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Power over Planning
Who gets to shape our city?
Well, it’s been a wintry Election Day, and as we wait for all the results to be tabulated, we are of course deeply aware of the role our local elected representatives play in development, as I laid out in a recent Brief, “Exercise Your Right to Representation.” It is an enormous amount of power, and with great power comes great responsibility.
Key to that responsibility is maintaining a deep respect for the field and the role of planning. When it comes to laying the groundwork for successful development (and redevelopment) there is nothing more fundamental than professional, informed public planning. Planning responds to demonstrated and anticipated needs and gives a city a blueprint for how to respond to changing circumstances. It is a professional and technical field that relies on data, experience, and deep knowledge of how the various and complex physical components of a city function in relationship with each other to produce a desired result.
Good planning analyzes situations, determines the appropriate steps to take, secures the resources to fund specific outcomes, and then executes a plan to achieve them. Good planning takes the interests of relevant constituents and interested parties into account, but operates independently of power structures. Good planning inspires trust among the populace by ensuring that the decisions being made are in service of the public good, not in support of special interests seeking an outcome that would benefit them but negatively impact others.
In the sphere of urban development, problems arise when those in positions of power or influence, whether special interests, politicians, or other leaders, use that power or influence to pursue an outcome that flies in the face of sound, public planning. It’s always a danger when a handful of people have that power, requiring constant attention and vigilance, particularly in a city like Reno, where powerful entities have largely dictated the shape of certain parts of town for decades. And no area of Reno is more susceptible to the pressures of powerful special interests than what used to be its traditional downtown, but morphed over time into the central casino core between the river and Interstate 80.
In the 1980s and 1990s, as the smaller downtown casinos began to close due to outside competition, Reno’s larger gaming companies consolidated their power and property. In 1992, a joint venture between Eldorado Resorts and Circus Circus (then owned by MGM Resorts) bought the site of the Mayfair Market and built the Silver Legacy, linking all three together with massive skyways.
In 2015, Eldorado Resorts bought Circus Circus and its 50% stake in the Silver Legacy from MGM Resorts, and in 2018, Eldorado Resorts re-branded their tri-properties “The ROW,” referring to them as a “City within a City.” In 2020, Eldorado acquired Caesars for $18 billion and took on the name of Caesars Entertainment. It is a global company with more than $9 billion in annual revenue that just announced its intent to build a resort casino in the heart of Times Square. Caesars Entertainment doesn’t need anything on Virginia Street to change, including its own street-facing presence there, in order to achieve its privately-held goals. That’s power.
Power, planning, and the Center Street Cycle Track
Enter planning. The stalling of the Center Street Cycle Track project has been the source of intense frustration for a wide swath of community members because it was the product of a plan backed by technical expertise, public support, and RTC Board approval. Then last summer, word emerged that Caesars Entertainment didn’t like it. As I wrote about in my September 6, 2021 Brief, “What’s the Future of Virginia Street?”, “The ROW’s attorney, Michael Pagni, expressed the company’s desire to have the protected bike lanes moved to Virginia Street, calling it ‘a more appropriate corridor’ and arguing that ‘Virginia Street provides greater access to retail and other business uses which are likely to be frequented by bicyclists,’ among other advantages.” Bookmark that claim about all the “retail and business uses” along Virginia Street for a moment—we’ll be coming back to it. Suddenly, the Center Street project was placed on hold, and without any advance notice to the public or even to business owners located along Virginia Street, the City and RTC installed a temporary “Micromobility Pilot Project” there (and along Fifth Street), to test out protected lanes on Virginia Street, an option that had been thoroughly considered and dismissed by RTC planners and its transportation consultants.
