With her five-bedroom penthouse suite 36 floors above the Las Vegas Strip, vacation home in Newport Beach, Calif., and listing in the Social Register, Frances MacDonald is an unlikely candidate to be an urban pioneer.
But she and her husband, Richard, who are both in their 80s, are in the vanguard of a new wave of wealthy Las Vegas residents and visitors who are emboldening builders to turn their sights to the sky in a city more famous for sprawling into the desert.
The MacDonalds, developers themselves who rolled into town in 1959 and proceeded to make a fortune by turning thousands of desert acres into master-planned communities, had lived for 15 years in one of the city’s few existing high-rise apartment buildings when they saw plans for a new development called Turnberry Place.
“I called them immediately and went to Florida to check out the developer,” she said. “We were impressed.”
The couple sold their older penthouse apartment and plunked down $2.1 million for a luxurious 6,500-square-foot suite MacDonald figures has more than doubled in value just four years later. And she can’t stop raving about amenities like "magnificent" 24-hour security, bellmen to help with her luggage and a private, members-only club with two dining rooms, a piano lounge and weekly “mixers.”
“There is no comparison, really,” she said, referring to her former apartment building.
Happy customers like MacDonald are one reason developers are planning — or just dreaming out loud — about a wave of luxury residential apartment towers fanning out from the famed Strip, a trend that is likely to once again reshape the skyline of a city well-known for its frequent dramatic transformations.
“You are now seeing the next transformation or the next re-creation of the Strip, and it’s going to be in this verticality, this Manhattanization,” said John Ritter, who develops master-planned communities around Las Vegas as chief executive officer of Focus Property Group.
Up to 80 towers are in various stages of planning, and while many will die on the drawing board, several have been been completed, and others are under construction or expected to be built in the next few years by some of the nation’s biggest developers.
Among the projects:
- Turnberry Place, a gated, guarded community with four 38-story towers featuring amenities like marble Jacuzzis, premium appliances and a private club with two dining rooms. Three towers have been completed, and all 777 units in the development have been sold at an average price of $1.3 million, according to Bruce Weiner, president of Florida-based Turnberry Associates, which developed the project.
- The Residences at MGM Grand, a set of three 40-story hotel-condominium that is under construction near in compound that includes the sprawling MGM Grand casino. Without leaving the 116-acre “City of Entertainment,” residents will have access to more than a dozen restaurants, Cirque Du Soleil’s newest show “KÀ,” the Studio 54 night club and an adults-only stage show imported from Paris.
- Trump International Hotel and Tower, the first Las Vegas project in years from flamboyant East Coast developer Donald Trump. Construction is scheduled to get under way within two months on the 64-story hotel-condo, according to a Trump spokesman. Buyers already have reserved all 1,282 units planned for the $500 million project, described by Trump as “super high-end.”
The trend to reach for the sky is an outgrowth of rapid development that has seen population growth of more than 5,000 people a month, a frenzied land grab for some of the last big desert parcels open to development, and average home prices that jumped an astounding 50 percent last year. And with land on the Strip going for $12 million to $30 million an acre, developers have little choice but to go for density if they expect to make a profit on anything other than hotels or gambling.
The high rises also speak of a city that has matured and now offers its 37 million annual visitors far more than slot machines and blackjack tables — which they can probably find a lot closer to home anyway.
The new projects appeal to visitors from southern California who make Las Vegas their vacation home, as well as “empty nesters” who want to be closer to the bright lights and attractions of the city, said Marty Burger, president of Related Las Vegas, which is developing half-a-dozen major projects in the city.
“Where else can you go to a different restaurant every night for 30 days or see a different show every night for 30 days?” he said.
While the city’s increasingly vertical skyline may draw comparisons with Manhattan, the high-rise condo towers actually are following more of a south Florida model, said Bruce Weiner, president of Turnberry Associates.
Weiner said Turnberry is hoping to duplicate what the privately owned company did in south Florida beginning in the late 1960s, when company founder Don Soffer acquired 785 acres of swampland and proceeded to build the mostly vertical city of Aventura, now one of the state’s wealthiest communities.
Weiner said the market in Vegas wasn’t really viable until the Strip moved upscale in the 1990s, beginning with Steve Wynn’s Mirage and continuing with high-end casino resorts like the Bellagio, Venetian and the just-opened Wynn.
Still, when Turnberry announced plans for its first four towers in 1998, many observers were skeptical, Weiner said. Las Vegas had not seen a new residential tower in 25 years, and Turnberry’s initial sales office in a double-wide trailer did nothing to dispel the doubts.
“People said, ‘Do you know how many people have been into this town in a trailer?’” he recalled. “You had to prove to the skeptic that you meant business.”
Now many of those skeptics have turned into believers, leading to a new wave of development on the Strip. Ritter, of Focus Group, figures that even if most of the announced condominium towers are never built, developers will invest $10 billion in the Strip over the next five to seven years, on top of the $15 billion that has been poured in since Wynn ushered in the latest boom by opening the Mirage in 1989.
“It’s an unparalleled phenomenon,” he said. “Personally I’ve never been a very big fan of the Strip. I’ve always felt the Strip was a little bit trashy and tacky, but that is really changing, and I think it will change more.”
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