Designers hope desert is oasis for shoppers

Voyage: Designers of the Desert Passage hotel hope shoppers will want to walk through ancient cities on their way to modern retailers.

July 02, 2000|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

LAS VEGAS - The next big tourist attraction on the famed Strip will transport visitors to the ancient market cities of Tangier, Marrakech and Bombay - and deposit them at the Gap, Eddie Bauer and Victoria's Secret.

Desert Passage, the latest themed, interactive mall to crop up on Las Vegas Boulevard, shows just how serious retailers and builders have become about keeping shoppers amused - starting with a facade of palm trees, turret-topped archways and a 15-story waterfall.

But that's just the beginning. The new Aladdin Resort & Casino's $1.3 billion retail component, designed by Baltimore-based RTKL Associates Inc. and opening Aug. 17, promises new heights in entertainment retail.

The "shopping adventure," as it bills itself, will set out to sell everything from sport coats to designer eyewear to teddy bears by first selling a storyline that has travelers meandering through old desert trade routes. It tells the story through mud-plastered buildings, stone streets, Moorish archways and hand-painted tiles. Restaurants and shops will be tucked into a mountainside village or set on the docks of a North African harbor.

At Desert Passage, theme-park meets theater, with street musicians and artisans part of the landscape and retailers playing roles as merchants in the Treasure House, Lost City, Sultan's Palace and Hall of Lamps.

With malls across America struggling to reinvent themselves and compete with discounters and the Internet, the retail industry is watching such projects closely-even such over-the-top projects - especially in areas drawing growing throngs of cash-flush visitors, like Las Vegas.

"If it doesn't work there, it won't work anywhere," said Michael D. Beyard, senior resident fellow of Washington-based Urban Land Institute. "If it works in Las Vegas, developers and retailers start learning lessons. You can't do this in Kansas City, but you can take away some elements."

Most of the ideas for the 144-store center sprouted from a team in RTKL's Los Angeles office. For decades, the firm has found itself spearheading new designs in shopping malls. In the mid-1970s, it worked for Columbia-based Rouse Co. in designing Paramus Park in New Jersey, one of the first malls with a food court as an anchor.

The firm also designed Owings Mills Mall and White Marsh Mall in the Baltimore region, White Flint Mall in Rockville and Pentagon City. More recently, RTKL found itself again on the cutting edge with its award-winning Main Street-style design for The Avenue at White Marsh.

With Desert Passage, RTKL can advance the ideas of "programming" an environment and making retailers part of the storyline, said Paul F. Jacob III, RTKL senior vice president.

"The idea is experiencing a journey from Gibraltar to India and passing through all the environments and experiences that one would experience going along that trip," Jacob said. "The public space is not only shoppers and guests but programmed vendors and performers, things you'd experience in downtown urban environments."

If Desert Passage succeeds as predicted, bringing nearly unheard of sales of $1,000 per square foot, elements of the project will likely make their way into future shopping center designs.

"What we see happening in Las Vegas in many ways is a precursor for what we see happening in other cities later," Beyard said. "In that environment, you're going to see the extreme. But its role is becoming more important as development throughout the world is becoming more entertainment-oriented."

Desert Passage will not be the first themed retail complex, and certainly not the first in Las Vegas. As shopping has raced ahead of gaming as the top tourist activity, malls anchored by casinos have become almost staples at newer hotel resorts. The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace pioneered the casino-anchored mall in 1992 amid skepticism about whether high-end retail could work in Las Vegas. The center, with sky-like ceilings that change color over the course of the day, set sales records of $1,120 a square foot, the highest of any U.S. mall. More recently, the new Venetian hotel opened the Grand Canal shops, complete with gondoliers serenading shoppers as they glide through a canal.

RTKL hopes to break molds with Desert Passage's mix of entertainment and environment. The firm was hired by TrizecHahn Development Corp., developer of the 500,000-square-foot complex, and by Aladdin Gaming LLC, which tore down the old Aladdin hotel in 1998 and is rebuilding a 2,600-room hotel, a 100,000-square-foot casino and a remodeled 7,000-seat theater.

The idea for the Desert Passage design grew out of the Aladdin name.

"To some degree, you're placed in that world in one way or another," Jacob said. "What we didn't want to do is a takeoff on a fantasy world of Arabian knights, tales of Sinbad as a shopping experience."

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