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Five Ideas that Could Change Downtown / Midtown Even More

I want to explore a few ideas and thoughts that might help draw more foot traffic downtown in midtown. Some of them could be implemented with relatively little funding.

We have quite a few groups downtown whose primary purpose for existence is to serve the interests of each group’s members. These include the California Avenue Merchant’s Association, the Riverwalk Merchant’s Association, the Midtown Merchant’s Association, the Wells Avenue Merchant Association, and the Regional Alliance for Downtown. These cliques are generally a good thing; they allow merchants to band together for certain events/promotions/marketing expenses that benefit everyone involved in the immediate area, events each business could not afford to market on their own. In Reno’s case, some of these districts are attached to one another and when you look at a map of Reno/Sparks in its entirety, all of the districts mentioned above represent a tiny swath of the grand sprawl that this valley has become. Downtown LA’s 64 square blocks could easily fit within it all of the businesses associations located in the center of Reno. My point is, with all of these groups being in such close vicinity, it would be cool to see them work together on some marketing efforts, instead of being noticeably disconnected from one another, which brings me to idea #1.

IDEA #1: A Global coupon code spanning across all merchant associations.

Typically winter is a slower period for most of Reno, and particularly downtown. Few people lounge around the Truckee River when the air temp is 36 degrees, so winter would be the perfect time to try out an idea that has had great success in downtown Los Angeles. The businesses in downtown Los Angeles’ various sub-districts (Figueroa Corridor, Bunker Hill, Fashion District, Little Tokyo)  implemented the idea of banding together for a universal promotion during this summer. When you typed in or mentioned the universal code ‘Endless Summer’ at certain locales or web sites, you would get a steep discount. The discounts included rooms at the campy-chic  Standard Hotel for $149 (normally $250 or more), and 20% discounts at certain restaurants, or free dessert with an entrée at other restaurants, or 50% of self-serve pet grooming. You get the idea. The beauty of the promotion, and why it was so successful, is that it transcended the self-serving interests of the smaller merchant groups located within downtown LA and gave locals who might normally avoid downtown a way to have a semi-extravagant evening out on the cheap. The deals were designed to mix, match and stack them up, such as a reduced rate at the Standard then a special offer on a show downtown and free dessert at a certain restaurant with any entrée purchase, all in one night. You could pick and choose as many participants of the promotion as you like, and line them up for a cheap evening out. Imagine the success Midtown, Cal Ave, the downtown casinos, and the Riverwalk District would have by banding together for a universal promotion during the winter! A simple code people use to get discount tickets at the Pioneer, or discount movie tickets or free popcorn with purchase of movie ticket, or reduced room rate at a downtown hotel, or 10% off at any of the clothing stores in Midtown could do wonders.

IDEA #2: Sierra Spirit Route Expansion.

My second idea also involves bridging gaps. I’d like to see an exploration/study done for expanding the Sierra Spirit to travel south down South Virginia Street to where Center Street meets Virginia, then travel north on Center Street back up to Liberty, then west back to Virginia Street and north again to the University of Nevada Reno. Even if it meant the route would/could no longer be free, or at a reduced fare, I can see a benefit to having a route connecting all of downtown and Midtown without having to transfer buses. There are a lot of midtown/old southwest/West of Wells residents who frequent the University for concerts, studies and classes. There are a lot of Midtown businesses geared toward college-student-budgets including Plato’s Closet, Junkee, and the Hub. It would also open up the midtown corridor to tourists who might be interested in shopping at the many unique boutique fashion stores in Midtown but don’t want to bother with walking over to the transit station. The route could use the existing RAPID stations, since they’re quite stunning for bus stops.

