RAAB Notes

Potential Sale of Portion of West Street Plaza to Siegel Group

Tuesday's Redevelopment Agency Advisory Board meeting was intense to say the least, particularly for Siegel Group, a real estate management company originally out of Vegas that owns the El Cortez, Virginian, Truckee Lane Building, Nevadan, and Senator properties downtown and Siegel Suites located in Sparks. The first item on the agenda consumed over an hour of the meeting. If it wasn't an hour, it sure felt like an hour.

This agenda item is regarding the sale or lease of West Street Plaza to Siegel Group. West Street Plaza is the circular plaza located at the south end of West Street, next to the Truckee Lane building that houses the Jungle and Sierra Tap House. Originally, the plan was to take over the entire plaza in some form, then also rehab the micro-park to the west of the Truckee Lane building as well.

Today, Siegel Group presented a scaled down plan, which only involved the east side of the building, and a 2500 square foot strip of land next to the building. Currently, 1,200 square feet of this area (the Jungle patio)  is leased to the Jungle by both the City of Reno and the Redevelopment Agency. From what I understood in the meeting, the Redevelopment Agency owns the Jungle patio area and the City of Reno owns the rest. Siegel Group would like to purcahse the entre 2,500 s.f. strip.

Siegel has now abandoned the idea of leasing all of West Street Plaza and the park to the west of the building, and is instead proposing purchasing only a 2,500 square foot strip of land adjacent to the building, that would allow them to make the demonstration garden area of the plaza the same elevation/grade as the plaza itself, opening up the east side of the building. The ramp access would remain the same, as would the larger staircase accessing the plaza on the west side.

If the piece of property is sold to Siegel, there would be not-yet-decided obligations from Siegel they would need to fulfill, or else the city could confiscate the property.  Also, there is bond protection with the proposed sale, so if Siegel bails midway through construction, the bond would pay for restoration of West Street Plaza back to its original state, or at least a finished state.

After the brief presentation, the floor was opened up for public comment.

Some pretty big movers and shakers showed up to oppose the sale of the property, including Tim Carter of midtown-development fame, and Eric Raydon and Roberta Ross from the Regional Alliance for Downtown. Eric Raydon is also one of the Marmot Properties brothers.

Tim Carter was opposed to the sale, and wasn't  happy that it's a land sale to Siegel and not a ground lease, because technically it's public land currently and now will become property of Siegel.

Jim Galloway, downtown resident and homeowners association president,  isn't happy that most of the garden will be removed for patio seating next to the building, and would like to see more greenery incorporated into the project.

Roberta Ross, owner of Ross Manor, piped in isn't happy about the fence built around Sierra tap house but Siegel says that's not their deal, Sierra tap house went directly to the city for the permit. The end result of this side discussion, is Alex Woodley will look at taking the fence back toward the building a bit, by maybe 2 feet, to eliminate the bottleneck of riverwalk traffic.

That's when council member Neoma Jardon sneaked into the meeting to listen in on the discussion.

Dick (Barthelet I think?) from RAD commented Siegel should do what they already said they were going to do with the Senator and El Cortez, before the city considers selling them the land, and that they should be judged on performance of all their projects not just this one.

Eric Raydon from RAD commented that he doesn't see anything in Siegel's plans to mitigate vagrant issues already plaguing West Street Plaza. Raydon then layed out concerns over the over-arching "Siegel model", though that model doesn't directly apply to the Truckee Lane building, and stated they (Regional Alliance for Downtown) have received reports of poor living quality at the Senator on 2nd and West Street, and the Siegel Suites in Sparks. He mentioned the complaints include "Crime, theft, prostitution and bed bug infestations." He concluded by saying the Regional Alliance for Downtown, an influential collection of businesses downtown that includes all casinos operating downtown, opposes the sale until problems at Senator and Siegel Suites in Sparks are fixed.

Councilwoman Neoma Jardon piped in, and asked for the differences in the projects between Truckee lane and Siegel Suites in Sparks. Siegle responded by saying the apartments at Truckee Lane are true apartments that will be renovated into class A apartments with an average of 1200 square feet per unit. The units in Sparks are typical motel-room size at around 500 square feet. She then mentioned, for the City of Reno to turn a blind eye to what is happening with their property in Sparks would be a disservice, and mentioned she and other council members are geting reports directly from the Sparks Mayor regarding Siegel's property. She then fired a warning shot across Siegel's bow, mentioning when they present this sale agreement proposal to the City Council, be prepared to answer numerous questions on security.

Roberta Ross piped in and told Siegel their two downtown properties, El Cortez and Senator, are two of the worst offenders downtown, and offered her assistance because she has years of experience running a weekly and successfully converting a weekly into a respectable apartment project.

It then came back to the table for discussion. In short, none of the RAAB members were comfortable selling a piece of riverfront property, regardless of who the prospective buyer is, to a private party. Mike Steadman said he felt the sale of the land should only be based on this deal, and not other properties of Siegel that are all of a block away, nor their performance history. He liked their plan, but still was opposed to actually selling the land.

The final recommendation that was voted on, though slightly confusing, was, they like the preliminary plan but want more landscaping, and to not sell the riverfront property, not to approve the sale, look for an alternative means to come to terms with Siegel, perhaps a land lease, and to look at the past history and performance issues of this company before considering any agreement.

