I love big cities. I'd much rather ride a subway than sit on a beach. I love museums and cultural events, great restaurants and urban activity.
New York is one of my favorites. If I had to live outside the US, I'd probably settle in London. I've been lucky enough to see Cairo, Jerusalem, Rome, Paris, Chicago, Istanbul and much of the rest of the world. Great cities are complicated, charming, messy, crowded, contradictory... and wonderful.
MGM Mirage is trying to replicate the best bits of those experiences in a new project opening soon on the Las Vegas Strip - CityCenter.
This past week, your humble host was given the opportunity to tour part of this new hospitality complex - 67 acres at the heart of the Las Vegas Strip, located between Bellagio and Monte Carlo.
My experiences on that tour are after the jump - enjoy. CityCenter will be a hot topic of discussion for months if not years. I can't wait until you all can share your own thoughts.
Update: We're not allowed to publish the actual map but Chuckmonster traced a copy and posted it on VT. This is the casino level and includes much of the stuff I saw on this tour. His version looks identical to the 'real' one. Enjoy. http://www.vegastripping.com/news/news.php?news_id=3019
It's Wednesday morning and I find myself not at my desk as usual but instead at 4282 Frank Sinatra Drive - the temporary headquarters of MGM Mirage's massive CityCenter project. The lobby is bustling with construction workers, executives, and well dressed PR operatives coming and going. There's an impromptu meeting of Cirque du Soleil officials in one corner, alternating equally between French and English. A TV screen including a countdown clock dominates the check-in desk. I'm here to tour the 18.2 million square foot project that has been going up on the Las Vegas Strip since 2006. I can't wait.
Before we can go onsite, I must don a hard hat, yellow vest and protective eyewear, plus sign a waiver acknowledging that I'm aware it's an active construction project. I chuckle at the irony of the rules - 'no gambling permitted on the job site'.
We enter via the employee access door behind the theater - up a flight of stairs and we empty into ARIA's casino, near the poker room on the far south side of the property. The casino has dark carpet combined with deep wood tones and marble accents. We're quickly ushered outside into 'Casino Circle' - the main way guests will enter ARIA. At the center of the porte-cochere area is a circular fountain - a water feature from WET Design, though far smaller than their work at Bellagio or The Mirage. WET will have five features at CityCenter, some of which include new, exclusive technology.
We're told the street is the same width as Park Avenue in New York City, a stat I've heard a few times now. The landscaping is a mix of native plants and other low-water varieties. This is one area where CityCenter stands in stark contrast to competitors Wynn Las Vegas, Encore and Bellagio - where they are full of lush plantings and gardens, CityCenter makes use of more urban landscaping. On the opposite side of the wide avenue, the resident's entrances for Veer East and Veer West are visible - stylized concrete set in glass.
We move across the drive and toward The Crystals, CityCenter's retail component. The spot where it adjoins ARIA is a small 'pocket park' including a reflecting pool at the base of giant glass wall, the other side of which is the hotel's main registration desk. The park includes outdoor seating for two of the restaurants that are part of the shopping complex, one of which I believe is Eva Longoria's Beso.
We enter the mall which happens to be undergoing a fire suppression system test, complete with loud whooping alarms. My initial impression of the space - it feels a bit like a sterilized airplane hangar - all white with booming acoustics. We're told that to be a part of the project, retailers must either build a flagship or offer unique feature that can't be found elsewhere. Some reports have indicated that about 40% of the storefronts will be open when the ribbon is cut in December, with spaces filling through next spring.
Most of The Crystals remains unexplored but we're already on to the next thing - ARIA's main lobby. Marble floors, high ceilings and on the right, a giant glass wall accented by Maya Lin's Colorado River piece, one of my favorite bits of public art at CityCenter. Huge, yet understated, it frames a magnificent display of natural light, streaming through the glass.
Right off the lobby, restaurants from Julian Serrano, Masayoshi Takayama, and Shawn McClain highlight the interior walkway back into The Crystals while the 'View Bar' stands between hotel guests and the casino floor. The ceiling tiles vary between main walkways and tributaries - the primary design includes rectangular cut-outs of interesting patterns, intended as subtle navigational aides.
When I first saw photos of ARIA's casino, I was concerned that some of the designs seemed a bit disjointed - it was hard to tell if the various components would fit together in a manner that made sense. Also, the space seemed dark - something that surprised me as I'd gotten the impression from various marketing materials that it would include natural light as a design feature. This Web site started to cover casino design and while we do include other topics, that's still at the heart of what we write about.
