Putting the Pieces Together
Jacobs Entertainment's sprawling resort comes into focus
Before I jump in today, just a quick reminder that these posts can also be viewed on my Substack website here, where they might be a bit easier to read. So let’s dive in.
Jacobs Entertainment has been a major subject of the Brief for nearly a year now because its holdings comprise such a large section of downtown Reno and because the City’s Development Agreement with the company specified next to nothing about what would actually be developed there—information that one would assume should be the primary condition for entering into such an agreement in the first place.
Instead, the City gave the company free rein to brand a big chunk of west downtown “Reno’s Neon Line District,” with the only specified new construction being one condo project (since changed to apartments) at Arlington and West 2nd Street.
The City’s justification for the glaring lack of specifics in the agreement has seemed to be that any development in this area would constitute a “public benefit” for the City by eliminating what it terms “blight” (mostly older motels) and eventually, maybe, sometime, resulting in the construction of something new in their place.
None of that has ever made sense from a planning (much less a housing) perspective. Acts of faith (“whatever happens will be great!”) are not compatible with city planning in general, or with this city’s own Master Plan in particular. As I pointed out in my February 7 Brief, “Reno’s Next Big Gamble,” the City seems specifically to have granted Jacobs a blanket exemption from its existing plans for “Urban Corridors” like West 4th Street by failing to require that it adhere to any of its own clear, carefully thought out, publicly vetted guidelines for our few major central thoroughfares.
And now, because the City didn’t require Jacobs to indicate what would be built on most of the land it has assembled, the company can take its time rolling out its plans bit by bit instead of having the entire project presented and reviewed all at once. Announcing each new component in stages is certainly advantageous from a marketing perspective (each new announcement provides an opportunity for another press release or exclusive interview, after all), but from the public perspective, it’s disastrous, since we’re forced to evaluate each new component in a vacuum, without the ability to accurately assess how all the pieces will ultimately fit together.
(It also occurs to me that announcing each stage separately has made it impossible to determine whether the entire scope is of a sufficient scale to qualify as a “Project of Regional Significance,” which would warrant review by the Regional Planning Commission, but that’s an evaluation for others to make.)
That picture is coming more into focus now, after a recent appearance by Jacobs Entertainment CEO Jeff Jacobs on the KTVN program “Face the State.” Divided into two 12-minute segments, this interview is revelatory not just for what Jacobs divulged about his plans for this part of town—including just where he wants to build a large outdoor amphitheater—but for a whole array of assertions, assumptions, and explanations that to me raise even more questions. Here’s Part 1.
And here’s Part 2.
Right off the bat, Jacobs says something that made my jaw drop. When asked by Arianna Bennett how he decides “what goes where and what needs to be built,” he replies, “Well, a lot of planning, that’s for sure. It’s a live-work-play district. We want it to become nationally recognized as something people want to visit, also want to live and recreate and work in. So we master plan all the elements ahead of time.”
I’m sorry, what? They “master plan all the elements ahead of time,” as in a while ago?
If Jacobs has master planned all the elements of this “district” ahead of time, then why wasn’t that master plan clearly laid out in his Development Agreement with the City? Why haven’t residents seen this plan so they could evaluate it in its entirety before the City approved that agreement? Have members of City staff or City Council seen this master plan, and if so, don’t they consider it to be something that the public has a right to see, too? Would Jacobs have secured a Development Agreement if we had?
I won’t be recapping the entire interview, but that last question is something I’d like you to seriously ponder as you watch it. I’ll be focusing on three main aspects here: Jacobs’ stated plans for his new and expanded “resort,” how housing fits into it (if at all), and his aspirations to completely reorient how visitors enter downtown.
New revelations about the Sands Regency (new name TBA) Resort
In this interview, Jacobs reveals more than he ever has (publicly, anyway) about his intentions, not just for the existing Sands property but the spaces around it. On the main property, plans include what you’d expect from a hotel casino upgrade: new indoor and outdoor pools and a spa, conference space, a two-story addition to the casino extending out to Fourth Street, new showrooms, new paint and lighting.
