Long-abandoned corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara getting Walgreens

Tourists pass by construction at the northeast corner of Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard South on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. A Walgreens will occupy about half of the first floor. Wilger Enterprises is the general contractor on the project.

It's paving over some colorful history, but a retail plaza with Walgreens is under construction on the north Strip and poised to bring more business to the struggling area.

Sorenson Group Management broke ground this spring on a roughly 40,300-square-foot retail center at the northeast corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue. Walgreen Co. plans to open next spring, spokesman Phil Caruso said.

The site was home to the Holy Cow, a barnyard-themed casino and brewery that closed its doors more than a decade ago but was torn down only in the past few years. When it was open, homeless people washed in the bathroom in the middle of the night, thinking no one noticed, and police would sneak up on apparent drug dealers out front, drag them through the bar and arrest them in the parking lot.

Sahara Project

Tourists pass by construction at the northeast corner of Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard South on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. A Walgreens will occupy about half of the first floor. Wilger Enterprises is the general contractor on the project. Launch slideshow »

“It was a weird place,” said Dave Otto, former head brewer.

During the real estate bubble, a pair of Australians teamed with Donald Trump’s ex-wife to build a 73-story condominium tower there, the Ivana Las Vegas, but nothing got built. Other investors bought the property for a bloated price but lost it to foreclosure just a few years later, after the economy collapsed.

Walgreen was supposed to open the store earlier than what’s now planned but held back due to the slumping economy, according to a letter that Sorenson general counsel Donald Wallace sent to Las Vegas city planners last year.

The pharmacy giant is slated to take about 17,300 square feet, marketing materials show, but local brokers couldn’t confirm whether Sorenson had signed other retailers.

Sorenson, based in Salt Lake City, referred questions about the project to its leasing agents at Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, but they did not return calls for comment.

The delayed project comes as the struggling intersection is poised to rebound. SLS Las Vegas is set to open at the southeast corner Aug. 23, more than three years after the resort, the old Sahara, shut its doors. The sprawling, vacant southwest corner is slated to become an open-air venue for the Rock in Rio music festival next year.

The northwest corner has Bonanza Gifts, the self-proclaimed “world’s largest gift shop.”

Meanwhile, if Sorenson decides to unload its property, the firm likely wouldn’t sell cheap.

Strip real estate values have plunged since the boom years but still far outweigh the rest of the valley. Pharmacies are no exception and command big price tags.

In separate deals in 2012, landlords sold the Walgreens property between the Palazzo and the Venetian for $71 million and the Walgreens across from the former Echelon site for $28 million. Investors this spring sold the CVS property across from the mothballed Fontainebleau for $30 million.

“They’re great little gems to have,” Colliers International broker George Connor said.

Still, the new two-story Walgreens plaza will be a stark, humbling contrast to the excesses of the boom years.

Australian investors Victor Altomare and Joseph Di Mauro announced plans in 2004 to build a $700 million, 940-foot condo tower at the site. Initially called the Summit, the high-rise was supposed to be one of the world’s tallest residential buildings and boasted plans for a $35 million penthouse dubbed the “cockpit.” The sales office seemed more like a nightclub, with flashing lights, smoke machines and loud music.

The developers changed the project’s name after Ivana Trump agreed in 2005 to have her name attached to it. But the Australians never built the tower, and their 2-acre site sold in 2007 for a whopping $47 million, county records show.

Sorenson, however, seized the property through foreclosure in 2010. The group tore down the long-shuttered Holy Cow, clearing space for the new retail plaza.

Otto, the brewer, said the Holy Cow was Las Vegas’ first modern brewery. Business peaked in the mid-1990s when the Stratosphere was being developed, with construction crews piling in after work.

But the area was — and still is — dicey, and the bar drew shady characters late at night. Otto said he didn’t know for sure what the guys hanging around out front, hiding behind pillars, were doing, but he figured they were selling drugs.

“There were plenty of arrests, let’s put it that way,” Otto said.

The Holy Cow closed around 2001. The owners now operate Big Dog’s Draft House, a bar and brewery on Rancho Drive at Craig Road.

Otto, the head brewer for Big Dog’s, said he was sad to hear a pharmacy is being built at his old bar because he has fond memories of the place.

“I was hoping it’d be a little bit more exciting than a Walgreens,” he said.