A Walkable Downtown Reno

by Mike Van Houten / Oct 12, 2015

Creating a Walkable, Inviting Downtown Reno: An Achievable Goal

Downtown Reno is now in a second wave of development, with many projects going on, perhaps more than any other point in this blog's 10-year history.

It's the perfect time to discuss downtown Reno's  walkability, how far it's come in the past 10 years, and the weak areas that should be a priority for both developers and the city council.

I spent two hours walking around downtown on a Sunday afternoon and Monday afternoon, mapping my journey visually, at a time when there were no special events or hordes of tourists and locals to skew my experience or give it an unfair advantage.

Since most residents, tourists and locals visiting downtown stay south of 4th Street, and within the 'box' of Arlington Avenue and Evans Avenue, I did as well. Below I highlight the positives, and the negatives.

ReTrac: The Blank Slate with the Most Promise, and Most Power to Change

Downtown Reno has four primary east-west pedestrian corridors downtown; The Riverwalk, 1st Street, 2nd Street and 3rd Street/Commercial Row where the train trench lids are located.

In each of the studies and community workshops that Reno invested in, including the 172-page ReTrac Master Plan, the end-game for the ReTRAC corridor was to create a 'Pedestrian Greenbelt,' an east-west pedestrian friendly corridor with lots of greenery, shopping, and entertainment. These studies were developed prior to the Aces Ballpark being built.

With the ballpark district on the east end, and the King's Inn project and Whitney Peak Hotel on the west end, I believe this corridor is on the tipping point of becoming something great. Let's take a look at it in photos.

Being that this corridor spans the entire length of Reno's downtown, serves as the northern boundary where most residents and locals stop and turn back to the river, and also serves as one of the first areas tourists come across venturing outside of their hotels headed to the Riverwalk, I view this area as one of the most critical redevelopment pieces for Reno. Whitney Peak Hotel's second round of renovations made a huge impact with the exterior of the building and the clean-up of their parking garage. K2 Apartments/King's Inn is one of the last derelict properties along this corridor. Now we just need the Old Reno Casino building and Masonic Building to be rehabbed and occupied.


With most of the visitors (hopefully) heading south to explore downtown Reno from the Silver Legacy, Eldorado and Circus Circus, the ReTRAC corridor is one area of downtown the Caranos should think seriously about partnering with the City to develop. What should go there? In my opinion, shade trees, trellises, a small performance stage/amptheater, a sculpture garden, and the like.

It's no secret my favorite downtown redevelopment success story is downtown Los Angeles, where I'm from.  I feel a primary key to that success is Grand Park, a 12-acre multi-block park that spans five city blocks and ties all of Los Angeles' civic buildings together. On a smaller scale, there's no reason our ReTrac Covers couldn't achieve the same effect. The highlights of Grand Park include a community fountain similar to the one Sparks has, a couple of performance spaces, some places for art, some greenery, and that's really it. It's simple, open space, and more critical, it's functional open space. Here are a few images of it, which portions are still under construction.

Ideas are now circulating for developing the ReTRAC Covers, crucial pieces to the downtown puzzle. The trick is, who do you get to invest millions into developing something that doesn't directly generate money? Or, how you do build a public space that generates money? Through conservancies? Naming rights?

Continuing to walk east past the trench covers, I walked past our beautiful Amtrak Station, and Harrah's aging parking structure (which could really use a train-related mural) and end up in a zone with the most development potential...what was supposed to be our ballpark district.

The stadium, and the Freight House, are really cool, and a great draw for tourists and locals. Let's get the original freight house building developed, and fill in the void left behind when the Mitzpah burned down.

Improvements/Ideas: Create a multi-block pedestrian gathering zone that funnels tourists and locals east and west from Arlington Avenue to Evans. Add trees, drought-tolerant landscaping where applicable. Use the trench covers to encourage pedestrian gathering in a neighborhood-style approach, similar to the civic park in downtown Los Angeles. Encourage event promoters to close Virginia Street for special events by practically giving the street to them for free, by loosening special event and impact fees for closing Virginia Street. Add permanent building light projections to Harrah's and Whitney Peak's parking structure, turning them into works of art at night.

A building with a light projection in downtown Bellingham.

Needs Tenants/Renovations;
Masonic Hall: Restore the Masonic Hall. Or at least renovate the exterior. Convert it to a downtown theater venue for UNR/Truckee Meadows College, which would be more appropriate than the current strip-mall location of the Redfield Theater for TMCC on Keystone. Or use it as events space for Whitney Peak.
Old Reno Casino: Convert the Old Reno Casino into retail, or demo it to create an open plaza between Whitney Peak and the Masonic Hall. Whitney Peak Hotel owns these two properties. Whitney Peak Parking Garage Retail Space: Whitney Peak Hotel has retail space on the corner of Virginia Street and Plaza.

