Archives » April 1st, 2005

April 1, 2005

The Slow Rebirth of Downtown Reno

The Reno Gazette Journal had a couple of good front-page stories yesterday, on the revitalization that’s been going on in downtown Reno. Layering the foundation for a great downtown talks about the recent trend in renovating shuttered hotel/casinos, which had to close due to low profits, and converting the old buildings into upscale condominiums that sell for more than a suburban house. And in Urban expert lauds Reno’s river district an “outsider”, Christopher Leinberger from Albuquerque’s Arcadia Land Co., gives his opinion on downtown Reno and the progress it’s made from being just a casino district to being someplace truly livable. His verdict? We’re further along than Albuquerque. So that has to count for something.

Downtown Reno has always been an odd mix. Virginia Street, the main street, is mostly occupied by the big-name hotel/casinos, and if you’re used to Las Vegas it’s a bit of a disappointment, but if you’re used to Carson City or, say, Ely, it’s full of glitz and glitter. But if you venture off to the side streets (one block in either direction will do it) you very quickly are surrounded by cheap motels and third-rate casinos. These third-rate casinos are the very ones that are now being converted to condos because, being two blocks from Virginia Street, they didn’t get enough patrons to be successful. And if you travel a few blocks down Fourth Street, you start finding the seedy bars and strip clubs. Maybe some tourists come to Reno for that, but not most.

It’s not all ugly, though. If you go north up Virginia Street you come to the University of Nevada, and that’s a nice tree-lined campus, even if it’s a little small by university standards. And if you go south from the casinos you end up crossing the Truckee River. This river, which is the only outlet to Lake Tahoe’s waters, cuts through Reno just blocks from the casinos. And until recently, it’s been nothing more than a concrete-lined ditch running through town. But over the last fifteen years the riverbanks have been improved, and it’s starting to become a place where you can take a nice stroll. The parking garages and department stores along the river were demolished in the late 80s and early 90s, and were replaced by a movie theater, a plaza, and little shops and cafes. Of the two hulking brick hotels that were at the water’s edge, both of which dated back at least 70 years, one was demolished and the other was fixed up to provide loft/living space for local artists, who could then sell their works on the old casino floor. Wingfield Park, a little island a couple of blocks from downtown, was transformed into a venue for free concerts and outdoor movie showings. The riverbed on either side of Wingfield Park was dredged and rebuilt to provide a course for kayakers and river rafters. (My own company, RCI, did most of the design work for that project.) Right now the sidewalks along the river are still on top of a 10-20 foot sidewall, imparting a “concrete canyon” feel on large parts of the river. But plans are in place to lower those sidewalks right down to the water level, and run them under the bridges so that no one has to use the crosswalks.

For most of the 90s, when I went to UNR and spent weekends in Reno, downtown was not exactly a friendly, inviting place to walk around. That seems to be changing in the last few years, and it’s good to see Reno’s downtown becoming a more welcoming place. I know we have a long way to go, since there are still bad neighborhoods butting up right against the casinos’ back doors, and there are still a lot of empty lots along the river where something was demolished but not replaced yet. But there is progress, and it’s already making a difference.

And speaking of “concrete canyon”, one of the more controversial projects going on downtown is the ReTRAC project, more commonly known as the train trench. Reno was built because of the railroad, so right now the Union Pacific mainline runs right through the heart of downtown, mere feet away from the casinos. It causes traffic problems, since that line sees over a dozen trains a day, and downtown is effectively split in half when one rumbles through. It also causes safety problems, since any drunk casinogoer or homeless person could wander onto the tracks at just the wrong moment. They’ve battled with ways of finding a solution to this problem for decades, and their final answer was to sink the tracks 30 feet into the ground, creating a trench, and run the trains along the bottom of it. They’ll then build overpasses for the major streets to cross, and all traffic problems will go away. This plan was hotly debated by people saying it was pointless, a waste of taxpayer money, and a free gift to the casinos who only wanted it because their hotel patrons didn’t like being woken up by train whistles in the middle of the night. But the project was approved, and construction is going on right now, with completion scheduled for the end of the year.