Despite what some at the heads of the City and RTC have stated, it is not at all common for an RTC project to reach a stage of 30% design and then be placed on an indefinite hold or stopped entirely. The questionable explanations for the pause have already received significant media attention. And now Bob Conrad, journalist and publisher of the online news site This is Reno, has taken a deep dive into the pause of the Center Street Cycle Track project, using public records and other research to write a meticulously documented piece published on Sunday titled “City: Long term plans for Center Street bike lane ‘unlikely’ to proceed.”
This incisive piece is a must-read, so please take the time. As the title indicates, Reno City Manager Doug Thornley, who was hired in 2020, now says that the Center Street Cycle Track may not move forward at all, telling Conrad last Friday, “I think it’s unlikely and we’re actively exploring other, more feasible possibilities.” Ultimately responsible for the pause and the potential squelching of the project is Bill Thomas, the former City of Reno Assistant City Manager who was hired as the Executive Director of RTC Washoe in April of 2020 by a Board headed by then-Reno Councilmember (and now Executive Director of the Downtown Reno Partnership) Neoma Jardon.
But that Board never voted to pause or stop the Center Street Cycle Track project. Instead, Bill Thomas made the decision to pause the in-progress, approved Center Street Cycle Track project himself, without authorization. And that is not only highly unusual and procedurally fraught, it sets a dangerous precedent for unilateral action operating outside the public process. Which brings us back to this.
As Conrad writes, “Characterizing the Center Street cycle track as problematic came about from new leadership at RTC and the City of Reno — in contradiction to their own consultants, and only in about the past two years. Prior statements and current documentation still show support for Center Street as the most preferred option for a downtown cycle-track.” Furthermore, “Records show officials from different agencies attempting to coordinate messages, editing one another’s public statements and denigrating those expressing concerns or raising questions. An RTC executive even said RTC was not being transparent. That missive was sent the day she quit.”
It’s an alarming situation. If you are confronted by a paywall when trying to access the piece, please take the opportunity to consider paying for a subscription to support the ongoing operations of This is Reno, which since its founding in 2009 has become a steady, reliable source of in-depth reporting about our area.
The Sorry State of Virginia Street
Entangled in this whole Center Street Cycle Track/Micromobility Pilot Project web is the Virginia Street Placemaking Study, which I’ve written about several times, including last September, this past February and April, and again just last month. It was cited in part as one of the reasons for the pause in the Center Street Cycle Track.
As I wrote in my last Brief, the next stage of the Placemaking Study, which focuses on Virginia Street (and its immediate environs) between the UNR campus and Liberty Street, took place last week. You may recall that I had voiced some skepticism about the survey that the City issued this past summer on behalf of the consulting firm Gehl Studios to solicit input on what residents think about Virginia Street, when they go there, and if not, why not. My primary concern was that the questions were so vague, they didn’t ask about specific spaces, and I feared that the results might be as vague.
But wow. Those who responded to the survey really came through with detailed comments, and in combination with Gehl Studio’s own expert analysis, the picture that emerged last week of the downtown stretch of Virginia Street, and in particular of the once-thriving casino district between the river and the UNR campus, was the most honest, most descriptive, and frankly the most depressing that we’ve ever seen, given the narratives we’re often given about how great everything is going down there. This stage of the Placemaking Study was all about diagnosing the present conditions and usage, and while the attorney for Caesars Entertainment might claim that Virginia Street is full of “retail and other business uses which are likely to be frequented by bicyclists,” the facts tell a very different story.
I sat by Mike Van Houten of the fabulous Downtown Makeover site at the Wednesday night session, and I’d like to direct your attention to the excellent recap he published the next day: “GEHL's Virginia Street placemaking study headed in right direction.” As Mike highlighted, one of the most stunning observations of all—one that aligns with what I’ve been pointing out for years but still shocked me in its amplitude—is Gehl’s assessment that 70% of the frontage along this section of Virginia Street consists of inactive space. SEVENTY PERCENT. That includes vacant storefronts, vacant lots, empty plazas, and long, blank casino walls. Here’s the slide of that audit.