IDEA #3: Midtown Fashion Mecca

Speaking of Midtown, have you noticed the number of incredibly unique clothing stores that now line South Virginia Street? Plato’s Closet, Clothes Mentor, Junkee, BL City Tastemakers, Dressed Like That, Melting Pot World Emporium, Polyester’s Costume Boutique, Penny’s Midtown Merchantile, Chocolate Walrus, Never Ender, Classic Skate Shop, Twisted Minds, the list goes on and on. The options are so wide ranging and unique that in my opinion, it’s now one of the best shopping corridors in the city, yet I feel that beyond the twice-yearly midtown Art Walk, the neighborhood is failing to capitalize on the amazing gems hidden within it. The possibilities for marketing could include fashion shows that involve all the businesses, or universal week-long sales that include all the businesses, or bumping up the frequency of the Art Walks. I feel that when you give a shopper a reason to visit more than just one store, there’s a higher chance of them hitting up the entire neighborhood. Would you rather go to the mall when one store is having a sale, or go to the mall when multiple stores you frequent are having sales? Exactly.  It’s something for the Midtown Merchants Assoc to consider, if they haven’t already.

IDEA #4: Central Perk

“Oh I never venture north of 1st Street.” If I had a dime for every time a local told me that, I would be quite wealthy. One reason locals rarely venture north is there isn’t a lot to capture their attention during the day. At night we have the Knit, and the Events Center and Silver Legacy for concerts, and some great bars like 3rd Street and Rise. What about daytime activities? Well there’s CommRow if you enjoy rock climbing. With the Montage filling up (50% sold and 15 units in contract in August), and CommRow renovating the Old Reno Casino and surrounding buildings, it’s time to take a serious look at the concrete slabs of nothingness known as the ReTRAC trench covers. It’s great they provide extra event space for the Italian Festival and Blues and Brews Festival, but the rest of the year it looks like crap…completely flat covers with exhaust vents sticking upward.
Converting this strip  into a park with a mini-amphitheater, shade trees, space for street performers/vendors, and a couple of permanent structure would make all the difference in the world by connecting the entertainment district and the emerging residential ‘hood south of the tracks with a lush park-like setting. Heck even throw in a large Ferris wheel  or double-decker carousal on one of the sections for good measure, and you have the first communal outdoor space north of the river, and a cool park for future Apple-ites to hang at during their lunch break. It’s not a new vision for the space; the city’s early concept art for the covers and developer Fernando Leal’s now-shelved plans were very similar. Of course, the downside to this idea is it costs money. The City shouldn’t pay for it, nor do they have the money to, so it would be nice to see ST Residential, CommRow, Eldorado, and future owners of the Kings Inn Property (haha!) band together to pay for it. At the very least it should be at the top of the City’s ‘priority projects’ list. One can dream right?

IDEA #5: Close Virginia Street Permanently

If you want to invoke a plethora of opinions flying at you like fastballs, mentioned the idea of closing Virginia Street off permanently downtown. In an unofficial poll on Downtownmakeover a couple years back, more people were for the idea than against. Coming from a city where it’s not uncommon to find certain city blocks permanently closed off, including the newly completed civic park in downtown Los Angeles or the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, it doesn’t seem like a big deal to me to permanently close off Virginia to vehicles from 2nd Street to 4th Street. In thinking of the logistics, 2nd Street would need to stay open to east-west traffic, as would 1st Street in front of City Hall. In between 2nd and 4th Streets however, there are just a couple seldom-used cross-streets such as Plaza/Commercial Row. The Santa Crawl, Blues and Brews, Italian Festival, Hot August Nights, New Year’s Eve, MotoCross, and several other events include a Virginia Street closure. Imagine the cost-savings to event organizers if they didn’t have to pay for the street closure each time, and imagine the increased number of events that might be held in a section of downtown that really needs some help in terms of foot traffic. CommRow could throw DJ parties in the street with the djs up on the second-floor deck, much like during the Santa Crawl. Harrah’s could extend their Concerts on the Plaza series into the streets. The Knit could do an outdoor concert series, Today-Show-style. With Sierra Street and Center Street being able to handle north-south traffic during Hot August Nights while Virginia Street is closed, even with thousands of extra cars and tourists in town, I don’t see why it couldn’t happen permanently, with Virginia Street converted into a Third Street Promenade/Fremont Street experience, possibly even with a canopy or shade structures over the street. Come on, if much larger cities can do it, we can too.

So there you have it! Sometimes the simplest ideas can completely change how an area/neighborhood is utilized.