The Positives: The King's Inn/K2 Apartments Renovation will be the ideal anchor to add more residents to this block, beyond the almost 700 the Montage provides. Whitney Peak Hotel's third round of exterior renovations, including the large mural on their parking garage, have really livened up this corridor.

The North-South Corridors - Fixing the Dead Zones

This by far, is the biggest challenge for downtown. A shuttered business here and there is forgivable, let's be honest and real for a moment...when you see entire blocks that are inactive and/or shuttered, whether you're a tourist, or a downtown resident, or a local, you simply stay away from it and gain a bad impression. When people in the ReImagine Reno meetings said they wanted downtown to clean up, I suspect most are referring to these very downtown blocks I'm highlighting. For downtown residents I talk to, the excess of vacant commercial spaces downtown, while not desirable, is not a big deal, but it doesn't stop them from hanging out at their favorite bars and restaurants downtown.

Let's talk about the tourists for a moment. Thousands, THOUSANDS, of tourists each year stay downtown, and generally travel down either Virginia Street, Arlington Avenue (Sands and Silver Legacy), Lake Street/Evans, Sierra and Center (Harrah's) to check out what most would agree is downtown's greatest treasure, the Truckee River and the Riverwalk.

Virginia Street Corridor

If they travel down Virginia Street, which many do to catch a photo of our famous Arch, they're treated to what I feel is one of the more improved blocks. You have Whitney Peak's climbing wall, the Knitting Factory, Siri's Casino, the Nugget, and a mini mart between 3rd and 2nd Street. One block south, you have the Virginian and Nevadan towers, both slated to become residential projects. This will be a phenomenal improvement  for this block.

But in the middle of the city, the heart of our entertainment district, on Virginia and 2nd Streets, you have two shuttered, decaying unused buildings (which both formerly housed gift shops), Harrah's and it's Planet-Hollywood-turned-Ichiban ball, and the Cal Neva, which is perhaps the only gem on the four corners of this intersection.

Improvements:  Harrah's plaza is a dead zone during the day. Let's install some temporary art sculptures that are always in rotation, additional landscaping, maybe a permanent green-centric fence between the plaza and the sidewalk, with the greenery on the sidewalk-side of the fence, as pictured below. The plaza, when not in use, in the winter, woudl be perfect for pop-up retail venues. Downtown Atlanta, San Antonio, San Jose, and downtown Akron are among many cities exploring this concept in various ways.

Convince Harrah's to remove the gaudy exterior decor from the historic building on 2nd and Virginia that is otherwise beautiful.

Need Tenants/Renovation:
201 North Virginia Street (formerly Beverly's Gifts). This building is huge, and comprises half-a-block on Second Street as well as Virginia Street. It contributes to a dead zone on 2nd Street between Virginia and Sierra Streets.
195 North Virginia Street (closed pawn store/gift store). This has been closed since I have lived here. What's the hold up? Stubborn property owner?
192 North Virginia Street and its adjacent retail - Needs serious clean up and permanent signs. The Arch of Reno wedding chapel is the only business with a fixed sign at this location.

The Positives: The Virginian and Nevadan remodels could create new demand for retail or services on this block. A new plaza with river access on both the north-and-south-Virginia riverbanks, and a new retails tenant slated for the first floor of the former Post Office building, and its 'Basement' project, will create additional pedestrian traffic.

1. Organize pop-up retail program. This has become a way several cities have tried to fill retail voids.
2. Suburbia will always get the high end retail. High-income suburban neighborhoods are more likely to contain the area's most prestigious retail locations. The alternative is to search for creative retailers unlikely to locate in suburbia, retailers that can create an edgy buzz. The nation's most successful downtown retail districts have been able to provide this with unique stores, typically serving limited but prestigious niches — not found in suburban malls. You can't just say 'Oh Reno is too small for something like that.' Just ask Reno EnVy. Downtown Reno needs independent retailers and stores on the Virginia Street strip. Check out some of the funky edgy retailers that call downtown Chicago home.
3. Large retail tenants will likely never call downtown Reno home again, like in the old days when JC Penney, Woolworths and more were downtown. Large retail spaces like the first floor of Woolworths, and the retail spaces on the corner need to be sectioned into smaller spaces that would attract niche retailers. Create retail 'villages', collections of small and tiny micro-businesses that share a common theme, such as beauty, or clothing, and the like.
4. Encourage the use of empty storefronts for displays of other stores downtown, such as what 100 North Sierra Street did prior to Reno Provisions moving in. They can rent the space to other stores and generate a little money in the process.

Sierra Street Corridor

If they travel down Sierra Street, The Montage side of the street looks great. The east side of the street presents several redevelopment opportunities.  There is zero retail on this entire block, with the Montage commercial spaces sitting empty. On the other side, the building at 240 North Sierra Street that formerly housed Vino Restaurant, is in serious need of a rehab and a tenant. The Masonic theater should be rehabbed and reopened, as with Old Reno Casino. There was talk at one time, of demolishing the Old Reno, creating a public plaza between Whitney Peak and the Masonic building. I would be cool with that too! The red 210 North Sierra building, which also contributes to this major north-south dead zone on Sierra, was a victim of a major pipe-burst that closed Rise nightclub and halted plans to section off the first floor into multiple retail venues. I heard through the rumor mill, that they were toying with the thought of live work units here as well. This red building has sooo much potential. The 2nd phase of 210 North, which never came to fruition, included building 2nd-floor decks on the building overlooking the street. Additions like that can completely change the dynamics of a street for the better. Just ask Midtown, where building outdoor seating is almost a necessity. 40 Mile Saloon and Creme are the latest to  build patio or deck seating.

Once  tourists reach 2nd and Sierra, things improve considerably in terms of retail and lack of vacant spaces. It's really between 2nd and 3rd, that needs some TLC.

From a street perspective, Sierra Street from the casinos to the riverwalk, looks great.  I would love to see a gigantic wall mural on the bare, uninspiring street-front of the Riverboat Apartments building at 170 North Sierra.

Needs Tenants/Renovations
240 North Sierra Street (the old Vino Restaurant building) and the Masonic building need some tlc and street-level facade improvements.
170 North Sierra - Longs Drugs/CVS has a 10-year lease on this building, which they're actually paying though they aren't occupying it. Longs Drugs was going to go in, but when it was bought by CVS, CVS opted not to continue with the project, and instead attempt to sublease the building. It's still sitting empty, years later., most likely due to the size of the space.
210 North Sierra - Caught up in insurance litigation from what I hear, this building contributes to the total lack of amenities or retail on this entire block of Sierra Street.

Positives: The way the Montage disguises its empty retail on the street-level should be a model for other property owners downtown with empty retail. Sierra Street has become a corridor for residents...with a post office, a gym, a boutique grocery store, a movie theater, and a florist. I'd like to see more service-oriented businesses on Sierra Street to continue this trend.

All in all, the north-south journey of tourists headed up and down our pedestrian corridors to the Riverwalk really aren't as bad as Reno locals and C.A.V.E.s  make it out to be. If there was some way our city council or city staff could influence property owners to get their properties leased or renovated it would make a world of difference.

People said no one would live downtown, and now the Palladio, Riverwalk, Arlington Towers and Montage are full of people. People say downtown is dead, yet the hotels remain consistently booked. Even the Siena sold out of its rooms on the weekend on a regular basis.

By cleaning up these last few areas of downtown's entertainment core, downtown north of the Riverwalk can finally shatter the unfair and inaccurate perception that it's a dump unworthy of exploring on foot. Let's keep the momentum going.

Post your comments
  • October 12, 2015 - 5:01:09 PM

    Fantastic article. Thoroughly enjoyed reading through this. I moved to Reno in 2009 and I notice a big difference from when I first got here and now I feel like the momentum is picking up at a faster pace than ever. You've got some great ideas in here. I agree, hopefully the City Council gets a hold of this and can influence the building owners of the 'dead zones' to get them filled and rehabbed.

  • October 12, 2015 - 6:50:01 PM

    10 years of DowntownMakeover.com! Congrats! Great post! There are so many opportunities in Reno, we are going in the right direction. :-)

  • October 12, 2015 - 7:35:31 PM

    I wrote up a big whole thing about blaming the usual suspects as to why this will never work.. you know, being a curmudgeon and all. But I don't feel like beating the drum. These are great ideas, and I'll keep my fingers crossed to see if any come to fruition. Here's to the future of Reno. :)

  • October 13, 2015 - 3:12:43 PM

    I'd love to see a Container Park ( Las Vegas) type project in Reno. Also instead of leveling the old motels it would be great to have someone with the passion renovate them and keep their vintage appeal. Yahoo Travel had a great article about this along time ago and I have kept it to look back on every now and then https://www.yahoo.com/travel/what-we-love-about-motels-and-were-not-talking-about-92591270512.html