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The Greening of Las Vegas

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The Las Vegas strip can seem like the most excessive place on earth. It's where we go to consume. We can walk from Rome to Paris in a block. The fountains spew water hundreds of feet into the desert air. And the strip is about to outdo itself with its largest project ever - City Center. It's not only huge, it's a radical departure from the older, theme-based casinos like Cesar's Palace and Paris, Las Vegas. The seven and a half-billion dollar complex is the largest green building project in North America. It could "move the needle" on the availability of sustainable building materials, says Cindy Ortega of MGM Mirage, the company behind the project. While Nevada is fostering environmental projects like this through tax breaks, Las Vegas is also a sprawling behemoth in a desert facing one of its worst droughts in history. Reporter Michael May investigates the greening of Las Vegas.

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by Michael May

City Center is still a 76-acre mess of concrete and rebar between the Bellagio and the Monte Carlo. But soon, three sleek glass towers will rise from the rubble and soar over the kitschy glitz of the Las Vegas strip. City Center is more than just a vision of the future. The $7.5 billion complex is the largest green building project in North America.

Cindy Ortega is the vice president of energy and environmental services for MGM Mirage, the company behind the project. She points out rings of delicate fins that encase one of the concrete structures.

"What they do is add shading," she says. "What you do to decrease energy use in a big building like this is minimize heat gain from the outside. The more you do that, the less air conditioners are on at 4 o'clock."

The other towers use engineered glass that let light in, but not heat. The project will also have a natural gas power plant built on site, which reduces the energy lost in transmission. The steam from the generators will heat water for showers. Ortega herself went to China to purchase sustainable-harvested wood. Nevada gave MGM huge tax breaks to encourage these green elements.

It's not just that the project will use less water and electricity. Ortega says a project this size can move markets "All of a sudden when you put an addition on your home you have the availability of those materials," she says. "So that's the whole purpose of large projects moving the needle on sustainability."

Las Vegas is the largest city in the world founded after 1900. It was built for cars, air conditioners and rolling green lawns. But the region is now in the midst of a record drought. It's possible that the Hoover Dam could stop generating electricity.

But Pat Mulroy, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, says she's still optimistic that the young community can adapt. "If you go to this community and you tell them there is a need for something," she says, "they step up to the plate. They are very agile and very willing to make those changes."

Mulroy says residents have taken out enough water-thirsty grass to reach half way around the world. But the young city also has some serious challenges. The landscape does not provide any natural barriers, so the city has sprawled out across the desert in search of cheap land. Critics, like Las Vegas architect Jeff Robers, say the houses don't take climate into account.

"Someone's made a profit somewhere else and they've come here," he says. "We live in the hottest, driest desert in North America and no one responds to that. We don't address overhangs on buildings to shade elevations. We don't use sky-lighting. We have beautiful sun 365 days a year. We just use the lowest common denominator, where we can turn a profit the fastest."

A builder isn't going to get much more money for a single house that's energy efficient. A better investment is marble countertops. But the gaming corporations like MGM have an incentive to build energy-efficient buildings -- they will end up paying those utility bills. And Mulroy says they have found creative ways to save money, even the fountains use recycled water. "You know the Strip only uses three percent of our water resources," she says, "and with that they are the biggest economic driver in the state of Nevada, bar none. Everything they sell is virtual reality. You see excess but that's not there. They have fooled you."

But what the strip does do is encourage a culture of excess. City Center has built a $20 million temporary building on the strip to lure potential buyers. Inside an infomercial plays on a continuous loop, with hyperbolic narration running over an electronic soundtrack.

"Can a destination transform you? Yes, in ways that are hard to imagine until you experience it. In Las Vegas such a place is coming . . . City Center."

In one of the model condos, I relaxed on a black leather couch in front of a flat screen TV, and leafed through a copy of Elite Traveler, The Private Jet Lifestyle Magazine. Not too shabby. But I wondered who would want to live in the midst of the Las Vegas Strip.

Gordon Absher, MGM's Vice President of Public Affairs, agrees that most people see it as a place to visit. "So this is a place for someone who has a home in NYC, a ski chalet in Aspen and a residence on Maui," he says. "This may be the next residence they want to add to their collection."

Also on the tour was Real Estate Investor Mathew Mills. I asked him what he thought of the project. "So tell me, the whole environmental aspect of city center, does that play into your decision?"

"Not at all. No Al Gore stuff."

There's the rub. A building is only as green as the lifestyle of the people who inhabit it. You could have a low-flow faucet and use it fill a Jacuzzi tub every night.

And of course, flying to Vegas for the weekend on your private jet is not green.

More stories from our Sustainability series


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