“A great brand is a story that never stops unfolding. I think the same is true for a company, the same is true for a city, and the same is true for a community,” said Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh in his keynote speech at the American Institute of Architects convention in Chicago on Saturday. Since moving Zappos from nearby Henderson, Nev., into a former city hall building in downtown Las Vegas last year, Hsieh has become a crusader for urban revitalization in the city–a sort of Sin City Jane Jacobs.
The Downtown Project is Hsieh’s privately funded project to redesign his corner of the city, turning it into a dense, walkable hub for co-working–full of all the kind of innovation-sparking encounters tech companies are so obsessed with.
In contrast to the insular campus cultures of Silicon Valley companies like Apple or Google, Hsieh wanted to invest in integrating Zappos into the surrounding urban fabric. “It’s the most community-focused area I’ve ever lived,” Hsieh says of Freemont East, the neighborhood Zappos moved into last September.
As the company grows, “we’re doing a lot of thinking about, ‘How do we restructure Zappos to be organized more like a city and less like your normal corporate bureaucracy?'” Hsieh said. “A lot of the thinking we’ve been doing about how do we get employees to collide at the office,” he said, applies to cities as well–more density gives people greater chance of bumping into each other and sharing ideas.
To that end, the Downtown Project–which is independent from Zappos–is sinking a big chunk of money into urban development in Las Vegas to create the kind of thriving street life that supports these serendipitous meetings, pledging to invest $200 million in real estate, $50 million in small businesses, $50 million in tech startups, and $50 million in education, arts, and culture. In the process, it’s altering Las Vegas urban design through initiatives like Project 100, a subscription-based transportation system offering electric cars, buses, and bike sharing.
“What downtown Vegas is becoming, it’s like we’re throwing a mini-TED conference every weekend,” he said. “What we want people to say about downtown Vegas is . . . ‘downtown Vegas will make you smarter.'” Maybe someday.