RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We take you now to Las Vegas, where the roulette wheel is about to start spinning on one of the biggest bets in the city's history. The MGM Mirage CityCenter opens today. It's billed as a city within a city that cost a staggering eight-and-a-half billion dollars to build. The idea is to bring serious, contemporary architecture to a city known for kitsch.

NPR's Ted Robbins paid a visit.

TED ROBBINS: Even by the immodest standards of the Las Vegas strip, CityCenter is huge: 19 million square feet. That's three times the size of the Pentagon. I'm outside in the middle of it, surrounded by glass and steel towers, some curving in graceful arcs, others jutting at hard angles. And above me, a tram, a monorail linking together CityCenter and its two neighboring resorts.

(Soundbite of announcement)

Unidentified Man: Welcome to Crystals. Stand clear off the doors.

ROBBINS: Crystals is CityCenter's high-end mall, designed by Daniel Libeskind. The other CityCenter buildings, the Mandarin Oriental, Vdara, Veer Towers, the Harmon are hotels and condominiums.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

ROBBINS: The Aria is CityCenter's centerpiece. It's a casino resort. It's where I met the man who guided the project, MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren. We sat down on contemporary, earth-toned furniture in one of his eight lounges, and Murren told me his dream was to build, essentially, a chunk of midtown Manhattan in the desert.

Mr. JIM MURREN (CEO, MGM Mirage): I felt very strongly that just building another casino hotel was not ambitious enough, meaningful enough or will help move Las Vegas to another level.

ROBBINS: Problem is, Las Vegas is having trouble at its present level. The town's been hit hard by the recession. Its unemployment and foreclosure rates are among the highest in the nation. CityCenter has given 12,000 people jobs -a big boost. But the real estate collapse has hit it like every place else.

Condo prices have been slashed by 30 percent, and Murren says sales have not met expectations.

Mr. MURREN: I had to do it over again, we would've built fewer. We're not going to make the return on it. It's a challenging element of this project.

ROBBINS: CityCenter is highly leveraged. Half the money came from financially troubled Dubai World, though analysts say those troubles won't affect this project. Architecturally, L.A. Times critic Christopher Hawthorne says CityCenter is more tasteful than any other place in Vegas. But because MGM chose well-known but mainstream architects, it's not groundbreaking enough to be a world-class architectural destination.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE (Critic, L.A. Times): You know, if they were going to spend eight-and-a-half billion dollars - which is what they spent - what if, what if they had hired a really amazingly innovative group of architects who really could've turned this into a spectacular kind of collection of buildings?

ROBBINS: One major aspect of the project is innovative. CityCenter is the world's largest project built to lead green building standards. From facades made of local Nevada stone, to wood from managed forests, the emphasis is on sustainability.

For instance, project manager Katarina Tesarova points out the terrazzo floors and crystals are designed to cool from below.

Ms. KATARINA TESAROVA (Project Manager, CityCenter): We conserve energy because we are not cooling all these spaces up there below the ceiling.

ROBBINS: Christopher Hawthorne gives MGM Mirage credit for its efforts, but he says there's a basic contradiction between sustainability and a project so much more massive than anything else around it.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: One of the most basic rules of sustainability is that you build only as much as you need, and you don't waste steel and other materials to build things that either the market or the city or the culture, for that matter, can't bear.

ROBBINS: That's more than academic to moguls, like Phil Ruffin. Ruffin owns a number of resorts in Las Vegas, including Treasure Island, which he bought from MGM Mirage when it needed cash to finish CityCenter. He is not thrilled with having 6,000 new hotel rooms on the market.

Mr. PHIL RUFFIN (Owner, Treasure Island): But, you know, I open up this many rooms right now, Vegas sure doesn't need the additional rooms. I can tell you that.

ROBBINS: Ruffin is worried CityCenter will drive down prices for everyone, though historically, new attractions bring new visitors to Vegas. More a remnant of the boom years than a reflection of the current economy, CityCenter is likely to be the last big project built here for the next five, maybe even 10 years.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Las Vegas.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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