy and I both got teary.

This was Cirque du Soleil, after all, so we got our share of acrobatics. Performers dressed as superheroes strutted their skills to the tune of "Gotta Lotta Lovin.' " In a scene depicting Elvis's stint in the military, men and women dressed as GIs danced to "GI Blues."

In the middle of the show, some kind of glitch forced the performers to take an unscheduled break. But we didn't care. We were having fun.

"Bring back the GIs!" Roy shouted as the break stretched on. No one seemed to mind. Even though we were in the upscale, sophisticated CityCenter, we were still in Vegas.

And such shenanigans are what Vegas is all about.

Details: CityCenter

Gallery: Las Vegas's big gamble

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