Post your comments
Posted by: Ken - 9/13/2012 10:11:36 AM
Great suggestions, all of them. There are some technical reasons why extending the Sierra Spirit as you describe wouldn't be a slam dunk, but the time has really come to close off Virginia Street to cars and make the trench covers into a nice parklike space. Of course I'm of the mind that the trench should be covered and a park from Keystone to the ballpark. In the short term, better using what we already have would do a lot.

Posted by: Mike M - 9/13/2012 10:23:43 AM
Step 1: Merge all of the governments of Washoe County. Too many people are doing too much harm in these little kingdoms, including coming up with stupid rules not to conduct business in the area. Step 2: Re-organization of the RSCVA. Sell all of its assets downtown to people who will actually do productive things with them. Repay all of its obligations to the extent of receipts. Step 3: Fire everyone in the RSCVA except for its technology department. Merge them with the newly merged county government. Put Mike in charge & build the best online presence in the US. Step 4: Take $20 million remaining RSCVA budget & set up 40 $500,000 grants representing all but 12 weeks of the year (Nevada home football games, NYE, etc). Give grants to existing successful events like Safari Club, River Fest, BOTHW rib cook off, Italian Fest, HAN, Street Vibes, Santa Crawl, Zombie Crawl to expand their events to week-long destination events. Give a bunch of new grants to existing successful events elsewhere or to other promoters for weeks that are open in the calendar to create new destination events.

Posted by: Chris - 9/13/2012 10:26:23 AM
I think the Virginia street closure idea would be a tremendous boon to downtown Reno.

Posted by: D. Brian - 9/13/2012 10:45:47 AM
I like the idea of integrating ideas 4 and 5 to completely change the character of downtown, create an opportunity for "community," and emphasize the reason most people visit and live here: the great outdoors.

Posted by: Anakin-Marc - 9/13/2012 11:16:33 AM
A serious study on closing Virginia Street *needs* to be done! Research needs to be done regarding effects on parking, traffic, business visibility, and various other factors. Considering the already frequent closures of Virginia, during major events, we already know the traffic implications, and and see that the surrounding roads can handle the added traffic. Regarding parking, AFAIK, there is none on Virginia between First and Fifth (with the exception of a motel and a pawn shop). This leaves business visibility, a slightly more complicated issue. Closing Virginia Street will eliminate practically all visibility of area businesses to vehicular traffic. However, with practically all parking located off Virginia, even those with a final destination on Virginia still have to get there by foot. Additionally, the vast number of visitors to Downtown will at one point walk across or along Virginia at some point. By converting Virginia into a dedicated pedestrian mall, more of that pedestrian traffic can be attracted and and kept on Virginia Street for a longer period, dramatically increasing the exposure of area businesses. Unfortunately, we still do have the issue of locals who refuse to set foot in downtown except when absolutely necessary. New businesses would lose exposure to them (though any exposure to individuals with that mindset is still as good as no exposure). We as a city need to win these individuals back by intelligently reinventing ourselves. If we can win these individuals back, we can win our local economy back.

Posted by: Lucas - 9/13/2012 11:24:32 AM
Idea #5 is the most important on this list. Closure of Virginia St. to vehicle traffic would be a huge benefit for downtown Reno. Repave the streets with pedestrian-friendly stone, add some bike lanes and Voila! A part of downtown locales might actually utilize. Once the UNR - Meadowood light rail gets built (which I think will actually happen eventually) it'll make downtown a very retail-friendly environment. (And get the casinos to open up their exterior blank facades with more windows...people have cell phones and are always aware of the time...trying to keep gamblers unaware of the time of day doesn't work anymore)

Posted by: Susan Burns - 9/13/2012 11:39:12 AM
Before the budget cuts, I utilized Sierra Spirit when it went to the Nevada Museum of Art. It was wonderful. Making the Spirit a paid bus would be great because then all the homeless who abuse the bus during the summer and winter would not be on there. On the last Saturday of Hot August Nights, we were walking down Virginia and talked about how nice it would be if it was shut down. The way it is laid out is perfect. If the street was closed, many of the vacant store fronts could have unique stores. And outdoor dining, that would be so cool. Great Ideas!!!