The ARIA casino floor seemed just as dark as the original photos had shown. Sure, there are patches of light at either side but they seem more the exception than the rule. The dark tones and sleek wood add to a casino floor whose design is reminiscent of Red Rock, M Resort and perhaps even the original game changer, The Mirage. The floor design is simple, straightforward and to the point. Where Wynn designs are whimsical and playful, ARIA's casino seems more button down - the gaming floor is all business - an extension of the modern design we've seen in other MGM Mirage properties over the past few years.
We made our way along the far end of the casino's back wall. Some of CityCenter's technical innovations were pointed out - cooling systems have been integrated into the slot podiums to increase air conditioning efficiency. The building's vents, typically left open during construction, have been sealed to prevent particulate matter from the construction entering the system. On the slot front, I didn't see a single game not 'server based', at least in the bits of the casino that we walked through.
The ~600 seat 24-hour cafe sits along the casino's back wall - the entrance features a rock sculpture backlit and highlighted with running water. Water features are a common thread in ARIA's design - from dripping curtain walls to high-tech fountains. The casino cage is up next - they have designed it to look like a bank vault, complete with fake safe-deposit boxes in the background. The buck stops here perhaps? So they hope.
The main guest elevators are accessed between another belly-up bar and ARIA's version of the Jean-Philippe Patisserie - this time with actual seating, something the Bellagio version miscalculated. The elevator lobbies are open on the opposite end, looking out onto the Harmon porte-cochere. As we continue to move along through the casino we reach the corridor leading to the Sky Suites. This is ARIA's version of Wynn's Tower Suites - separate check-in, high-end gaming, a bar and quick access to several restaurants, one Chinese and the other Thai.
We head up a long flight of stairs to the Promenade Level. Stairs seem to be a theme at CityCenter - elevation changes in the building require the guest to move between floors often. This particular staircase is at a somewhat significant angle - you want to be sure to hold that handrail.
At the top of the stairs is the Gold Lounge, a partnership between Cirque and The Light Group, somewhat similar to REVOLUTION at The Mirage. The lounge looks a bit like a gold birdcage - highly stylized. To the left is the 'Elvis Theater', complete with 'TCB' emblazoned on the doors. Beyond the theater, the business center and convention areas continue to wrap around the ARIA pool deck. Off to the right is the buffet and access to the Spa. Opposite the lounge, towards the front of the building are more fine dining options from Bellagio favorites Michael Mina, Sirio Maccioni and Jean Georges Vongerichten. Both sets of guest elevators offer easy access to the Promenade Level as does the Harmon Circle porte-cochere - guests that want to avoid the casino entirely could do so perhaps easier than at any other property on The Strip.
Back down the stairs and into the casino, we come upon the race and sports book. Combining some of the better elements of the redesigned book at MGM Grand with the comfort of Bellagio's outpost, ARIA has focused on sports over race bettors and also realized that some come just to watch the game. TVs at every angle may make this the top book in town when it comes to comfort and amenities.
Hard marble floors are pervasive at ARIA. Other properties have made use of interspersed carpeting to break up not only the acoustical impact of stone flooring but also to make it easier on women in high heels who are walking across the large expanses. I can't help but wondering how this will impact guests. On additional practical note, I had no cell coverage inside the building at all - I assume repeaters will be added before opening day.
If we'd continued around the back end of the casino we'd be back at the poker room and where we started. Instead, our guide takes us through a well-lit walkway and into the Harmon porte-cochere with access to the downstairs Haze nightclub as well as some additional retail space.
Outside the doors we find a concrete plateau where drivers and cabbies will invariably need a bit of time to adjust to the multitude of options navigating the complex. Between the various ramps and airport-like signage, this is one of my least favorite parts of the project.
A short walk brings us to Vdara, which for the general public will not offer much of anything. Designed as a condo-hotel, the public spaces are minimal with only guest registration, a small bar and the uber-retro (and super trippy cool) design of the Silk Road restaurant open to the public. Be sure to check out the Peter Wegner display in the concierge/elevator lobby - a very cool set of two pieces built with massive amounts of colored paper stacked on end. We're told Vdara is a completely non-smoking property, including the upstairs pool deck. Vdara offers easy access via covered walkway to Bellagio or to the CityCenter tram, depositing guests at both The Crystals and beyond to Monte Carlo.
From Vdara we're ushered back through ARIA and on to the Mandarin Oriental complex. Mandarin guests will arrive at the bottom level for valet and then be ushered up to the 23rd floor sky-lobby. This intimate setting includes floor-to-ceiling picture windows behind the front desk and into the adjacent lounge. The Mandarin bar is off to the right with sweeping Las Vegas Strip views. Pierre Gagnaire's Twist restaurant is to the left down a small corridor. The restaurant is fairly small and overlooks The Crystals retail complex. The wine cellar is accessible via a beautiful glass staircase - the restaurant is a gorgeous, intimate space. Not always one for sometimes pretentious dining rooms, I can't wait to try Twist. Seems like an essential ingredient to a perfect evening.