But pay particular attention to what he says about the surrounding parcels. For instance, he mentions that the rebranded Sands will open as a resort “with 800 rooms and amenities and the ability to go to 2,000 rooms and 2,000 parking spaces” with a new parking garage and potentially a new hotel wing. That reminded me of an image Jacobs circulated back in 2020 when he floated the idea of closing Ralston Street to through traffic between West 3rd and West 4th streets, and creating a private resort entrance with a parking garage on the west side. (Click on the image to enlarge).
Is this what we should expect to see facing West 4th Street down the road—a massive parking garage between the Sands and the Glow Plaza? (For a current view of this site, click here.) Jacobs withdrew the request for the City to abandon that block of Ralston back in 2020, but should we be prepared for it to come back? Is that part of the plan?
“One of the top ten urban amphitheaters in the country”
Another component that Jacobs has mentioned before but never pinned down is an outdoor amphitheater. I’ve personally speculated that the “Glow Plaza” might just be a placeholder for it, but no, these are apparently two separate outdoor venues. In this interview, Jacobs revealed that he’s looking into building it just south of the Sands. To help you picture the site, here’s a video I just filmed looking east over it from Ralston.
To view the site from the east, click here. Jacobs didn’t provide any renderings of it, but it wouldn’t be small. In fact, he says, it “could be perhaps one of the top ten urban amphitheaters in the country,” citing his 5,000-seat open-air amphitheater in Cleveland called Jacobs Pavilion, part of the so-called “Nautica Waterfront District." (That venue, of course, is situated on a riverfront, not in the middle of a downtown.)
Seeing the Glow Plaza in a new light
Knowing that Jacobs also has construction of a large amphitheater in mind puts the company’s “Glow Plaza and Festival Area” in a different light, because it would now be one of two open-air, entertainment venues within blocks of each other, both capable of accommodating several thousand people. It's not hard to find articles about some of the issues that arise with open-air urban amphitheaters, from noise to traffic to lighting, but here are just a few addressing issues at Mesa Amphitheatre, Gainesville, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Verizon Amphitheater, and Chastain Park.
Jacobs Entertainment’s application for a conditional use permit to enable the construction of a permanent stage at the Glow Plaza and Festival Area and to govern its ongoing operation is up for review by the Planning Commission on Wednesday, March 16. You can watch the prior discussions of this item at the January Ward 1 NAB meeting here and the February Ward 5 NAB meeting here.
One of the chief concerns raised at both was, understandably, the potential impact on the closest adjacent residences, the Onyx and the Sarrazin Arms, and it seems to me that those concerns might be amplified with the contemplated construction of an even larger outdoor venue just a block away, were these two venues to be proposed at the same time (which of course they aren’t). I also wonder at the ability to determine the future impact of increased traffic when so much of this area, from projected attractions to parking garages, has yet to be developed. And as I’ve mentioned before, a major component of this review will be conformance with the city’s Master Plan.
The staff report and associated materials for the Planning Commission’s review of the Glow Plaza and Festival Area (item 5.3) can be found here and you can access the agenda with information on how to submit public comment here.
Jacobs’ projected outdoor attractions include yet another feature that he has alluded to before without specifics: a zipline that would run from the rooftop of the Sands (accessible by a new outside elevator) all the way over to the Gold ‘N Silver Inn, which would become a nonsmoking casino. The “landing zone” for the zipline would be located between that casino and a quartet of historic buildings created by the Nystrom House, Chapel of the Bells, and two other unspecified buildings he says will be moved there, creating, he says, “something like The Eddy in the middle.”
The absence of details or imagery, again, makes it impossible to assess the potential impact of such an attraction. You can click here for a photo taken in from the 12th floor of the Sands looking west to get a sense of where this zipline would run. If you’re not familiar with urban ziplines, here’s SlotZilla, the zipline attraction that extends over Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas, one possible inspiration.
Name that [insert neon-related term here] resort.
