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Q+A: URI VAKNIN:

Real estate salesman: ‘Las Vegas is having a last-call sale’ for condos

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Christopher DeVargas

Uri Vaknin owned an art gallery in Atlanta — with a client list that included Elton John — before changing careers to real estate.

Mon, Jan 2, 2017 (2 a.m.)

A former art gallery owner in Atlanta, Uri Vaknin took up real estate sales after a client suggested he would be good at it. Now, he’s a partner at KRE Capital, the real estate investment firm that purchased the Ogden high-rise and Juhl condominium complexes in downtown Las Vegas. The Ogden, Vaknin said, recently became the first condo building in Las Vegas since 2007 to get Fannie Mae mortgage approval, meaning eligible buyers can purchase a home with as little as 3 percent down.

How do Atlanta and Las Vegas differ when it comes to the housing industry?

In Atlanta, I was senior vice president of a national condo sales and marketing company. I worked on the development, marketing and sales of condo, mixed-use and townhome communities all over the country. While there are a lot of similarities to other markets, Las Vegas is unique in many ways.

In other cities, you typically know exactly who your market is and where your buyers are coming from. In Las Vegas, you are selling to the world. And therefore, you have to figure out how to market to the world. This past year, I spent three weeks in China promoting our condos and Las Vegas to Chinese buyers — that is something I have never done in any other market, particularly not in Atlanta.

What type of homes are Las Vegas residents looking for? Are condos a hard sell?

In cities all over the country, there is a shift from suburban living to urban living, particularly when it comes to empty nesters and millennials. Both of these groups desire the amenity-rich, connected, walkable, lock-and-leave lifestyle that condos provide.

Condos are easy to sell in Las Vegas. Las Vegas is still the most affordable large city in America. I like to say that Las Vegas is having a last-call sale — savvy buyers know this is their last chance to get a great value on condos before they go back to or exceed their pre-recession prices.

Talk about your career in the art industry.

Some of my earliest and most indelible childhood memories were of my mother taking me to the greatest art and history museums in New York City. I have always been transfixed by art, architecture, design and creativity. During high school, I got involved in the Atlanta contemporary arts scene and community. During college, I lived in Germany for a year and got to explore Europe’s greatest art museums and architectural wonders.

Upon returning to Atlanta, where I finished college, I worked my way up from being a gallery assistant to gallery director at several prominent Atlanta galleries. During the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, I worked on monumental art projects, including turning the AT&T skyscraper into a 48-story light sculpture. Eventually, I opened my own contemporary fine art gallery.

But selling contemporary art isn’t easy; people don’t feel like they need art like they need housing. Eventually, when I went into selling real estate, my art clients became my real estate clients. It could not have been a more perfect combination.

Will you open a gallery here?

I am still involved in the arts, but just from a different perspective. I’m on the executive committee of the board of the Art Museum at Symphony Park — the organization leading the effort to bring a world-class art museum to downtown Las Vegas.

It’s an exciting time for arts and culture in Las Vegas. With the Smith Center, the Mob Museum, the Neon Museum and the Arts District, Las Vegas is getting on the cultural map.

The city will be donating a significant parcel of land at Symphony Park for the art museum. We believe, as a company, in the importance of art and culture in creating a vibrant and live-able community. It’s the last missing ingredient in making Las Vegas a world-class city.

But I also infuse art and design into every project I do. We created an Artist-in-Residence program at Juhl. This spring, we will sponsor “Tilting the Basin,” an exhibition of 34 artists from Nevada. At ONE Las Vegas — our two-tower condo community on the south Strip — I commissioned renowned photographer Marilyn Suriani to create a 54-foot-long photographic installation called “Waterway” to adorn our grand lobby. While I don’t plan on opening a gallery in Las Vegas, I do plan to continue to contribute to the cultural landscape of Las Vegas.

Why do you think mixed-use development and green developments are important?

As cities grow, climate change intensifies and resources become scarcer, cities will require smarter, more efficient, better designed and planned, mixed-use and sustainable developments to survive. I am excited that Las Vegas is on the forefront of this type of planning and development — particularly with Vision 2045, the Downtown Las Vegas master plan. I also am so proud that our city is the largest in America to run on 100 percent renewable energy. But pushing this initiative doesn’t always require grand gestures. When we purchased the Ogden and Juhl, we added electric car-charging stations, installed Nest Learning Thermostats, replaced halogen lighting with LED lighting and sourced locally available and recycled products.

You’ve traveled the world. Where are you going next?

Traveling is my passion. I have been to every continent except Antarctica. This past year, I traveled to Venice, Rome, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro. The funny thing is when I travel to cities, I spend the bulk of my time checking out real estate and housing developments. I believe it’s one of the things that keeps me ahead of the curve.

I also love adventure travel. Several years ago, I spent a month in Africa summiting Mount Kilimanjaro and on safari. For my birthday this past summer, I went to Rio and was mesmerized. So next on my list is to explore more of Brazil.

Whom do you admire?

Something most people don’t know about me is that I am fascinated by U.S. presidents. Since I was a kid, I would devour biographies and autobiographies about our presidents. Although I admire so many of our country’s presidents, I am probably most enamored with Thomas Jefferson. Although he clearly had his flaws, he was one of this great country’s founding fathers and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.

What is your biggest pet peeve?

Ignorance and closed-mindedness. One of the best traits you can have is curiosity. You can learn so much just by being curious and open-minded. I don’t understand how people wouldn’t want to learn more and experience new things and ideas.

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