What’s the Future of Virginia Street?
An “Urban Placemaking Study” would seek to define a “unified vision” in six months
Believe it or not, it’s almost time for another Reno City Council meeting, coming up this Wednesday, September 8. You can view the complete agenda and materials here. There are two items (E.1 & E.2) that propose to amend the City’s Redevelopment Plan, but first I want to talk about some potential plans for Virginia Street.
The Virginia Street Urban Placemaking Study
In my last Brief, I mentioned that the RTC Washoe Board had approved funding half of a $150,000 “Virginia Street Urban Placemaking Study” to be conducted by a consultant hired by the City of Reno. The item will be in front of City Council for approval this week (it’s item D.1), and now that I’ve had more of a chance to look at it, I have a lot of questions, because it’s a lot more ambitious—and more potentially fraught—than it might initially appear.
What would this study encompass?
In short: a lot. I’m not sure who wrote the proposed scope, but as someone who studies urban form and function, I can tell you that it is massive. I strongly encourage everyone to read the entire document here, but City staff provides a succinct overview in their report:
Just take a look at some of the tasks the consultant would be undertaking:
Review and synthesize at least ten different downtown studies and plans, including the City of Reno Master Plan, the Downtown Action Plan completed by PUMA Associates, the Virginia Street Transit Corridor Urban Land Institute Study, UNR's Campus Master Plan, and more
Identify design characteristics and streetscape elements for Virginia Street, including an inventory of such features as sidewalk characteristics, street furniture, art, historic and iconic features, building facades, landscaping, parking, building access, and lighting
Work with City and RTC staff to identify both existing and planned transportation connections/significant intersections along Virginia Street for various modes such as transit routes, bicycle facilities, and multi-use paths
Identify existing and planned land uses; develop an inventory of vacant or underutilized land in the corridor
Market analysis for growth of existing business and attraction of new businesses, destinations, and land uses
Explore how parks, plazas, and open space, such as City Plaza, CitiCenter Plaza, and West Street Plaza should be utilized or transformed to support the overall vision
Assess parking and loading zone inventory and needs
Facilitate development of a community-based vision for the future of Virginia Street in downtown, including “planning-level concepts and design alternatives”
Identify funding sources and prepare an implementation plan for short- and long-term improvements to the corridor
This is a pretty staggering directive, even more when you consider that the idea is to accomplish all of this in just six months, and it’s clarified elsewhere that the subject area is not just Virginia Street from Liberty to Ninth Streets, but Sierra to Lake Streets, too. If you want to get your bearings via Google Maps, click here.
Evaluation of options involving placemaking is always welcome, of course, but it’s the goal of formulating a “unified vision” for the corridor within six months that is giving me pause right now. What would constitute a “unified vision” of Virginia Street? A consensus? A simple majority? And among whom?
Whose “vision” are we talking about?
Whose opinion counts, when it comes to finalizing a vision for the most iconic stretch of Reno’s primary thoroughfare, its much-beleaguered downtown core? The term “placemaking” suggests that the study would put the public at the center, aiming to strengthen the sense of connection of people to place. But “placemaking” has become a popular buzzword lately, and it’s often invoked in ways that prioritize tourism or image-making over sustainability and equity. (Here’s a great article about that.)
In this case, the Scope of Work identifies the goal as a “community-based vision” and mentions “public and stakeholder input,” clarifying that stakeholders would be “identified by the City” and names a few of them, stating that “Business and resident stakeholders and interest groups (e.g., Downtown Reno Partnership, Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance, and University of Nevada Reno) must feel included and heard in the development of the vision.”
How the general public would be involved is not entirely clear, although it’s stated that “The Consultant shall identify community activities that provide potential opportunities to engage the public and solicit feedback on this study,” specifically mentioning “an informational video and online public survey.” Hmm.
Beyond the “who?” a major question is “why?” Among those seeming to question the latter (albeit indirectly) is the Downtown Reno Partnership’s Executive Director, Alex Stettinski. In an recent column for the Northern Nevada Business Weekly (“What’s Up Downtown: A vision for Downtown Reno – sooner or later”) he argued that previous plans have charted enough of a course for his organization of downtown property owners and others to follow. As he wrote, “The plans put forth by ULI and P.U.M.A. were meant to take a long time. There was no magic wand to wave to make it all happen at once,” and advised, “Instead of constantly getting new reports, let’s look at what has already been done and how we can implement the suggestions already made.”
One of the main impediments, in Stettinski’s view, is downtown property owners who fail to do anything productive with the vacant lots and buildings they own. On other fronts, the “remaking” of Virginia Street is already well underway, whether it’s with the ongoing renovation of Harrah’s into the Reno City Center between Second Street and Commercial Row, the opening of the Canyon Flats Apartments between Sixth and Seventh, or the Locomotion Plaza on the ReTRAC lid between Virginia and Sierra Streets. It’s not yet clear how much any of those ultimately will activate Virginia Street or strengthen its “sense of place,” but the area is hardly starting from scratch.
So who’s pushing for this study?
