AIA convention Chicago 2014
Photo © Architectural Record
Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, speaking at the AIA Convention in Chicago on Saturday.

Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO and bestselling author delivered the final keynote address at the 2014 AIA Convention in Chicago on Saturday. Hsieh has recently turned his attention to urban development and the way in which a corporation like Zappos can make a positive impact on a city.

In 2013, Hsieh moved Zappos’s corporate headquarters from the suburbs of Las Vegas to the city’s former city hall. In the run-up to the move, Hsieh asked employees what they wanted in their new corporate campus. Suggestions included things like an on-site pub and a gym, but what most surprised Hsieh was the number one request: doggy day care. “More than human daycare,” Hsieh said. “We realized it was going to be impossible to fit in all of the suggestions.”

For inspiration, Hsieh also visited the corporate campuses of Apple, Google, and others. One thing struck him: “All those other campuses were great for employees, but were insular. They didn’t integrate or contribute to the community around them,” Hsieh said. “So we thought, what if we turned the entire thing inside out and treated it more like the [New York University] campus that blends in to the city and encourage our employees to go out and encourage outsiders to come in.”

The former Vegas city hall worked well for that. It is located in an area known as Fremont East, a more traditional downtown environment than one might expect for a city known for its "Strip." Hsieh, who grew up in San Francisco, was struck by the sense of community. “I have never been in an area where bar owners are hanging out in each other’s places to support the community,” Hsieh said. “It seemed too good to be true.”

So Hsieh and several partners launched a separate company, called the Downtown Project. With a $350 million budget, it aims to make downtown Vegas the most community-focused place in the world. Taking their inspiration from other urban environments, Hsieh and his partners have attempted to hone in on metrics that will accelerate serendipity through “collisions” between residents and outsiders.

“Our big bet is that collisions, co-learning, and connectedness will lead to happiness and innovation,” he said. They’ve invested in public parks, small businesses, and buildings like the Ogden, where Zappos maintains several rooms as free hotel suites for guests—at a price. “We basically trick people into going to local restaurants, coffee shops, and discover a side of Vegas they never saw,” Hsieh said.

And they’re focused on community events and speakers. If someone interesting is coming to town, they’re put up in the Ogden and often deliver a talk in exchange. “It’s like we’re throwing a mini TED conference every week,” Hsieh said. “Our slogan, ‘Downtown Vegas will make you smarter,’ is probably the last thing people would think of when they think of Vegas.”

“This isn’t just about downtown Vegas or the Vegas area in general,” Hsieh said. Hopefully we can inspire other cities to reinvent themselves.”