The Great Midtown Parking Debate / Identity Crisis Continues

by Mike Van Houten / Apr 15, 2015

When planning significant street changes to one of Reno's most popular and dense neighborhoods, who are the primary stakeholders that should influence it? The public that frequents the neighborhood? The business owners? The residents. RTC Washoe's public meeting on proposed changes to Virginia Street left more questions than answers.

The History

On June 26 2007, the Reno City Council adopted the South Virginia TOD (Transit-Oriented-Development) Corridor, amended more recently in 2012 and 2013. The purpose of doing this was to intensify development along this corridor, which extends from Liberty past Midtown down to the convention center near Atlantis, and includes about a 1/4 mile in either direction east and west of Virginia Street. The general, high level goals of a transit corridor are:

1. Offer a mix-up of land uses that almost force a higher-level density of development. For example, if for some strange reason you wanted to build a single family home on Virginia Street in this corridor on a mid-sized property you just bought, you'd be out of luck. There are minimum residential unit requirements on this Transit Corridor level, which is 14 dwelling units per acre.

2. Promote more pedestrian activity and less auto-oriented transit, through a mixture of walkable sidewalks, bike lanes, and mass transit improvements.

Here's the South Virginia TOD explanation, direct from the plan:

Establishing a mixture of land uses within a TOD corridor allows individuals to meet their day-to-day needs by using transit and/or by walking to their home, place of work or other services.  The mix of land use will facilitate in creating a diverse and vital neighborhood environment, increasing transit use, and pedestrian activity.  Higher density development is one of the key components necessary to create compact, vibrant transit-oriented development neighborhoods.  TOD corridors encourage pedestrian activity, support retail businesses, and promote transit usage.  Buildings should be placed so that they are oriented to transit
and pedestrians.  No parking should be allowed in the front of buildings, it should be located in the rear, side, inside or underground of buildings

Reno is not alone in developing TOD corridors...cities including Los Angeles, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco have all adopted this concept.

And indeed soon after the TOD was adopted, RTC came out with plans that aligned South Virginia Street with the plan the council adopted. It was a multi-phase mass transit system that would begin with a Bus Rapid Transit system and conclude with street-cars and light-rails. You can read about the plan here, I covered it in detail in 2009.

Part of that plan was to build RAPID transit stations would could eventually be converted to light-rail stations. Those were built, and they are beautiful, artsy stations along Virginia Street and Center Street. This plan called for the eventual elimination of all street parking along Virginia Street so it could be reconfigured first for dedicated RAPID bus lanes, and then eventually for light rail. This encouraged and followed the 'no parking should be allowed in the front of buildings' mantra mentioned above.

The Current

Between 2009 when BRT was launched and now, Midtown has organically grown into one of Reno's most sought-after neighborhoods. Through the grassroots efforts of people like Jessica Troy-Scheider and Bernie Carter, and developers like Kelly Haberae who were way ahead of their time, Midtown has grown into what it is today, an eclectic collection of nearly all locally-owned small businesses. Pioneers like Sup, Midtown Eats, Junkie Clothing that stuck it out through the rocky beginnings of this neighborhood are now reaping the rewards, and with those rewards, also experiencing a new problem previously foreign to this neighborhood: parking.

Parking parking parking. The subject dominated city-led discussions and meetings surrounding the process of turning Midtown into an official neighborhood. In many ways, Midtown businesses and residents were revolting against the South Virginia TOD's long term plans, and instead wanted small mom-and-shop businesses and smaller residential developments to compose Midtown, instead of mega-dense residential and larger commercial projects. A debate subsequently ensued about parking.

Midtown businesses were pretty adamant parking was the biggest priority for them, and losing any parking at all, including street parking along Virginia Street, would be devastating. Given that "lack of parking" was a common statement among Yelp reviews and suggestions for dining in the fiesty Reno Foodies group on Facebook, perhaps those businesses are correct in their thinking. 

So, in a surprise move, RTC has backed off their original plans for Virginia Street, and is now circulating a plan for Midtown that looks more like Holcomb Avenue and Wells Avenue, sans the landscaped medians and bike lanes.

Last night, over 100 people attended RTC's fist public meeting on their plans for both South Virginia Street in Midtown, and North Virginia Street to the University, mainly extending RAPID service to UNR and building nice stations.