Notably, when asked by an audience member whether they would recommend closing Virginia Street to vehicles, as some have suggested, the Gehl representative responded that they would not suggest that at this time, because the street is simply not active enough. And looking at that map, it’s hard to argue with that.
The consultants also met with a few smaller groups the next day, and I was happy to be invited to one of those sessions, although I don’t know who else participated in any beyond those attending with me and a few people I saw in the hallway. I do think it would be a good idea for the City to publish the list of invitees, so residents can understand precisely who is being considered a “stakeholder” in this process, and to whom the consultants are directly speaking.
The next phase of the study asks the public to provide feedback on what Gehl just presented. After that, they will be putting together some “conceptual street design and programming options” for public review. So now the ball is back in your court, as the feedback window is only open through November 16. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to watch Gehl’s outstanding 30-minute presentation first. You can access it via the City’s Placemaking Study webpage (be sure to refresh the page if you’ve visited it before to access the new content) and it’s also on YouTube. The feedback form is here (and it feature a link to their presentation, too).
Diagnosing the problem was an important first step, but coming up with solutions that will work for this uniquely problematic part of town will be the true challenge. Many of the images depicted in the ideas that they’re offering for public consideration would be nearly impossible to implement at the moment given the current state of the street. People love sidewalk cafes, but who’s going to operate one down there? What would entice restauranteurs to open any kind of eatery along Virginia Street in its current condition? And what can be done to reverse the decline caused by the complete domination of the street by casinos, the decline of the vast majority of them, and the failure of those that have survived to alter how they interact with their surroundings? Change, as Gehl reminded us, will not happen overnight. So send in that feedback, select the images that appeal to you, and hopefully we’ll have a robust discussion about which ideas are actually feasible when they return in February.
The Power of Planning
One response to that question of “What can be done?”—a response that is already right in front of us—is found in the City of Reno Master Plan. That plan, adopted by the City in 2017 after the most expansive public engagement process it has ever undertaken, laid out a methodical, incremental way to address inactive space and other persistent problems caused by years of decline. That’s what planning does.
Front and center are two core principles: increased density and effective design. It’s all delineated in great detail in the Land Development Code, Title 18. The dead zone we’re talking about corresponds to what has been named the Entertainment District. And the guidelines for development in this district acknowledge that it’s the 24-hour entertainment area but set forward parameters for any type of new construction.
Increasing density adds people, and people create activity. That simple yet fundamental fact runs entirely counter to how Virginia Street has been trending in recent years, as vacant lots have not only remained vacant, but even more have been created as buildings are demolished with nothing constructed in their place.
Increasing density also happens to run counter to the vision put forth by Caesars Entertainment, as seen in the infamous letter from Michael Pagni that I described (and linked to) last September. Caesars wants not just to keep some of those vacant sites along Virginia Street vacant for use as surface parking and event space, but wants to create even more open space if they can acquire more property, including the old CitiCenter bus station between Center and Virginia Streets.
The second principle put forth by the Master Plan for downtown, is DESIGN. As planners well know, it’s good design that fulfills the City’s desire to “Enhance public safety and create inviting streets and public places for people (Citywide Policy 3.2). So what does that mean? Again, in the language of the Master Plan, it means this:
“Enhance streetscapes through the incorporation of generous walkways, prominent building entries, transparent storefronts, outdoor dining, seating, street trees, awnings, decorative lighting, public art, bike racks, and other distinctive urban design elements—particularly on streets where concentrations of pedestrian activity are desired (i.e., Sierra Street, Virginia Street, and Center Street)” (p. 35).