In general I would say that the Mandarin experience was one of the most impressive parts of the CityCenter complex. Even pre-opening, it is exclusive, intimate and upscale. I'm more interested in trying the Las Vegas Mandarin outpost than ever. I can't imagine the bar being anything but a smash hit, though the small number of seats may translate into an exclusive experience on weekends. Fanny packs likely need not apply.
We were ushered out of the Mandarin and into CityCenter's main self-park garage - an 11,000 space monolith right up against The Strip. The tour was over. After two and a half hours, we'd seen a lot but not nearly everything. My feet had huge blisters from the not-really-broken-in steal toe boots I had to wear. There's a lot to see at CityCenter, without question.
There's no doubt that this is an incredibly important project for MGM Mirage. If you're reading this, you've probably been following it since it was announced. The marketing - 'remember to breathe' - is full of seeming hyperbole. Does CityCenter live up to the hype? I'm sure opinions on this project will be all across the board.
My first inclination was to look at the complex through a casino design lens - I think others that do may come away a bit disappointed. The casino floor, a mere ~150,000 square feet out of 18,200,000 total, seems to be a lateral move, not introducing any significant new design elements or paradigms. If anything, CityCenter is a revolution in Las Vegas *resort design*, not casino design. If the revenue model supported it, the casino would probably be even smaller - perhaps even non-existent. This is not a casino property in the traditional Las Vegas sense. Yes, it has games and machines but they're the least interesting part of the complex.
CityCenter is not an organic urban environment but without a doubt, I had some of the same feelings I get when I'm standing at the foot of the GE Building in Rockefeller Center. The place is massive as hell and incredibly impressive. The Pelli designed ARIA tower is one of my personal favorites on The Strip - it shines brilliantly in the sun, blue glass, concrete and steel. Mandarin has the potential to really cement itself at the top level of service for Las Vegas hotel guests.
There are certain places in other resorts - the lobby at Bellagio, looking out through the glass onto Encore's pool deck near Botero, the atrium at The Mirage - these are places with an incredible sense of identity - unforgettable snapshots of your Vegas experience. Will ARIA and CityCenter have some of these moments? I think so. The glass hotel towers are stunning. The public art scattered throughout adds significant intrigue to the complex. The sheer scale of the buildings evokes strong emotions.
A reporter asked me how CityCenter will impact the future of Las Vegas. That's a tough question to answer. I'm not a fortune teller and my information is only as good (or as bad) as anyone's. There's no doubt in my mind that CityCenter is something new - something different. That's good for the city. Will it be replicated and photocopied like past game-changers were? I have a hard time imagining that.
As much as they may deny it, CityCenter does have a theme, in a manner of speaking. The project's theme is 'vibrant urban center' and it does that exceedingly well. That said, it's still not organic - it was master-planned and then built to serve that purpose. I don't see Harrah's doing their own version across the street - it just wouldn't make much sense: OtherCityCenter? Higher density development may catch on a bit more but probably not to the degree that we see at CityCenter - and that's fine. Las Vegas has always been great about providing choice: many different experiences at all price points - anything a guest could want, no matter their circumstances.
Todd-Avery Lenahan, the wunderkind designer hired to do the guest rooms and spa at Encore, when asked to compare Wynncore to ARIA, gave the Hotel Bel Air and the W Los Angeles as examples - two different hotels that are both very successful... Though in my mind I took his comparison to the W as a bit of a put-down - the Bel Air is classic and one of a kind where the W follows the current trends as they come and go.
I've wondered aloud recently if MGM CEO Jim Murren designed CityCenter to be the kind of place that he'd want to visit if he didn't have to live in Las Vegas. He and his wife are former New Yorkers and combining that fact with his urban planning background in college, I'm curious if he's trying to reshape The Strip to fit that vision. The potential problem with this? He's not a gambler - the business that the city is built on.
That thinking shows at CityCenter - the casino is the least interesting part of the project. Is this the future of Las Vegas or a miscalculation? Time will tell. Gaming's revenue share, relative to hotel, retail, entertainment and F&B has dropped dramatically in the past fifteen years. Will that trend continue or has it reached a new equilibrium? How will that impact resorts designed over the next five to ten years (assuming anyone is building anything)?
I can't wait to see how it unfolds... and in the meantime, I'm booking a few more nights at CityCenter to admire the view.
See you in December.