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Iconic street Maryland Parkway looks for a reinvention

<p>Citizens interested in Maryland Parkway revitalization take a special CAT bus ride. (Photo by Kin Lui)</p>

Citizens interested in Maryland Parkway revitalization take a special CAT bus ride. (Photo by Kin Lui)

On a recent Thursday morning, the latest of several meetings and public workshops designed to explore the possibilities for improved use of Maryland Parkway was held in an unusual way, and not in any one place. An RTC bus carrying business and cultural leaders and civically engaged citizens departed from the Boulevard Mall at 8:30 a.m. and traveled along a 6-mile stretch of Maryland Parkway that connects McCarran International Airport and UNLV to downtown. Topics discussed on the specially scheduled ride included adding transit amenities, making the street more pedestrian-friendly and taking into account the potential value of public art along an otherwise innocuous thoroughfare that runs parallel to, and not far from, the most famous boulevard in the world.

For many Las Vegans, Maryland Parkway is a romanticized street without equal in the Valley. Several historic neighborhoods dot the parkway, including Huntridge and John S. Park on the north side of Sahara and Paradise Palms, which sits behind the mall. Old-timers fondly recall when the Boulevard Mall opened in 1968. Others point out how the mall’s arrival then attracted businesses away from downtown and soon after lead to its decline. Not-so-old timers remember more recent periods that included places such as Maryland Square, The Parkway Theaters and independent record shops such as The Underground, Benway Bop, Balcony Lights and Big B’s. Close to UNLV were the scenester haunts and cultural hubs The Newsroom, Café Espresso Roma and Café Copioh. These were in operation from the late ‘80s to the early ‘00s, with Roma being the last to give up the steamed-milk ghost in 2003.

But now, downtown redevelopment may ironically spark interest in similar investment along Maryland Parkway. As cultural curator Brian Paco Alvarez explains, “It is logical for Maryland Parkway to be the nexus that connects downtown Las Vegas to the ‘Midtown’ University District, and vise versa. The historic Paradise Palms neighborhood off Maryland Parkway and Desert Inn has become a hotbed of activity for those wanting to have a vintage experience without having to live in downtown proper. … Ultimately, connectivity between the two areas will be key, as long as there is thoughtful public and private investment to completely rethink the area as the community’s gateway to downtown.”

Just as the Boulevard Mall is credited with delivering the death blow to downtown in the late ‘60s, taking full effect in the ‘70s, suburbanization drained the lifeblood from Maryland Parkway for the subsequent three decades.

Yet, despite the closure of many shops large and small inside the mall and the shuttering of retail anchor Barnes & Noble next door, there are more than a few people who see great potential in Maryland Parkway today. One is Ric Jimenez. Until just recently, Jimenez was general manager of the Boulevard Mall. Now he is chairman of the Maryland Parkway Coalition, a group of area business and cultural people. On the bus this morning he references major corridors in L.A. and Chicago, comparing Maryland Parkway with them: “With the university being an anchor, and the international airport, and the medical district, if you really think about it, Maryland Parkway is a lot like our own Wilshire Boulevard or Michigan Avenue.”

Indeed, Maryland is a major artery with more than 9,000 people using public transportation on the street each day. In September 2012, the RTC kicked off its ongoing Maryland Parkway Alternatives Analysis project. According to a statement, the project will “improve intra-corridor mobility by preserving vehicular access while also enhancing pedestrian and bicycle facilities; redevelopment of the corridor would incorporate Complete Streets design principles, improving access for all users while enabling transit to be a more viable option.”

While all of this looks good in writing, many in Las Vegas still adhere to the dogma that the Valley is ruled by the car, that public transit is only for those who have no other option.

David Swallow, director of engineering services capital projects at RTC, dismisses this notion. “I think the issue is that in the beginning the plan was maximizing the movement of cars. When you look at Maryland Parkway, you have a 100-foot right-of-way and not even 10 percent of that is allocated to pedestrians. So how comfortable are you walking to the bus stop, let alone getting on the bus?”

A Las Vegas resident of 32 years, Terry Wilsey says he is on the bus at this meeting because, “I am a city person and have been involved in cultural affairs, and urban development my entire life.” Over a year ago Wilsey created a proposal he called the “Parkway Project,” with the goal of branding various neighborhoods all along Maryland. “I firmly believe in living in areas where you can walk and bus, and bike easily to the majority of services you need.”

Along with community leaders such as Rosemary Vassiliadis, director of the Clark County department of aviation, the RTC planning effort has involved cultural programmers such as Bobbie Ann Howell of Nevada Humanities. And through the coalition, almost anyone interested in the economic, historic or geographic significance of Maryland Parkway can be part of the process. Jimenez was instrumental in inviting participants such as Patrick Gaffey, program director of Winchester Cultural Center and Patty Dominguez of Metro Arts Council of Southern Nevada.

“We wanted to make sure that when the Maryland Parkway corridor was finished, that the community ended up with so much more that just a new way to get from the airport to the downtown area,” Dominguez says. “We would like to see more public art, green spaces and to generally put the park back in the parkway.”

Denise Duarte, the county’s new public art specialist, says public art will be important to a Maryland make-over. It is “one of the most accessible forms of art there is,” she says. “It can define an area or help bring back a sense of what that place has meant to a community or what their hopes and aspirations are. Another important element is if you create artwork with community involvement from the beginning, it becomes part of their expression as well as that of the artist.”

Gaffey says that plans for public art along the Maryland corridor will involve locally based artists at least for the first couple of years. But there is a time and place for the work of artists from outside of the state. He mentions “El Vaquero,” a piece at McCarran by the late El Paso artist Luis Jimenez. “Whatever they paid for it when they acquired it,” Gaffey says, “it’s worth five times as much now.”

As we make our way back to the mall from the airport, local arts advocate Maryjane Dorofachuck says, “Maryland Parkway is a major arterial for our communities, and I really believe there is great opportunity for creative place-making along this corridor. Having conversations like the ones we’re having now leads to good design.”

According to historian Dennis McBride Maryland gained its designation as a parkway in the early 1940’s, when its entire length spanned the scant few blocks between Franklin and Francis avenues, which are now the boundaries of Huntridge Circle Park, which sits directly in the middle of the street.

“Maryland Parkway was supposed to be what its name implies, ‘a parkway,’” Alvarez says, “therefore an absolute redesign that focuses on that should include elements that move it towards that goal; wider sidewalks, tree-lined streets, public art, historical markers and neighborhood gateways would be appropriate and money well spent.”