Downtown Container Park

Big Ern can cook. I mean really, really cook. And if you were a fellow member of his Customer Loyalty Team at Zappos—or wandered by the office at the right time—you got to be one of the select few to enjoy some of the tantalizing dishes he brought to share.

More than once, a first-time taster would look up in awe and utter some version of “Big Ern, this is awesome. You should open a restaurant.”

Big Ern would smile and say, “That’s my dream.”

Little did Big Ern know that serendipity was on his side; his dream was about to come true, fueled in no small part by those dishes he brought to share and his employer’s decision to forgo building a self-sustaining corporate campus. His employer—Zappos—moved into the city of Las Vegas’s retired City Hall and decided to transform Downtown Las Vegas into the “most community-focused large city in the world … by inspiring and empowering people to follow their passions to create a vibrant, connected urban core.”

To accomplish this task, Downtown Project was formed. This group of passionate people allocated $350 million to be spent on real estate ($200 million), small businesses ($50 million), education ($50 million), and tech-startups through the Vegas Tech Fund ($50 million).

The first steps:

• Bring together communities of passion
• Add density of ground-level activities, spaces, and businesses
• Create the co-working capital of the world
• Create the shipping-container capital of the world
• Do it in less than five years.

A Park Is Born
The folks at Downtown Project realized that unlike most urban-revitalization projects centered on cities with vacant and crumbling buildings, Las Vegas was different. There weren’t many opportunities to remove vacant or crumbling buildings, but the need remained to quickly (and affordably) create spaces for new businesses.

Inspired by the container parks Zappos founder Tony Hsieh had seen in London, New York, and San Francisco, the team decided to “repurpose shipping containers as places for entrepreneurs to follow their passions.”

Their first use of shipping containers was envisioned by placing two containers on an empty corner lot. Todd McBrayer, LEED AP and Director of Design for Breslin Builders (the Las Vegas design-build firm hired for the project and the general contractor), says, “Originally, the plan was more of the traditional bring-us-a-box and it’s temporary. Then, it expanded to two parcels downtown. And then, once they really started to understand what they could make with this (building material), they flipped it across the street to its present location.”

The location is a 1.3-acre plot of land on the site of the old Orbit Inn—a three-story, 300-plus-room hotel that dates back to the days of “old Vegas.” The building was studied, determined to be too costly to repair or repurpose, and in October 2012, was torn down by Breslin Builders to make room for Downtown Container Park—a business incubator that provided a place for food and beverage venues, retail outlets, entertainment, and other events.

According to McBrayer, “They also wanted to create an interactive zone—an area in the center of the park where families can come and hang out while mom’s shopping or dad’s getting some food—and where kids can have fun.”

Unique, First, And Best
Trish Martin is a self-titled Soccer Mom—though she’s quick to point out that none of her kids actually play soccer. They swim.

Martin started the Kids and Family Project for Downtown Project. As she says, “We realized early on, it was really important to have ways for families to be able to collaborate, have reasons to come downtown, and be part of the revitalization. We also realized that kids are our future—without them, none of this will work.”

So, Martin focused on introducing families to all the cool things that were already going on downtown, and then created events with ongoing themes so families would have a reason to come back time and again. The intent was to communicate that visiting downtown will make people smarter—something supported with a downtown speaker series, tech cocktail series, and an online learning tool.

To bring it all together, Downtown Project knew it needed places for people to go; Downtown Container Park and the interactive exhibit Martin spearheaded were perfect.

“With Downtown Project, we like things that are unique, first, and best,” says Martin. “So, with the interactive exhibit we wanted to create something that would be an experience—that would be different.”

After talking with kids who recommended activities like “slide hills,” Martin settled on an image from her youth—the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse.

“When I think of the Swiss Family Robinson, I think of ingenuity and doing more with less, upcycling, and being creative, which is what Downtown Container Park is all about,” Martin says.