RTC Downtown Transit Update

RTC has 20+ routes that come out of the 4th Street Transit Center. RTC is engaging in a short range transit plan project that will be looking at how routes operate downtown, and how only Sierra Spirit serves downtown but the other routes skip downtown to head out to their route starting points before reaching a bus stop.

To create a fluid transportation corridor through downtown, when they extend Rapid to the university, RTC may create an "A" and "B" version of the RAPID route. One route would stop at the Transit Center on 4th on its way to UNR, to allow bus riders to transfer to other routes if need be, and other route would skip the Transit Center entirely and travel right up Virginia Street to the UNR.

When this is accomplished, the thinking is Sierra Spirit would no longer be necessary for UNR. Sierra Spirit could then be shifted south to serve downtown and midtown. This will all be open for public input before any changes are finalized.

RTC would prefer, if budget allows, for downtown circulators like Sierra Spirit to be free. When they started charging .25 cents for Sierra Spirit, they noticed ridership dropped significantly.

Concerns about bike lanes arose, and RTC is identifying alternative corridors through downtown for bike lanes other than Virginia street, including Sierra and Center Streets as options.

There was a productive discussion about the necessity of connecting the UNR's 25,000-student body with Midtown's eclectic shopping and dining corridor, and also providing residents of Midtown and beyond easy access to the university's numerous events, concerts, games and amenities like Lawlor and Fleischmann Planetarium. Everyone agreed this was important, and it will be interesting to see what the next steps will be.

Many of my neighbors in the West of Wells Conservation District regularly attend UNR events and concerts. Unless we drive, we have no easy way via transit to get to UNR, as Sierra Spirit is limiting in both route and hours of operation. It would awesome to pop over two blocks to Virginia Street, take the RAPID direct route and be at UNR in 10 minutes, and not have to worry about parking. It would extend the reach of off-campus college students as well.

Parking Standards for Downtown

This was simply a recap by Claudia on how downtown bars and restaurants have no minimum parking standards, and there's reduced standards for office and residential downtown, and how parking can be within 1000 feet of the building (i.e. how some businesses lease spaces at the parking garage downtown.)

This of course shifted to discussing parking in Midtown, as it always does, which wasn't really the agenda item, and Naomi explained how RTC opted to retain as much on-street parking for businesses in Midtown's narrower corridor as possible, rather than opt for bike lanes, and they have identified additional side-street parking for 50% of the parking spots that would be lost with the current plan.

New Standards for Motels

Alex Woodley stepped up to handle this agenda item. He said based on the new blight initiative they are looking at several ways to approach weekly motels, or what he referred to as 'long-range stay motels.' It just so happens that most of these motels are downtown.

Instead of conducting International Housing Code inspections only when a complaint or several complaints arise, the city would conduct annual inspections of all long range stay motels. He then said there are more ideas, but that he doesn't like to present them to the public until he memos the city council about it first...and that he should have a full presentation to the council by January.

A lively discussion then arose about weekly motels, and affordable housing in general. The discussion was mostly driven by public commenters.

Neoma Jardon said the city council recognizes there is a lack of affordable housing throughout the city, and mentioned Salt Lake City as a model for dispersing services for low income and homeless people, rather than centralizing everything.

Usually-quiet-me piped up and mentioned that re-adapting motels into apartments with kitchens would help break the endless cycle of weekly-motel residents have to buy food daily due to lack of storage, and usually are limited in nutrition simply due to having no kitchen. I cited Silver Chaparral in Midtown and the Executive Inn/Sierra Vista Tower on the corner of Sierra and Court as examples of weekly motels-gone-apartments. You can't just evict them, or else they will become homeless, and then be part of that problem and cycle. You can't demolish all weekly motels, because then they will become homeless and have nowhere to go. It's expensive to rent an apartment, usually requiring first and last month's rent and a deposit, and a credit check, something most weekly renters do not have, or else they wouldn't be in a weekly. Weeklies aren't cheap, and rent rates are rising, often reaching the equivalent of $700 a month for a tiny room with no kitchen, and often due to fire codes, no hot plate.

Neoma Jardon agreed, and added that most weekly motels are already on transit lines.

Roberta Ross mentioned that a property owner has to have a really good heart to convert to apartments, because they would lose tens of thousands of dollars in rent revenue by eliminating units to create space for kitchens, even if they charge a bit more because the units are bigger, it doesn't pencil out. She also mentioned it was super expensive to do, because of the plumbing and electrical involved.

Neoma countered that it's also expensive to build affordable housing from the ground-up.

This is exactly why Siegel Group applying the Siegel Suites model to the Virginian and Nevadan downtown is not in the best interest of downtown Reno. Here's a chance to actually IMPROVE a primary corridor downtown. A direct plea to Siegel Group, please do not turn the Virginian and Nevadan into the Senator Hotel, where most residents are caught in an endless cycle of buying overpriced mini-mart food, paying way-too-high of rent for a motel room with less amenities than a studio apartment that rents for $550 a month in south Reno, and generally takes advantage of those who are practically homeless, simply because they have bad credit or can't afford to save to move into an apartment.  Low-income renters should have affordable housing that includes basic amenities like a kitchen.

The meeting quickly wrapped up after that...it was 5 pm and people were getting antsy and grumpy.