Regular readers will be aware of my longstanding objection to the City allowing Jeff Jacobs to unilaterally brand this entire area, including public space and private property his company does not own, with his own invented, self-serving brand.
Notably, Jacobs still hasn’t revealed the new name for the Sands Regency, but in this interview he did announce the name of the only construction project that the company has so far committed to build from the ground up, the apartments at the corner of West 2nd Street and Arlington. Its name, he says, will be The Claude, which he explains refers to Georges Claude, the inventor of neon light tubing.
Neon light tubing. Reno’s Neon Line. The Glow Plaza. The Claude. There seems little doubt that the secret “rebrand” for the Sands Regency will be in the neon family as well. So why does that matter so much? Because in addition to allowing one company to name an entire section of downtown that it doesn’t solely own, the City has allowed Jacobs Entertainment to have the name “Neon Line” and all its associated signage categorized as “area identification” rather than “advertising,” as though the “Neon Line” name were not specifically coined to promote Jacobs’ ever-expanding resort. (By the way, Scenic Nevada’s lawsuit against the City contending that the Development Agreement is illegal under state law is still active; click here for an update on that—it goes far beyond the appearance of the proposed signage and is worth your time.)
If any City staff or Councilmembers know what that new Sands rebrand is going to be, I would hope that they can understand why it needs to be made public before the name “Neon Line” gets codified anywhere. Just ask yourself this: Would the City have been so quick to allow Jacobs to name this area the “Neon Line District” if the Sands rebrand were announced first? If the answer is “maybe not,” then it’s time to put the “Neon Line” on ice until we’re told exactly what the new name of the Sands will be.
The question of housing
The lack of specifically delineated housing in this “district” is even more problematic than when Jacobs began to purchase Reno real estate several years ago, because our housing crisis is only getting worse. I’m not going to delve deeply into all of Jacobs’ housing-related points, but watch Part 2 for yourself and take note of some of his explanations of where housing might go and why (he says) it’s so difficult to build:
He refers to multiple residential projects underway (all but The Claude by others) on West 2nd Street, which he says “is going to become a less dense street than, say for example, Fourth Street, which is more commercial/entertainment.” This is a perplexing statement. In fact, the apartment buildings being constructed along West 2nd Street are far more dense than the projected blocks of mostly unoccupied event space, parking garages and surface lots, and a two-story casino along 4th Street. And dense infill is what’s prioritized for designated Urban Corridors like West 4th Street, as outlined in Reno’s Master Plan and depicted below (p. 124).
He claims that it’s more expensive to build residential on 4th Street than on 2nd Street, because “The land’s more expensive and you’re competing with the casinos for space and time and money.” (I’m not sure what this means. He’s already purchased a lot of land on 4th Street and the only casinos there are his.)
He says it’s extremely expensive to offer workforce housing, and that it’s costing him $10 million to offer just six workforce housing units in the 60-unit “Claude.” (That means the $1.5 million he reminds us that he donated to the Reno Housing Authority would by his own calculations have funded one unit.)
He suggests the Reno Housing Authority could construct workforce housing on multiple floors above a massive three or four-story public parking garage on land he would consider donating to them on the block just west of his projected amphitheater. Yet he just finished explaining how exponentially more expensive it is to construct any building taller than the typical “four-over-one” building (four floors of housing over one floor of parking).
He predicts a “demand for 3,000 to 5,000 residential units” in the area, but not how that demand would be met by anything he is enabling. The two parcel groupings he offered for sale months ago might bring in several hundred units each, he says. Or they might not, since they were not required to include any housing at all. Renova Flats and the projected Claude would together comprise just over 100 units, and any housing currently under construction in the vicinity is on land Jacobs never had anything to do with.