It was the plan in Midtown that most people attended the meeting for. Though I couldn't attend, a campaign has surfaced claiming the plan doesn't go far enough, and this blog is stating it's all kinds of wrong.

Here is a side-cut view of the plan for the narrowest portion of Virgnia Street through Midtown:

In defience in almost every way of the seemingly-useless South Virginia TOD, the businesses in Midtown retain their front-side street parking, and there are no bike lines or dedicated rapid transit lanes, though there are wider sidewalks which will be a huge relief.

What did the old, TOD corridor configuration look like? More like this. Still no bike lanes, but also no street parking.

According to Reno architect, blogger and good friend Mike McGonagle, bike enthusiasts were out in force at the meeting, wondering why there are no bike lanes for South Virginia Street included in the plans.

Bike lanes would be nice, but where would they fit into the above configuration without sacrificing at least one lane of street parking? Well, some bloggers and the Great Streets Coalition have some great ideas below on how this could be accomplished.

Using Google Earth and roughly counting, Midtown would lose about 80 'dedicated, marked' parking spots on Virginia Street between Liberty and Center Street/Mary, where parking morphs from designated parking to traditional parallel street parking. During lunch rush in Midtown, there is truly little-to-no parking on Virginia Street and its connecting side streets like Thoma, Forest, St. Lawrence, Tahoe Street etc. One time a client of mine had to walk four blocks to meet me at a Midtown restaurant. Not a big deal to me growing up in Los Angeles, but to the client it was the end of the world.

And that brings me to a critical Reno ready for the mentality of thinking that involves not always getting to park directly in front of the business you want to visit? If you listen to the business owners in Midtown and read some of the Yelp reviews which often include statements like "So-and-So restaurant is awesome! Just avoid it during lunch hour because you won't find parking," the answer would be, parking is the most critical component of developing out Midtown's future.

On the flip side though, a survey done by RTC Washoe shows more parking is the least of people's concern regarding Midtown. The Good Little City blog has a great piece on what could be a better lane configuration than what RCT is proposing. Check it out here.

Blogger Reno Rambler came up with an impressive configuration of his own, shown below. It eliminates turn-lanes, which could be questionably dangerous, but the configuration overall is much more pedestrian-friendly.

Now that RTC Washoe is much, much closer to being able to complete this project , stakeholders have become more vocal about what's important to them on Midtown's "Main Street". Should the northern portion of the South Virginia TOD be eliminated altogether? Should some of South Virginia Street's parking be eliminated to accommodate bike lanes? Should turn lanes be eliminated to accommodate sidewalks larger than six feet on Virginia Street's narrower sections? Should there be room for landscaping?

What are your thoughts? Is parking truly critical to the businesses of Midtown, as they state, or is it more of a myth, and their businesses would survive if a lane of parking was sacrificed for bike lanes, landscaping, sidewalk amenities or all of the above?

Would a plan like the Great Street Coalition actually work? I am leaning heavily toward that, and not what the RTC proposed.


There's another meeting tonight you can voice your opinion at:


5 to 7 p.m. with a brief presentation at 5:30 p.m.
served by RTC SIERRA SPIRIT and RTC RIDE route 7
University of Nevada, Reno, Raggio Building, room 4001
1664 North Virginia Street
Reno, NV 89503

Want to read more about RTC's current plans:

Street Cross-Sections

Corridor Study

Post your comments
  • April 15, 2015 - 3:01:23 PM

    The businesses will experience a huge benefit if there is space in front of their storefronts. 10' sidewalk minimum with larger areas for outside activities. The no-turn-lane issue can be managed on the narrowest portions and I think the bike lanes are the first luxury to give up. The side streets and Allys could be improved for bike use. Second, I'd give up landscaping on the narrow sections. It is just a 'nature band-aid' when the configuration is not functional.

