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Transforming Lewis Avenue

By Jim Lee, principal, SWA Group

Perpendicular to Fourth Street, the lowest part of the plaza's water system (the lower basin) features a cascading waterfall flowing down into a lower pool. This is where the wash "changes character" as it moves on through each successive block of stone cobbles, evolving from an organic form to a system of rills.

"The pre-existing Lewis Avenue street environment was brutal. Buildings, generally lacking any detail to provide human scale, were jammed up to the right-of-way line and loomed over the street."–Jim Lee, principal, SWA Group

The Lewis Avenue Corridor project transformed the three downtown blocks between Las Vegas and Casino Center boulevards into a pedestrian-friendly oasis. Work on the $1.8 million project started in February 2002 and was completed in September 2002.

Background and Purpose

To many people, the name Las Vegas evokes "The Strip"–bright lights, slot machines and stretch limousines. But the city consists of much more than just the infamous gaming industry. Las Vegas is the home to 1.4 million people and in 2000, Mayor Oscar B. Goodman began an effort to create a more pedestrian-oriented "people place" in downtown Las Vegas. His initial effort was preparation of the "Las Vegas Downtown Centennial Plan," intended to change the face of downtown into a premier cultural, civic, financial and business center.

A close-up of the cascading water wall that merges out of the lower basin shows Lilac-colored New England blue stone cut as ledge stone and stacked in lifts to create a staggered, natural-looking wall. Five underwater well lights uplight the cascade.

The original Lewis Street environment was brutally urban. Buildings were jammed up to the right-of-way line and car lanes in the street dominated the remainder of the right-of-way, leaving grossly undersized sidewalks that were completely devoid of shade. Now a "double-wide" sidewalk (20 feet wide) parallels the avenue. The sidewalk, flanked on each side by ash trees, was designed to offer extra width to encourage more pedestrian activity within the commercial district. Street cafes (left side) will benefit with increased space for outdoor seating. The tall building (left background) is the new Regional Justice Center. To give the concrete sidewalk a rougher, natural look, the concrete was specified with a washed finished that takes the fines off the top, exposing aggregates. Within the sidewalk, iron tree grates increase tree sustainability by protecting roots, while allowing them growing room in their concrete, urban environment.

Per the Centennial Plan, the Lewis Street Corridor improvements would create the central pedestrian spine for an Office Core District with the Clark County Detention Center at one end and a new federal courthouse building terminating the other end of the three-block corridor.

Design Concept

The pre-existing Lewis Street environment was brutal. Buildings, generally lacking any detail to provide human scale, were jammed up to the right-of-way line and loomed over the street. The automobile travel lanes dominated the remainder of the right-of-way, leaving grossly undersized sidewalks that were completely devoid of shade. SWA began by reallocating the space within the street corridor. Two of the four travel lanes were deemed to be unnecessary and were removed. The resulting "found" space was given back to the pedestrian, which resulted in 20-foot wide sidewalk zones.

Enveloped by the refreshing sound of spilling water, it's hard to imagine that the now beautifully landscaped plaza was once a parking lot. The cascading waterfall runs through weirs that spill into a wider waterway (the central wash) lined with cobblestones that provide seating for urbanites. "One of the benefits of building on the old parking lot site was that there was not a lot of infrastructure underneath, which made it easy to dig because there were no utilities to deal with," says Lawrence Reed, SWA project designer. The government services building (left) donated half the easement for the plaza, while the federal courthouse building (right) donated the other half.

The linear street space would tie together the public spaces previously created by the landscape architect at the federal courthouse site and the Regional Justice Center. The courthouse, sited 10 feet above street grade, was planned to include a fountain featured at its front door. A design concept emerged from this opportunity. The fountain would become the "source" for a "wash" that would meander along the street and would become the backbone of the streetscape environment.

SWA created the "central wash" as an artistic interpretation of the natural bronze and red sandstone washes that that occur in Nevada. Lilac-colored New England blue stone was stacked to give the water rim a natural "fractured" edge look. The meandering, cobble-lined water feature is recessed two steps below the sidewalk grade so that people can sit along the bank edges. A rock salt finish gives the concrete its travertine-like appearance. Double rows of ash trees (right side) buffer street noise and separate the landscape from the street.

SWA prioritized the program elements based upon those most critical in accomplishing the goal of a useable pedestrian space. Shade was of the utmost importance. And now that the sidewalks would be increased in size, a double row of ash trees could line both sides of the street and would create dappled shade as well as a human scale and a buffer against unfriendly architecture. Because the street trees would be of such great importance, SWA designed a continuous planting trough filled with structural soil so the trees could more closely reach their potential height, spread dimensions and have greater longevity.