Posted by: Kathleen Becker - 9/13/2012 12:05:44 PM
I was Downtown yesterday, and could not wait to get out. Virginia Street needs to be closed off, and once I hit Midtown, there was a completely different energy. It was brighter, cleaner and more urban. If that can be brought to downtown, it would completely change the view.

Posted by: Reno eNVy - 9/13/2012 12:39:34 PM
Spot on! I especailly like the idea of closing Virginia St and extending the Sierra Spirt to Center and Virginia.

Posted by: DJ - 9/13/2012 1:16:00 PM
The Reno News & Review proposed an idea similar to number 5 back in July, though they want to close Virginia from 6th to the River, leave 2nd, 4th, and 6th open as cross streets, and turn Sierra and Center into two-way streets. I think that either way could work, but I agree that the combination of revamping the train trench cover and closing Virginia could really help change downtown for the better. For Number 2, I'm not sure how all that would work. It's great to have a free bus connecting downtown and the campus, I take it to class every day. I understand that the service as it exists now is just barely hanging on due to cuts and the poor economy. Would adding a fare (even reduced, possibly?) and extending the route pay for itself, or would the ridership decrease too much to be viable? Service would have to be expanded as well- there are normally only 1 or 2 buses running that route at a time, and service would slow considerably if you add over a mile to the route. I think that connecting Midtown to Downtown and the University is a great idea though, whether its accomplished via the Sierra Spirit or an entirely new bus route. Here's the (rather strident) RN&R editorial on closing Virginia Street: http://www.newsreview.com/reno/one-vision-for-downtown/content?oid=6773137

Posted by: wile_n-reno - 9/13/2012 2:33:17 PM
Good points all in this article! They could do a "trial closure" of B. Virginia street downtown? Maybe beginning next March through June? Between 4th and 2nd Steets. But Center St. (N) and Sierra St. (S) would have to be widened a bit to pick up the additional cars. And they'd need something more for the pedestrians to more easily cross each street.

Posted by: doofus - 9/13/2012 6:19:07 PM
I’m always skeptical of closing street for pedestrians. I saw what happened when they tried that with State Street (that great street) in Chicago. But I think the concept would work here – we are already used to NVA being closed at least 25% of the time. And we could finance it all by not having to build a $40M Virginia Street bridge replacement! Commercial Row would need to cross NVA or the hotel wouldn’t have access to their parking garage. Problems – Virginia Street is also Business Route US 395 (federal) and NV Route 430 (state). It is really tough to get those ROWs abandoned. But not impossible. And anything that would end the sophomoric territorial bickering among the MidTown Merchants would be welcome!

Posted by: Blake Crosby - 9/14/2012 10:22:48 AM
I like 5. They also did this in Denver, Santa Monica, and Times Square. The argument from one person that "Closing Virginia Street will eliminate practically all visibility of area businesses to vehicular traffic" my counterargument is WHAT BUSINESS? Every other store on Virginia downtown is vacant. LOL. Plus, I don't think many businesses in Times Square are complaining that cars can't see them. Don't forget downtown Vegas. This idea, however, will never happen. Why? Because we're Reno. If it cost $700 million to close Virginia to pedestrian traffic, perhaps the RSCVA would finance it and do it, but since it would barely cost anything and improve downtown Reno, the City of Reno will never support it and it will never happen. And yes, I agree with the opinion that the RSCVA should be dismantled. Midtown happened without them and corporate/developer greed tax revenue redistribution STAR schemes and bonds. RSCVA stands for Reno Socialist Corporate Venture Alliance.