In the August 20 board meeting, the RTC’s Deputy Executive Director, Amy Cummings, explained that the precipitating factor was some public comments they received during the RTC’s Downtown Circulation Study that asked the RTC to take a closer look at Virginia Street and how various options for transportation including bicycle facilities could align with broader goals of activating downtown, including its public spaces. The comments, she said, also included many issues not covered by the purview of the RTC but by City policy, prompting the agency to reach out to the City to propose a jointly-funded study.
And who was the source of those public comments with the power to spur an entirely new study of Virginia Street? The RTC didn’t say, but the answer may be found in a recent Reno News & Review article titled “Center Street Cycle Track derailed?” where it’s revealed that the request for a larger reassessment of “transportation investments” along Virginia Street came in from one major downtown player: The ROW.
If the term isn’t familiar to you, The ROW is the name adopted by Caesars Entertainment (which merged with Eldorado Resorts in 2020 to reportedly create the largest casino and entertainment company in the U.S.) to describe the combined Eldorado, Silver Legacy, and Circus Circus resorts, which together cover seven entire City blocks in downtown Reno, including the four blocks that run along Virginia Street from Third to Seventh Streets. The ROW is marketed as “The City within a City,” comprising 25 restaurants, 23 bars and lounges, 11 nightspots, luxury spa, top name entertainment, and thousands of luxury rooms and suites.”
The RN&R article focuses mainly on just one of The ROW’s requests—that the RTC revisit their exhaustively researched 2019 decision to locate the protected two-way bike lanes through the City center along Center Street, creating what’s been called the “Center Street Cycle Track”—a plan that is already at the 30% design stage.
Instead, 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.
The Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance, under the rallying cry of “Save the Center Street Cycle Track,” is advocating that residents urge City Council to continue to support the Center Street Cycle Track and keep that plan moving along, encouraging residents to submit public comment on this item to that effect, as you can read here.
But I want to bring your attention back to that letter that The ROW sent to RTC Executive Director Bill Thomas, because it demonstrates that there’s a lot more at stake with this proposed Placemaking Study than the (very important) location of protected bike lanes.
The primary reason that Virginia Street was not selected for the bike lanes in the first place (what was called the street’s “fatal flaw”) was its regular closure due to special events like the Italian Festival or Street Vibrations. So how would The ROW propose overcoming that fatal flaw? That’s where their vision for Virginia Street becomes clear—and they’d need the City’s help to make it happen.
What does The ROW want for Virginia Street?
The ROW’s letter really needs to be read in its entirety (again, you can find it here), because I find it to be a completely unprecedented statement of The ROW’s vision for the future of the downtown core. What it contains are concise but sweeping requests to examine multiple aspects of the streetscape surrounding their resort properties, specifically requesting consideration by RTC of the following:
Revitalize and Activate Virginia Street between the Truckee River and University (they want streetscape and landscape improvements similar to Midtown)
Virginia Street Bus RAPID Transit Extension Project (this was mostly about moving the lateral route of the Virginia Street Bus RAPID Transit line to Fourth Street from its intended route along Sixth Street, which apparently happened since it runs down to Fourth Street now).
Bicycle Connectivity (putting the protected bike lanes on Virginia Street)
Parking (they want more. A LOT more—on-street parking, surface parking on lots across from the Silver Legacy, “one or more parking structures along 4th Street, including an underground parking structure on the block to the west of the National Bowling Stadium,” and more.)
Special Events (creating more outdoor space for them)
The section about streetscape improvements was truly illuminating. In short, The ROW really likes what happened in Midtown, and would like streetscape improvements in the downtown core. But they seem to have completely misunderstood how it actually worked in Midtown. Here’s what they wrote:
RTC’s recent project in Midtown demonstrates the transformative nature streetscape improvements can have on a neighborhood. Activating Virginia Street will also accelerate considerations by the ROW properties to open their buildings up to pedestrian activity on Virginia Street through sidewalk cafes, etc. Illustrations of conceptual examples are shown below.
Now, let’s look at that language again. It’s true that the improvements to Midtown’s streetscape—the lighting, widened sidewalks, and seating—have vastly improved the appearance and function of the district. But it wasn’t those improvements that “activated” Midtown—that activation steadily grew over the course of ten years, as dozens of independent restaurants, bars, retail, and services gradually opened in the area, drawing people to the district despite its narrow sidewalks, lack of tree cover, and other seeming impediments. The appeal, the neighborhood draw, and the subsequent foot traffic, came first, and was only enhanced—not created—by the streetscape improvements.
The ROW seems to be suggesting they should get those physical enhancements to the public right-of-way first (although Virginia Street’s sidewalks are already plenty wide with trees), and that if they do, they might be persuaded to consider “open[ing] their buildings up to pedestrian activity on Virginia Street through sidewalk cafes, etc.,” something many in the community have been begging them to do for years—and that they could do at any time, if they really wanted to.
But it’s the Special Events section of the letter from The ROW that tells us the most about how they would like to see the downtown core transformed. If you wonder how The ROW proposes to overcome the “fatal flaw” of the street closures that tanked Virginia Street’s chances of getting the cross-town bicycle route in the first place, here’s your answer: MORE SPECIAL EVENTS PLAZAS.