“Believe it or not, I received an email from a Zappos employee. They said, ‘Hey, Trish, I hear you’re working on stuff downtown. I just saw something really cool on American Chopper (Paul Jr. Designs), and they worked with Cre8Play. And I said, ‘Oh, that sounds really interesting—let me check into it.’ And so I really started to do some digging, and I did some researching and decided this could really be a cool channel to take a look at—custom.”

Martin shared the vision with Todd Lehman, founder of Cre8Play, and he jumped in with both feet.

“It was great for us because, he was generous with his time up front as we obviously needed to flesh out our designs and see what it would cost first. We talked to him about our vision and ideas. And though the designs have changed and been modified a little bit, he pretty much nailed it right on—exactly what we wanted.”

And what they wanted was big, over-the-top, crazy, fun, and safe.

The structure consists of four shipping containers adjacent to a manufactured treehouse. Two of the containers are 20 feet high (standing on end); one has “Zappos blue” spinners, and the other has interactive play panels. Both are part of an ADA-compliant ramp system that leads to a 40-foot container (the AV tower), which has upper levels that house the adjacent stage and full park sound and stage light systems. The other 40-foot container, which has been dubbed the “slide tower,” has three slides—two that come from the top platform (starting roughly 35 feet off the ground) featuring a red light/green light boarding system timed to an audio/visual display, and one that connects the tree to the ground at a lower height.

“My husband has gone down [the slide] and a lot of the construction guys have gone down it, but I haven’t. I have a fear of heights—isn’t that great, I’m creating things I won’t even go down, but everybody says, ‘Oh, my [gosh], it is amazing!’”

To make the tree look as authentic as possible, the tree branches are made with fiberglass-reinforced concrete and the leaves are made of silks.

“In the middle, the tree has a large pot,” says Martin, “so there’s drainage and irrigation that goes all the way up the tree. The cool thing is we are planting vines that will actually grow up through the tree. So, there’s live plant material growing up through the silks.”

According to Martin, Cre8Play isn’t the only playground manufacturer helping with the project. Playworld Systems also chipped in with a NEOS System, and provided the actual slides and several side panels used throughout the exhibit.

All of this equipment, right down to the safety surfacing, was installed by Evans Recreation (Las Vegas) under the direction of Breslin Builders.

Building With Shipping Containers
“Building with shipping containers, true shipping containers that have been around the world probably, has been interesting,” McBrayer says. “There was nothing in the building code that specifically references shipping containers as buildings, so it was an education both for us and for the city.”

Combine this unusual material with the fact that Breslin Builders was cutting into the containers to make windows and doors—affecting the structural integrity of the boxes—and you’ve got a bit of a learning curve, indeed.

“Basically, we ended up having our structural engineer do a full structural analysis of each container and, once we start cutting holes in them, how do we then structurally modify those openings to get back to its needed structural integrity?,” McBrayer explains.

“We then had ConGlobal out of Long Beach, Calif., modify them per the structural-engineering drawings, ship them to Vegas, and place them on poured foundation systems. Then we built them out from there.”

And build they did. Containers were set side-by-side and insulated, wired, and plumbed for full-service restaurants. An elevator was even put into a 40-foot container set on its side.

“Luckily, the City of Las Vegas construction department worked with us for some of these unique details,” says McBrayer. “I think that’s the biggest advice I would give to somebody contemplating using shipping containers--this is not a traditional building method or product. We could have spent three months designing and thinking of every detail, and we still would have missed stuff. So, make sure the city is willing to work with you.”

Grand Opening
Downtown Container Park held its Grand Opening on December 5, 2012, to the welcome cheers of residents and all of the people who helped make the project a reality.

Nobody was more thankful than Big Ern.

“I [Martin] was blessed enough to be working onsite on the interactive exhibit with Todd Lehman and the folks at Cre8Play when I saw Big Ern walk into his container—it was right across from where we were working. I followed him in and said, ‘Wow! Big Ern, this is really amazing.’

He turned around and had tears in his eyes.

“Trish, this is the first time I’ve been here to see the space.”

“I was witnessing a man’s dream become reality, Martin says. “But that’s what Downtown Container Park is all about.”