Solving Cities

The rise of CEOs as urban planners?

The rise of CEOs as urban planners?

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The CEO of Zappos is investing $350 million to revitalize downtown Las Vegas. Are we seeing a new trend in CEOs taking urban planning into their own hands to revitalize struggling downtowns?

As cities go through difficult economic times, they're looking for mayors who act more like entrepreneurs. At the same time, we're also seeing CEOs making huge investments in the downtown of struggling cities.

We're seeing it in Detroit, as Quicken Loans has moved thousands of workers to its new headquarters in downtown, and the company's CEO now owns nearly a dozen buildings in the city's downtown.

But we're also seeing the revitalization of the Las Vegas downtown thanks, in part, to Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. Last year, the company announced that it will move its headquarters from a suburban office park to the old city hall building in downtown Las Vegas. While he's at it, Hsieh is investing $350 million in the downtown (not to mention the tax revenue his company will bring the city by moving inside city limits).

CNN Money reports on Hsieh's investments in the city's downtown:

Hsieh and a few partners -- the vast majority of the investment is Hsieh's -- plan to spend $350 million to develop and build a small city in the roughly 1.5-square mile downtown area around the Fremont East and Arts District areas (for CES-trekkers and other Vegas aficionados, it's a few miles north of the Strip). Hsieh's goal: To turn the overlooked area into a neighborhood not just for his workers' coffee breaks, but a new live/work/play destination for Las Vegas' emerging creative class.

This is the plan (modest it's not): $100 million will go to the purchase of land (not including the new Zappos headquarters) and building acquisition. An additional $100 million will go to residential development including the building of high-rise apartments. Fifty million dollars will go to tech startups Hsieh plans to recruit to the area with seed investments of $100,000 or so apiece. Another $50 million will go toward drawing local small businesses like bakeries, yoga studios, restaurants, coffee shops and other requisite creative-class amenities. And because Hsieh wants people to move here and that requires having decent education for their children, another $50 million will go toward education and the building of -- what else? -- a school system.

And here is Hsieh's vision for downtown, in his own words, speaking with Entrepreneur:

"We're actually hoping to revitalize the entire area, to create everything you need to help you live, work and play within walking distance," Hsieh says, adding that he wants "downtown Vegas be the most community-focused large city in the world."

If that vision can't turn around a struggling downtown, I'm not sure what can.

So are we seeing a rise of CEOs doubling as urban planners? Two CEOs investing big money to improve existing downtowns doesn't exactly qualify as a trend, but it's a good reminder of the resilience of downtowns. These CEOs don't just see a struggling downtown. With relatively cheap real estate in two great American cities, they see an opportunity to make a major change that will be mutually beneficial for the company and the city. It's a culture you just can't replicate in an office park.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure