Preserving History: The Responsible Way to Redevelop UNR's Gateway District

by Mike Van Houten / Feb 3, 2016

The last large grouping of Victorian-era homes in Reno happens to lie in the path of the City of Reno and UNR's proposed Gateway District. Is it worth it to destroy a critical piece of downtown's past to build up? 

Tonight, the Reno Planning Commission will meet and discuss a master plan amendment to the UNRC plan to create the Gateway District south of the university and north of downtown. The area generally encompasses the area of Virginia Street, Center Street, Lake Street, and 8th and 9th Streets. 

Map of the proposed UNR Gateway District

Many people are surprised to learn that Reno was not founded in the 1900's. It was settled in the early 1850's and finally became Reno in 1868. In Reno's early days, gorgeous Victorian-style homes lined nearly every residential street in Reno. These homes represent Reno's earliest days. 

Let's take a look at the history of some of these homes, and their connection to the University of Nevada Reno. 

821 North Center Street - Galen and Joanne de Longchamps once owned this home, and she was a poet, publishing seven books of poetry and was also a professor at the University of Nevada Reno. Her husband Galen was the adopted son of renowned local architect Federic DeLongchamps.

847 North Center - This is the Mary Sherman House, both on the State and City Historic Registers. After a brief stint as a residential property it became the Reno Unity Center. Residents often were employees of the University as well.

127 East 8th Street - One of the most beautiful examples of Asian-influenced Craftsman style architecture in Reno. It was continuously occupied by the same family for 90 years. The owner, Frank Humphrey, operated a stage coach line, and his daughter won many accolades for her teaching service in Reno public schools. 

829 Lake Street - Longtime home of Olla Mack. Her husband, Winfred, also worked for the University of Nevada Reno and became the Nevada State Veterinarian. 

On Center Street, between 8th and 9th Streets, sits a beautiful row of Victorian homes built in the late 1800's and early 1900's. 

The University of Nevada Reno already owns most of these properties. The ones they don't own, they will soon own. 

When you review the University Gateway Plan, you'll find that the plan/concept for this very block is this:

The concept calls for the closure of Center Street, turning it into a pedestrian-friendly zone, and building up dense retail and commercial that supports UNR's growing student population. 

There's also another grouping of Victorian-style homes on Lake Street. 

So what's my concern? 

1. Because UNR is a state entity, their permitting and demolition permits are not subject to City of Reno review. Also, UNR is not subject to local permitting regulations. 

2. The Historical Resources Commission, a generally powerless government board that is basically limited to recommending and reviewing projects, only recently had the chance to insert verbiage into the proposed plan regarding historic preservation, a small paragraph in the plan that reads "Historic characteristics should be respected and maintained when possible and new development should demonstrate an effort to retain historic character throughout the city." Pretty generic and bland, but it does go into some elaboration: 
"During public outreach, several citizens have expressed concern of historical resources in the area that may warrant special consideration. Of particular relevance are homes along Center and Lake identified within the University Campus Gateway Precinct." The verbiage mentions the Mary Sherman House among the homes in question, which is listed on the State Historical Register and features a city-designated historic overlay zone. This verbiage was only added to the most recent version of the plan...listed under 'Other Governing Bodies' comments. 

Did you know to be on the HRC, you actually have to have a degree, with the exception of one person who has to have historic preservation experience? It's a blue-ribbon panel. It seems sometimes like the HRC exists only as a requirement for the City of Reno to be a certified government entity. The HRC is grossly underutilized, yet it can be argued they collectively have more experience than our planning commission. Does the City of Reno utilize the HRC to actually plan development, or only use it to review development? 

3. The University Campus Gateway district plans calls for dense development in this sector to support a growing student body.

4. The verbiage in #2 above is written as a guide, which normally City Permit and Building Dept and Planning Dept would interpret as they issue permits for projects just like any other neighborhood plan, but UNR doesn't necessarily have to take into account these recommendations. 

So why am I writing this? I am encouraging the Reno Planning Commission tonight, and the City Council in the future and ultimately the University of Nevada Reno, who has the final say on what happens to these properties, to heed the small one-paragraph recommendation from the Historical Resources Commission, and rather than wipe away another piece of history that we can't EVER get back, encourage adaptive re-use of these homes, which can just as easily support a growing student population. 

Just look to Midtown for inspiration, where to my knowledge, ZERO pre-1950 homes were demolished in order to build up the neighborhood's retail and commercial district over the past ten+ years. Nearly every building on South Virginia Street that existed since I moved here has been adaptively reused. From Midtown Eats to Sup, to Shea's Tavern and Never Ender, to the Midtown Commons building where Dreamer's, Dressed Like That, Good Luck MacBeth, Wedge and Creme call home. Did you know that building was built in 1918? Did you know Junkee's building was built in 1928? Aces Tattoo in 1932? Double-Edge Fitness' building in 1931?

Do you think Midtown would have the same charm if all these buildings were demolished for shiny new strip mall-like developments? Sticks was an exception. Yes it's new, but the lot was already long-vacant with no buildings. 

The Victorians on Center and Lake could just as easily be readapted to host small retail. There's also enough room on these lots to build additional smaller structures to support the existing historical buildings. It doesn't have to be a choice between preservation and development. It can be both. Moving the homes is not an alternative to demolition. It would destroy the connection the properties have to the University.

I strongly, strongly encourage the City Council, Planning Commission, and University of Nevada to consider the historic significance of these homes and preserve them while planning and building out the University Gateway District.


Post your comments
  • February 3, 2016 - 11:08:00 AM

    Why not offer them for sale at ridiculously low prices under the condition that they not be torn down but moved to some other lot. Even the places on the Historical Register can be moved and not violate the Historical Significance.

  • February 3, 2016 - 11:08:54 AM

    Thank you for the post. I agree and think you have the correct solution. The University can build up at other properties. In addition, I am more open to moving the homes if an appropriate, visible, and connected site was chosen.

  • February 3, 2016 - 11:14:30 AM

    Ken, the University already owns most of these homes, and there's no way in heck they would let them go at this point.

  • February 3, 2016 - 12:04:03 PM

    Please consider submitting a public comment in favor of preserving the Victorian Homes south of the university. (***Link at the bottom) The Planning Commission is hearing the item tonight Feb 3 - Agenda Item 7.3 ***You can submit public comment here:

  • February 3, 2016 - 12:04:20 PM

    Ken, it is a terrible misconception that relocating historic properties is an acceptable form of preservation. Context is everything, and the context of these homes is that they have a connection to UNR. Preserved in their original locations, these homes already have a "gateway" presence to the campus. Development and preservation CAN occur side by side. It's not necessarily a choice between one or the other. There's plenty of room for almost everything the University and City want here, while simultaneously preserving this grouping of very unique homes. Relocating one or two might be necessary but the majority should not be moved.

  • February 3, 2016 - 5:01:10 PM

    As a property owner in the new University District south of I-80, I just read through the entire staff report. There is verbiage in regards to preservation of historical interests, but more front and center is the continuity of architectural facades that promote the brick visage of the campus. I would encourage anyone going to the meeting tonight to make historical preservation a higher priority and to get involved in general. The comments from the NAB meetings and previous rezoning meeting were pathetic for what is an under appreciated neighborhood of our city.

  • February 3, 2016 - 5:40:07 PM

    I agree with prior post....why not move certainly has been done here and elsewhere.....we should preserve history, but the historical homes are in the path of the University's engagement in transforming downtown.

  • February 4, 2016 - 7:07:39 AM

    I believe the best solution would be to move them to Evans Park on Lake Street opposing the other Victorians. Then if they ever build the pedestrian overpass on Lake Street they have planned it would be a very impressive entrance. Particularly if Italian Capital sells or cleans up their beautiful row of Victorians on Lake. I'm torn because I love the mixed used plan, and it is absolutely needed for the university. But those truly are some of the best homes still standing in Reno. If you moved them to Lake Street it would have the same affect, but would still have the grand, walkable entrance.

  • February 8, 2016 - 2:02:19 PM

    With all that open space (slabs) in downtown, why take out a historic area. Is it me or does Reno like to erase it's past. I know I'm found of the old Casinos and they for the most part had to go. But the Reno city leaders love to have a bid ideas, take out historic properties (Mapes, Nevada Club/Harrolds, half of the Riverside) and put in a slab. What ever happen to covering railway for the downtown promenade as an example. Fix what's broken first before you go and flatten yet another block.

  • February 10, 2016 - 3:07:23 PM

    While the homes referenced in the article are historic, they are the victim or horrible planning by the city. What you don't mention in this article is that this project could change the face of that entire district. The crack motels that are the face of the university should have been razed years ago.. this is finally an opportunity to get that done!