  • April 15, 2015 - 6:52:26 PM

    Thanks for the mention. FYI, the configuration you posted from my blog was based around the narrowest section and was really only an experiment to see if a buffered cycle track could fit in the space while keeping car parking on one side of the street. I'm no professional engineer though I have taken urban analysis classes and have been sitting on the RTCs Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee for years. Lots to respond to here but let me at least point out that at the meeting two well-known business owners in the Midtown area pretty explicitly challenged the RTC to come up with something with more vision that makes the area a great place, not just a corridor, and asked for more pedestrian and bike space. The other, more important thing to note is the growing body of data out there showing that these more visionary street configurations that include lots of space for pedestrians, bike lanes, and slowing traffic down, help businesses prosper. Sometimes Great Street design seems counter-intuitive.

  • April 15, 2015 - 7:16:41 PM

    I feel bike lanes are essential for South Virginia Street. I think the South Virginia corridor thing should be trashed, and a new plan developed to make South Virginia more like a main street with mom and pop businesses, with large sidewalks, bike lanes, and minimal street parking.

  • April 15, 2015 - 8:33:38 PM

    A business' so gut reaction is don't take my store front parking, but what they don't get is that large pedestrian friendly space in front of their store and bicycle access via bike lanes, makes their commercial neighborhood more attractive to stroll and shop and linger longer that those who just park, shop, and leave. These days, people are more willing to park five or six blocks away and get exercise. It's no longer about getting in and quickly but enjoying a stroll and lingering on a large sidewalk without parked cars obscuring your view of store fronts. Walkable commercial neighborhoods with bicycle access are more profitable than strip malls or shops along busy boulevards w on street parking. They're safer too. Look past the end of your own nose and think about the neighborhood and the future that is less carcentric.

  • April 16, 2015 - 5:01:09 AM

    ^^ I have to agree with Larry - the sidewalk situation in Midtown is awful, that is simply not a walkable neighborhood in its current form. Whatever happens, repair the sidewalks and double their width. This will vastly improve pedestrian traffic and increase the "stickyness" of the neighborhood.

  • April 16, 2015 - 12:57:50 PM

    I live in south Reno so I would rather see midtown have more parking and not the bike lanes. There are times I have tried to go to mid-town for dinner and left when I couldn't find parking, so it isn't just lunch time.

  • April 16, 2015 - 2:58:10 PM

    I live in Old Southwest / Midtown and I'd much rather see bike lanes and big sidewalks in an effort to promote higher quality of life. If some people find it too arduous to drive from other neighborhoods and park at most a 5-minute walk from a spot they might like to shop at then so be it. There's already a well-developed lack of community, but complete support for cars, in the Foothills / South end of town, as well as Somersett, Caughlin, etc.

  • April 16, 2015 - 4:35:35 PM

    Agree to widen sidewalks. Why not have a 3 or 4 story parking garage down in Midtown? In the space with the porno booths. Tear that building down, or use the vacant lot near it.

  • April 16, 2015 - 5:44:47 PM

    This "debate" on curbside car parking really needs to be framed as just how long is someone willing to walk to get to the business of interest? 10 seconds? 40 seconds? Or, Oh-My-Gawd, a whole 2 minutes?!?! The tired whine of "can't find parking" is so lame. And just what do people really do if they have to walk, like, a whole minute or two to get to that special restaurant? . They linger and SPEND MORE MONEY!!

  • April 17, 2015 - 9:26:51 AM

    The notion that a downtown area is going to flourish around ease of parking does not stand up. Wide sidewalks, bike lanes, better lighting, crosswalks that actually work; these are the things that will make midtown a more vibrant area that people want to visit, or better yet, live near. A dedicated parking area nearby, but not directly adjacent to Virginia St. would do just fine for people driving in to shop, eat, etc. I really like Reno Rambler's vignette - hopefully it will gain traction!

  • April 23, 2015 - 12:11:25 PM

    I am a business owner in the Midtown District, Happy Happy Joy Joy (baby gifts, kids toys, gag gifts) across the street from Junkee Clothing Exchange. I am fighting for a street with better pedestrian/bike access that is aesthetically pleasing. I don't want S. Virginia to look like Moana. I grew up in Reno and then moved to Los Angeles. There I never walked or biked. I then moved to Austin, TX and found myself walking and then buying a bike. It was much more bike/pedestrian friendly. If you build it they will come. Make it safe and interesting. I want to be in Midtown to be a part of something bigger. If people just park, dash in and leave that does not help my business or my neighbors. I also believe that preserving parking is short sighted. Not all of us business owners are for that.