By T.R. Witcher
A developer and an architect have imagined an active entertainment complex at which younger visitors can engage in such sports as skateboarding, motocross, rock climbing, and zip lining. If they build it, will the hipsters come?
Vegas Extreme, a 42-acre sports park that is planned for Las Vegas, will include boutique hotels and multiple sports venues powered, in part, by solar covers above parking spaces. © M-RAD Architecture & Design
January 14, 2014—The evolution of Las Vegas from gambling center to full-fledged entertainment destination—replete with high-end shops, shows, restaurants and clubs—has been in full swing for more than a decade. Now, as the city climbs its way out of recession, a developer wants to add another dimension to the city's offerings by bringing the indie edge of the X Games to the staid old amusement center.
Australian developer Joshua Kearney has plans for a 42-acre sports park called Vegas Extreme, to be constructed on a vacant parcel of land only a few minutes from the Las Vegas Strip.
Selling investors on the project, estimated to cost between $50 and $60 million, has been a hurdle. "Let's face it; investors typically are your older generation," he says. "They don't typically understand the new generation's sports. They're like 'Who's gonna go to a park for a surf machine? Who's gonna go to a park to ride a motorcycle?' Lots of people will."
At least that's his hope, that a younger generation of active travelers who are tired of canned, preprogrammed leisure will take to a more adventurous tourist attraction. Kearney selected Las Vegas to debut his concept, which he hopes to roll out in other cities eventually, because the city attracts a diverse group of travelers from around the world. Additonally, he says, "I think it's a place where the world can accept something new and outlandish." And the city is already a destination for world-class mountain biking and rock climbing.
Kearney reached out to the Los Angeles-based architecture firm M-Rad Architecture & Design. "My team sat down and talked about what we thought people would want in Las Vegas that is not already there and then also [about] what would attract a global population," says Matthew Rosenberg, the founder and design principal of M-Rad.
One of the four towers planned for the park will be a “garden tower” with restaurants and greenhouses. Another, at the opposite end of the site, will be a “solar tower.” © M-RAD Architecture & Design
The location is a giant parcel of desert land just to the east of the MGM Grand, at the southern end of the Strip. Because it sits near the airport, subject to both noise and height restrictions by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the site has remained undeveloped. (The towers will be right at the FAA height limit of 10 stories.)
The sports park will offer rock climbing, skateboarding, motocross, and an enclosed white-water rapids loop that visitors can navigate on boogey boards, kayaks, or larger six-person rafts. There will also be an artificial lake, 5 to 6 ft deep, that will offer cable skiing—in which a giant cable, powered by an electric motor, pulls wake boarders across the water. The park will also feature extreme sport stunts by professionals.
Soaring above all these activities will be four towers constructed from used shipping containers. Two of the towers will be located at the entrance to the park, one a "garden tower" with restaurants and greenhouses, and one a "solar tower" covered in photovoltaic, panels with restaurants and a bar at the bottom. Zip lines will span the 1,400 ft distance between three of the four towers.
The solar and garden towers will bookend the northwest and southwest corners of the parcel, the lake between them. The containers will be stacked in a triangular formation. But the most eye-catching are the pair of twin towers on the east side of the parcel, which corkscrew their way up. These may eventually house a hotel.
M-Rad went through as many as 100 iterations to arrive at what the architects hope is an iconic, bespoke form. "We wanted the rooms to really have a spectacular view of the site," says Rosenberg. "Although we could have stacked them straight up, it's more interesting that people come back to the hotel and they get to experience the site in a different way each time."
The towers will be created from empty shipping containers stacked one upon the other but twisted to enable enticing views from any room. © M-RAD Architecture & Design
The real challenge was figuring out how to weave the elements of the park together. "We looked a lot at Disney and the way [the company's] Imagineers designed movement through the parks," Rosenberg says. The architects borrowed Disney's use of central hubs to help orient visitors. The rectangular park will be broken into three crescent-shaped sections—the lake to the west, and dirt tracks for EMX and off-road vehicles to north and south. A central platform, large enough to stage concerts and other events, will serve as the main point of orientation between the crescents.
The park was conceived with the principles of sustainable design in mind. The off-road karts and motocross cycles will be electrically powered. A large tank under a parking area will catch water for reuse in sinks and toilet—even water from solar panels will be able to drain to the tank. (Even though Las Vegas receives very little precipitation, Kearney says the site will receive enough to fill the tank.) Wind turbines will line the perimeter of the park, solar panels will provide shade for parked cars and help power the park, and electric buses will shuttle in tourists from along the Strip.
Only the lake is a potential issue, Las Vegas being a water-strapped city. Rosenberg says the site may have access to a local well that will fill the lake without requiring significant municipal water. But if the plan for the lake proves unfeasible, they'll likely replace it with a scaled-down wakeboard tow and a second hotel tower surrounded by smaller ponds.
Kearney expects tickets to run $199 apiece; not exactly cheap, though it equates to roughly the cost of a two-day ticket to Walt Disney World. Visitors just coming for a single activity will pay less. But Kearney says he plans for the park to be open from 7 AM to midnight, and renting wakeboards or motocross for the day at stand-alone venues would be more expensive. (He notes that he recently paid $200 for an indoor skydiving experience that lasted only five minutes.)
If enough water is available an artificial lake, 5 to 6 ft deep, will be constructed to offer visitors an opportunity to engage in a variety of water sports. © M-RAD Architecture & Design
Unlike traditional theme parks, Vegas Extreme will offer "self-involved rides," says Kearney. "You create your own ride. You get to control your ride. So every time you come your experience is different." Kearney is confident his park can draw "definitely a million people in the first year—easy, easy," especially given that the city usually draws around 40 million visitors a year. "If I can't get a million out of that I'd be doing something massively wrong."
Of course, the project is not a done deal. Kearney has had no direct meetings with Clark County, but he says the project is almost fully funded and expects to be ready to move forward in the next few months. "It's never been done before, this type of park, in the world," he says.
Rosenberg adds, "We are currently seeking supplementary ground-level investors who are looking to make their mark in this unique market and are still open to strategic partnerships."
Construction is likely to last 12 to 16 months. Erecting the towers will take only a few days to a week—"they're just like giant Legos," Kearney says—and most of the rest of construction, he says, will simply be a matter of moving dirt around to form the various dirt tracks and construct the lake. A 16 ft high boardwalk will ring the perimeter of the park.
This is the first project for Kearney, an Australian native who's an electrical and mechanical engineer by training. He's been developing the project for two years. There are days when he has his doubts about pulling this off, but he knows that "if I don't do it someone else will go and do something. There's nothing I can do about it."
The Vegas market already has a zip line along downtown's Fremont Street Experience, a pedestrian mall, as well as a series of zip lines in rugged Bootleg Canyon southwest of town. And Caesars Entertainment is building a more than 500 ft tall Ferris Wheel steps from Las Vegas Boulevard. (See "World's Largest Ferris Wheel is Under Construction in Las Vegas," in the November 2013 issueof Civil Engineering
magazine.) "There's so much room for many activities in Las Vegas," Kearney says. "I'm not here to try to go up against them."
Still, both Kearney and Rosenberg are optimistic the project will work. "We like to think that M-RAD might become the next designer of the new type of amusement park," Rosenberg says. "Not to say that we're competing against Disney. I think it's interesting to draw from what they've done and how Disney changed the way people were amused and the way they were entertained. And I think that these days people are looking for more intensity, they're not as easily impressed."
Kearney puts it more simply: "I want to change the theme park model around the world."