What Jacobs says he’d like to see, and what he says he has specifically requested of the Reno Housing Authority, is for someone to build nearby workforce housing for very specific types of workers: “the waiters, the people that clean the rooms, the people that answer the phones.” In other words, his employees. And in the meantime, Jacobs continues to demolish the motels that are the housing of last resort not just for the individuals who happen to live there any given time, but for others who might need shelter in the future, the latest to go being the Castaway Inn. (For more on Reno’s dire affordable housing situation, I highly recommend this recent piece from KNPR radio featuring ProPublica’s Anjeanette Damon and Christine Hess of the Nevada Housing Coalition: “Reno housing prices are going up, and some weekly motels are disappearing; where will residents go?”)
“We think that Keystone will be the new entrance….”
The final topic I want to address from this interview is perhaps the most monumental, in terms of how Jacobs sees his new resort changing the way people relate to downtown Reno. Here’s what he says about his ultimate vision for West 4th Street:
“It’s a new entrance. Virginia used to be the front door, and that’s changing, You have more influence from the university coming up Virginia and Center, more student housing, more pedestrians…and then the vehicular coming over from California, we think that Keystone will be the new entrance, people coming off of Keystone.”
This appears to be the ultimate point of the “Neon Line” brand and the reason that one of the very few items specified in the Development Agreement with Jacobs was massive advertising signage on I-80 and near the intersection of Keystone and West 4th Street: to redirect vehicular traffic entering Reno via the interstate to exit on Keystone and then turn left on West 4th Street to drive past Jacobs’ resort.
Jacobs is apparently attempting here to link two things—his desire to re-route inbound vehicular traffic past his “Neon Line” resort, and the City’s ongoing efforts to improve the pedestrian experience on Virginia Street—as though those are two sides of the same coin. But that’s not the case at all. Redirecting vehicular traffic to enter downtown via West 4th Street is not at all what the City has committed to doing—and for good reason. From the perspective of downtown revitalization, such a move would be completely counterproductive.
The ongoing, hard-won diversification of Reno’s tourist economy means recognizing that tourists increasingly come here to experience the same amenities that residents enjoy, from the Truckee River and cultural offerings to the shops, eateries, and historical architecture of the Riverwalk and Midtown—all of which are directly accessible not via West 4th Street, but Virginia Street. The City and RTC have just funded and will soon undertake an Urban Placemaking Study to enhance the visual appeal and function of Virginia Street, not just for the sake of residents, but for everyone. (Here’s a fantastic article by Ethan Kent called “Placemaking for Regenerative Tourism" that I encourage everyone to read.)
Enhancing the pedestrian experience of Virginia Street doesn’t mean encouraging cars to bypass it. Who would benefit from that? Certainly not any of the potential businesses Reno is hoping to attract to Virginia Street in the future. Not the University of Nevada. Not the Reno City Center, the Pioneer Center, or the Nevada Museum of Art. Not Midtown.
Successful city streets accommodate all modes of transportation, and successful cities don’t segregate tourists from residents or tourist traffic from other traffic; they strive for a harmonious integration that works for everyone. That’s why Jacobs’ approach to redesigning West 4th Street is so troubling; it does just the opposite—at least so far—catering to vehicles and sporadic special events rather than helping to cultivate the vibrant, dense, pedestrian-oriented experience that our Master Plan prioritizes and that our downtown and its residents actually need.
Jacobs is, of course, free to try to coax as many tourists as he wants to enter downtown via West 4th Street, but that’s not a position that has ever been endorsed by the City, and it couldn’t be without a substantive and multi-pronged transportation, planning, and economic study to demonstrate the universal benefit and potential repercussions of such a dramatic reorientation. And that obviously hasn’t occurred.
I’ll just end today with a little map I’ve created to try to keep track of the major components of this sprawling resort, both existing and suggested. You can click to enlarge, and it’s probably best viewed on something larger than a phone. I’ve labeled a few key sites not owned by Jacobs in orange and used question marks to indicate the more vague ideas. There’s nothing official or exhaustive about this, but since Jacobs isn’t sharing his master plan with us, we’re forced to put the pieces together on our own and determine for ourselves what to make of the picture that emerges.
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. Thanks so much for reading, and have a great week.