Let me remind you: SEVENTY PERCENT INACTIVE SPACE. And that figure does not just include the blank walls and vacant lots owned by Caesars Entertainment, but public space, too. The same page referenced above includes the dictate to “Limit the addition of new public spaces to those that will be programmed year-round,” something I remember whenever I pass by the colorful but lifeless Locomotion Plaza. Every single time, I can’t help but recall the astounding, comprehensive 2007 ReTRAC Corridor Study by Freedman Tung & Bottomley that the City of Reno spent $500,000 to produce. It delineated the assets and attributes of downtown’s core and offered a detailed vision for how to revitalize the new east-west corridor created by lowering the railroad tracks and the surrounding blocks. It can be viewed in its entirety here.
Downtown Virginia Street is no longer a casino district, and yet the major gaming properties still want to dictate how development there will proceed. So what will it be—density or open space? Responsible public planning or reckless power plays?
City Council to appoint a new Planning Commissioner Nov. 9
On Wednesday, November 9, Reno City Council is scheduled to appoint a new member of the Planning Commission to replace Kathleen Taylor, who was herself appointed by City Council to complete the term of departing Ward 5 Councilmember Neoma Jardon. The appointment is item G.1 on the agenda. The eight candidates are listed in the staff report and their full applications are also available via separate links.
Those who have been paying close attention to the recent slew of city appointments will recognize some of the candidates’ names. Elliot Malin, Alex Goff, and Jacob Williams all threw their hats in the ring to replace Jardon on City Council, but lost out to Kathleen Taylor (who had herself unsuccessfully run for City Council in 2012). Goff and Williams also both ran unsuccessfully for State Assembly earlier this year and have a record of campaign contributions to show for it. Some of Goff’s are delineated here with full financial disclosures here. Williams’ financial disclosures are here.
That’s a lot of political activity and aspiration for a pool of candidates for Planning Commissioner, a critical role that should arguably be more independent of politics than any other citizen Board or Commission. As I’ve mentioned before, my husband, Mark Johnson, currently serves on the Reno Planning Commission, and like me, harbors no aspirations for any political office. He terms out next summer.
Given the heightened role that developers are increasingly playing in the local political arena, the prospective appointment of outwardly aspiring politicians with no background or experience in planning to the City’s Planning Commission is concerning. And while it’s laudable for citizens to acquire experience on a government board or commission before running for office, the Planning Commission is not the place for those inexperienced in planning to learn the ropes. The Planning Commission is not a consolation prize for losing out on another election or appointment. It is arguably the most important citizen commission in the City, with its members serving in a quasi-judiciary capacity for a wide range of duties listed here and including the following:
Serve and advise the City Council on future physical planning and economic development of the City, urban planning including policy development, community design, natural resource conservation and enhancement, economics, housing, land use, population, streets, zoning, subdivision regulation, transportation, the comprehensive plan, etc.
Planning Commissioners are tasked with making technical and objective decisions about projects based on specific findings. It’s critical that they are not simultaneously pondering the impact of their decisions on their future political prospects. More than ever, we need Planning Commissioners who have backgrounds in fields related to planning. For those interested in serving the community and learning about many aspects of government (including planning), plenty of other boards and commissions including the Neighborhood Advisory Boards offer the perfect opportunity for residents to serve. But for the Planning Commission, residents deserve the appointment of experienced individuals qualified to evaluate planning proposals and policies, untainted by the prospect (or appearance) of political strategizing.
Council will also conduct their annual appointment of a Vice Mayor under Item G.3.
[11/10/22 update: On November 9, 2022, the Reno City Council appointed Harris Armstrong to the Reno City Planning Commission and Devon Reese as Vice Mayor.]
That’s it for this week. If your favored candidates did not prevail in this midterm election, keep the faith. Democracy is messy, but it’s the best system around, and the only way to help shape our future is to continue to participate in its creation.
As always, you can view this and prior newsletters on my Substack site and follow the Brief (and contribute to the ongoing conversation) on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram. If you feel inspired to contribute to my efforts, my Venmo account is @Dr-Alicia-Barber and you can mail checks, if you like, to Alicia Barber at P.O. Box 11955, Reno, NV 89510. Thanks so much for reading, and have a great week.