Poet's Bridge serves as a walkway over a shallow stream (the central wash) lined with river rock. Imbedded within the precast concrete bridge are verses by local poets who were all, at one time, Nevada residents. The verses were cast in concrete and then filled with colored epoxy to maintain a smooth finish that would not fill with dirt and debris.

The central wash, an artistic interpretation of a natural system, is a meandering cobble-lined feature that is recessed two steps below sidewalk grade so that people can sit along its edges. The exposed edge also reveals the color and texture of the natural landscape. The wash changes character as it moves to each successive block and evolves from an organic form to a system of rills. Fountain features along the way serve as water sources and a cascading water wall merges out of the lower basin, oriented along the plaza axis and perpendicular to Fourth Street to announce the space to those headed for The Fremont Experience. Native, arroyo plant materials are integrated into the wash to allude to the natural desert landscape.

Unique Design Elements

The focal point is the public plaza on Lewis Avenue, between Las Vegas Boulevard and Fourth Street. The plaza, which had been a parking lot, now has a water feature spilling into an urban waterway.

Another unique element of the project is the Poet's Bridge that serves as a walkway over the water. Imbedded within the bridge are verses by poets who were all, at one time, Las Vegas and Nevada residents.

Other project features include wide sidewalks to accommodate foot traffic, outdoor cafe-style seating, double rows of ash trees and shrubs to provide a shade canopy, and hundreds of smaller plants to add to the aesthetics of the emerging downtown business district.

The Lewis Avenue Corridor site plan incorporates two new buildings, the new Regional Justice Center and the new federal courthouse and provides a continuous canopy of shade trees the entire three blocks.

The plaza in the third block celebrates the historic Fifth Street School, providing expanded public space at the new federal courthouse. The water feature emerging from the pool at the federal courthouse carves its way through the center of the plaza, revealing the many layers of the regional landscape.

Special Factors

A distinct design challenge came from the city's standard storm drainage design approach. Due to the limited rainfall in Las Vegas, the city did not typically implement a storm drainage system, but simply allowed the streets to flood during isolated rainfall events. To alleviate the problems that would result for the pedestrian in such an environment, the landscape architect tipped the entire ground plane to a collection point to rid the street of standing water and further reinforce the goal of pedestrian use.

Per FTA funding requirements, construction was required be completed by August 2002 and Schematic Design had only been completed in the fall of 2001. SWA compressed a significant level of design, documentation and construction work into a 12-month time period without compromising quality and design intent.


Project Suppliers

Pedestrian pole lights: Gardco

Tree up lights: Bega

Stone suppliers: William Candee Enterprises, Corona, CA; New England blue stone "Lilac"

Tree grates: Ironsmith Inc.

Fountain materials: Fountain People, Austin, TX

Pre cast concrete: Quick Crete Products, Norco, CA

Bollards and poet's bridge trash and benches: Victor Stanley

Lewis Avenue Corridor Beautification Project


2003 ASLA National Merit Award

2003 American Public Works Association
Project of the Year.

2003 American Public Works Association (APWA)
Project of the Year under $2 million

(The APWA presents two outstanding project awards yearly at the spring and fall conferences. The fall conference recognizes projects costing more than $2 million and the award in the spring is for projects under $2 million.)

2004 The Las Vegas Chapter of the American Concrete Institute Excellence in Concrete award for imaginative and aesthetic use of concrete. More than 1,000 cubic yards of concrete were used. The supplier was Nevada Ready Mix.

"This recognition by the construction community is a tremendous honor and certainly speaks well of the integrity and aesthetic quality of projects completed by the Department of Public Works," said Las Vegas City Manager Doug Selby. "We recognize that internally, but it is especially gratifying when our peers take note as well."

Project Team

SWA Group provided landscape architectural design, documentation and construction phase services. Jim Lee, principal in charge, Lawrence Reed, project designer, Patrick Curran, project manager.

Contractor: Las Vegas Paving
Project Owner: City of Las Vegas
Irrigation Design: Russ Mitchell and Associates
Civil Engineering: Poggemeyer Design Group
Electrical Engineering: JBA Consulting Engineers

Funding was provided by a federal TEA-21 Streetscape Enhancement Grant, the Nevada Department of Transportation Stewardship Program, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada and the city of Las Vegas.

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December 15, 2019, 7:52 am PDT

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