Posted by: Uncle Tom - 9/15/2012 8:53:17 AM
Converting an historical access route like Virginia Street to a pedestrian-only walking mall is not an automatic game-changer. People will then need to be able to get to a handy parking spot from other streets, then park and access the mall conveniently in order to walk along the mall. It also would end the drive-through experience, which lends itself to impulse stopping at one of several hotel-casino parking facilities already accessible from along the street, to patronize the street-front businesses. For what it's worth, I don't go to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, too much hassle to park in the few always-crowded structures, then get out and walk down the street--which doesn't offer much in my opinion after you get there. It has created a venue for street performance artists, people asking for hand-outs, people passing out flyers, teens and young adults just hanging out, and in short, I feel the negatives of it have outweighed whatever good values are perceived to come from it. That's just my opinion, others may like to loiter around in that kind of environment. But to have an economic impact on the community, I submit that the goal should be to attract people who will spend significant money, rather than a large number of youths and young adult locals who unfortunately don't have significant discretionary spending money. Crowds of people don't solve anything, they just create the need for more public services, policing, public restrooms, santitation and clean-up expense, and new parking facilities. The answer is to draw the "right kind" of people, not just attracting crowds of people walking around enjoying the sights and sounds. I suggest instead the creation of local business-funded resources to eradicate the pawn shops, and to clean-up and subsidize rentals of empty buildings to users whose goods and services would be compatible with a visitor-friendly community.

Posted by: Uncle Tom - 9/15/2012 9:37:40 AM
Following up on my above comment, while the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica works well in that city, my point is that this doesn't necessarily mean that such a concept would transfer as well to downtown Reno. Santa Monica has a mix of neighboring upscale demographics, and those locals attracted to the pedestrian mall there would typically reflect those economics. The mall is nicely done and is attractive, and even though I don't go there, many others obviously do. I believe that of those visitors, there is more likely than not, a significant proportion who are from affluent surrounding neighborhoods, and that demographic is likely not similarly present in material numbers in Reno. So what seems to work well in Santa Monica, won't automatically work in Reno.

Posted by: Scott - 9/15/2012 1:27:07 PM
Having lived in the Boulder-Denver coridor I love the idea of closing Virginia and turning it into a mall. Boulder's Pearl Street and Denver's 16th Street are great and I think the idea would work well with the casinos and other venues.

Posted by: wiley_n_reno - 9/17/2012 3:56:21 PM
fyi, your PCL champion Reno Aces are in the national AAA Championship game which will be on the NBC Sports network Tuesday evening at 4 PM. It's a 1 game championship vs. the Pawtucket Red Sox. Game will be played in Durham, NC.

Posted by: Wiley_n_Reno - 9/18/2012 8:21:42 PM
Reno Aces win Triple-A national title Reno Aces defeat Pawtucket 10-3 to become Triple-A national champs. so the team that didn't even exist 4 years ago is the top dog this year of 32 AAA teams. Should we all be ashamed? Oh gosh golly!!

Posted by: Steve Watts - 9/19/2012 8:15:10 AM
allright! Maybe they're pay their taxes now...

Posted by: Andrew - 9/21/2012 11:08:33 AM
+1 for closing Virginia. A good place to look for how this would turn out is to look at the old centers of European cities. At one time or another they were open to cars. Only in the last few decades have the majority become closed off to cars. Here is Seville's where they share the space w/light rail http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSzPbx6LDrE . This is a good proxy for Virginia St w/ our light rail plans.

Posted by: canine - 9/24/2012 7:45:46 PM
+1 on sprinkling fairy dust on North Virginia Street and magically turning it into a retail hub. Not gonna happen. Virginia Street Mall? Not gonna happen. Get politically real, posters.

Posted by: Reno Fan - 9/26/2012 10:16:23 PM
Love the #5. As a long time visitor to Reno I still remember the corridor of Casinos and bars from the RR tracks to the river. Now I know gaming may not be the draw it used to but I still believe Reno can be a destination point. As stated in earlier comments, look at Denver downtown, Boulder area and down town Austin as examples. Downtown could easily have that same vibe...and have gaming as a compliment. Look at Mid-Town. I planning my third visit this year, and I have to admit I closest I have gotten to Downtown was the Old Granite Street Eatery. Clean it up and they will come....but for God Sake, don't put a giant canopy over it like Fremont street.

Posted by: Mike c. - 12/17/2012 3:41:57 PM
It looks like #5 is priority. Making Virginia Street in the downtown core a walkable year-round pedestrian area is by far the best idea. It is fairly simple and inexpensive to implement, and could lead to further redevelopment from private businesses and storefronts from the added foot traffic. How do we get the ball rolling on this? How can I help with this?


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