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Can Zappos CEO’s urban vision work in old Santa Fe?

“The Treehouse” in Las Vegas, Nev., is part of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s urban revitalization project in the city’s downtown area. (Courtesy of the Downtown Project)

“The Treehouse” in Las Vegas, Nev., is part of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s urban revitalization project in the city’s downtown area. (Courtesy of the Downtown Project)

SANTA FE, N.M. — The topic for a talk Wednesday night that featured a couple of high-powered speakers was introduced as “how to grow Santa Fe young,” aka, how to make a small, 400-year-old city with a tourism-based economy, an aging population and a reputation for relaxation over nightlife more hip and urban.

Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist and distinguished professor at the Santa Fe Institute, may have summed up the problem when he turned toward the other speaker – Tony Hsieh, CEO of online retailer Zappos – and told him, “We don’t have anything in Santa Fe analogous to you.”

Hsieh (pronounced shay) is on a mission to remake/revitalize what was a near-dead zone in downtown Las Vegas, Nev., where he moved his business from San Francisco about a decade ago.

Mayor Javier Gonzales introduced him at the James A. Little Theater by suggesting that every city in America is watching Hsieh’s Las Vegas effort, looking for results, ideas and inspiration.

His Downtown Project is putting $350,000 into small business loans, attracting tech companies, and promoting education, arts and culture, among other things, in the East Fremont Street area, a short distance from the old casinos and classic neon on Fremont that screams Old Las Vegas.

After decades of decay, the neighborhood now has new shops, bars and coffee houses. There’s the new Inspire Theater for TED-style educational talks, as well as other kinds of events.

The old Gold Spike Casino has lost its slot machines. It’s a “co-working” spot during the day, where people can bring their laptops and theoretically exchange ideas, and, by night, it’s a hangout, with food, drink and non-gambling games.

Tony Hsieh.

Tony Hsieh.

The former Vegas City Hall is the new Zappos headquarters, but only after a skybridge between the parking deck and offices was shut down to spur more interaction between workers and the community on the street. Downtown Vegas is home to a new, annual Life Is Beautiful music, food, art and learning festival – that means entertainment, along with more TED-ish talks. And the project is bringing in giant pieces of crazy public art created at the Burning Man fest.

Perhaps Hsieh’s coolest-sounding idea is the Downtown Container Park, built of shipping containers. The goal was to “create the vibe of a backyard barbecue,” with a kids’ playground surrounded by places for adults to gather and get a beer or cocktail. And there’s a giant praying mantis from Burning Man.

Hsieh’s theory of urban redevelopment seems to be based mainly on the idea of what he calls “serendipitous collisions.” That means promoting high-density residential development, and creating spaces, businesses, ways and reasons for people to walk around, get together, exchange ideas, and be creative and entrepreneurial.

West showed a photograph of a New York street, probably from around the turn of the 20th century, crowded and teeming with people, carts, vendors and all manner of persons – “an amazing crucible of human interaction” that reflects what Hsieh is trying to create in a modern city.

So can or should anything Hsieh is trying out in Las Vegas (he does have his critics there, but we won’t spend time on that here) be applied in Santa Fe?

There was time for only a brief Q&A period, but the first questioner suggested that Hsieh’s proposed metrics for the kind of high-density development that produces creativity and new ideas were “ludicrous” for a city of Santa Fe’s size. “I care less about the metric than the mindset,” Hsieh responded.

West noted that Santa Fe, of course, has a place that historically was a gathering spot where happy collisions could occur – the Plaza. But West acknowledged it no longer “really engages” the whole populace, for reasons he said include geography and culture.

Hsieh argued that “getting people together doesn’t cost very much.” He said something as simple as a trivia night at a bar can get the ball rolling, if people are passionate about it.

He also followed up on West’s comment about the Plaza, although he committed a Santa Fe sin by using the wrong term for downtown’s public space and maybe thought we had more food carts around. “What if everybody showed up at that square for lunch every day for three months?” Hsieh asked. “I think things would start to happen.”

Here are a few thoughts on this discussion, which was brought to us by folks at St. Johns College, the Santa Fe Institute and Creative Santa Fe:

  • Just how far Santa Fe has to go to “grow young” was shown by the crowd. Although there was a sprinkling of people who could claim to be less than 40 years old, at least 75-80 percent of the crowd was certifiably gray.
  • The audience applauded after Hsieh showed a short, lively video of the 2013 Life is Beautiful festival (it’s on the last weekend in October) with crowds of young people jumping around and having a blast. But let’s just admit it – Santa Fe pretty much hates crowds. We have to fuss over whether people can gather in our great public spot, the Plaza, after our greatest public event, Zozobra. A baseball team that attracts 300 people a game and serves beer is controversial.
  • High-density development? No way in Santa Fe, despite the fact that the rambling old neighborhoods on the small side streets off Canyon Road and Acequia Madre, with houses of all sizes crammed together, are an early example of high-density living.

Although we tend to decry urban sprawl on the south side, Santa Feans are almost pathologically opposed to building anything in older neighborhoods other than single-family homes that are brown, flat and low.

As for creating spaces for happy collisions, see the uproar that killed off a coffee shop proposed in a former school space on Canyon Road.

So Hsieh’s version of urban development sounds like a hard sell for Santa Fe. Maybe we really just want to remain, well, Santa Fe, for better or worse.

West, in his portion of the program, talked about how growing cities innovate to avoid collapse. Food for thought there.

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