If downtown had more permanent plazas capable of housing special events, they argue, then the City wouldn’t have to close Virginia Street during those events, and bikes (and others) could freely cruise down Virginia Street at all times.
Where does The ROW want these new events plazas to go?
The map below depicts in purple the spaces that The ROW said they would like to see kept permanently open as surface parking/event areas. One of them—the lower one on this map—is the CitiCenter site, which (last the public heard) was supposed to become a sports-oriented hotel, the option that was selected by the City Council back in 2019 as reported here and fully described in the P3 proposal here. The Eldorado’s proposal for that site, which was not selected, had been a flexible space that could be used for either special events or “off-street public parking during weekdays.”
In their 2020 letter, The ROW proposed something a bit different: an underground parking structure and special events area resembling that in Union Square in San Francisco, which is pictured as a model. (Why The ROW can’t just underground one of their existing four massive parking structures remains unexplained).
So is the P3 proposal dead? The CitiCenter parcel is still owned by the City, according to the County Assessor, so is that part of what The ROW hopes to get from the City?
And there’s still more to The ROW’s vision. If you look back at that map above, the big purple square labeled “Underground Parking Structure/Special Events Area” extends all the way from Center to Virginia Street, between Fourth and Plaza Streets. So what’s there now? I’m glad you asked. Here’s a short video I took this weekend of the east side of Virginia Street from 5th Street southward to Plaza.
As you can see from the video, The ROW has already made some inroads to achieve their vision. They purchased several parcels on the block between 4th and Plaza, including the 1908 St. Alban’s Hotel, and had them demolished back in March 2020, as covered by Channel 2 here. At the time, a company spokesperson called the buildings “nuisances” that “need to be brought down” and stated that “After demolition, the location will be used for expanded events space, and to help improve the downtown image.” What’s left on that block is the St. Francis Hotel (the Piazzo Building, built by Chet and Link Piazzo’s father, Santino, in 1925) and to its south, Palace Jewelry & Loan. In The Row’s vision, both are toast—as is the entire block of historic commercial buildings between 4th and 5th Streets, including the Thunderbird Motel.
Plazas and Placemaking
Hotel casinos love big adjacent outdoor spaces. It’s one of the few things they can’t provide inside their massive edifices, where they strive to provide guests with everything they need. But sometimes only the outdoors will do, as Jacobs Entertainment realized when they cleared the Carriage Inn on West 4th Street to create their “Glow Plaza,” flanked by a sculpture of a Polar Bear and a cluster of new "tribute" neon signs meant to look vintage (yeah, only one of those nine signs on a stick is actually historic).
Big open plazas are great amid the bustling whirl of a special event or concert. But the rest of the time, they can be dead space, as I’ve written before about the City Plaza by the river. The ROW puts forward Union Square as a model for their vision of the CitiCenter site, without acknowledging that Union Square is completely surrounded by one of the most popular shopping and dining areas in the entire city of San Francisco, not by buildings that are themselves uninhabited the majority of the time.
Even the new Locomotion Plaza may look lovely, with a vibrant mural and planted beds of trees and flowers, but there is nowhere to sit, to enjoy the art and flowers. There’s no shade over the plaza, which will soon be fully fenced to enable its closure at certain hours. It may look a lot prettier than the blank slab it used to be, but that’s not activation; it’s decoration. And there’s a big difference.
Would this Placemaking Study help The ROW get their desired “do-over,” to have the protected bike lanes moved to Virginia Street and the CitiCenter site turned into an events plaza with underground parking? I can’t presume to say. But I do know that what ails downtown Virginia Street won’t be fixed by adding a protected cycle track and knocking down more historic structures to create yet more open space. You can click here to watch my video of the entire stretch of Virginia Street from Liberty Street to Ninth Street—I filmed the west side heading north, and the east side heading south—and decide for yourself what (if anything) you’d like the City to do about it, then consider sending in your public comment to City Council (again, it’s item D.1).
True and equitable placemaking happens when people from all walks of life feel welcome and secure in a place they care about. As fewer and fewer of the non-affluent are able to live in Reno’s downtown core, as people of any background are discouraged even from sitting in spaces touted as public amenities, I think we need to take a good hard look at who we’re making those places for—and who’s being left out in the cold.
Amending Reno’s Redevelopment Plan
Two items on Wednesday’s agenda would amend the City’s Redevelopment Plan in order “to facilitate payment of existing debt”: Item E. 1 would extend the plan for the Downtown Project Area (RDA 1) an additional 15 years to 2043 and item E. 2 would amend the plan for Redevelopment Area Project No. 2 (RDA 2) to authorize the use of tax increment to make a short-term “interfund loan” to RDA 1.
City staff described this as a purely financial move (as you can watch here). But Councilmember Jenny Brekhus is not so sure, as she just wrote in her free newsletter, which you can read here. One of her concerns is that the resolution explicitly states and defends the fact that the Agency did not send notice of the amendment to any property owners in the Downtown Project Area. I suggest giving it a read.
As always, you can view my previous e-newsletters, with more context, analysis, and tips, on my Substack site. Thanks for reading and have a great week!