Downtown Challenges

4/19/06 - It would almost be an insult to downtown to not occasionally bring up the challenges it faces as it becomes a neighborhood. Here are some key points I see that need to happen in order to continue to transformation of downtown from bland to grand.

1. Affordable Housing. As everyone keeps bringing up, some of the prices for condos downtown are extraordinarily high.

  • Let's start with Riverwalk Towers, for example, home of Myrna, peach-colored paint and a bottom floor that STILL has not been converted to retail. Prices here are actually within reach of first-time home buyers, but the building has provided little incentive to move there because of it's REALLY un-attractive first-floor. It's surrounded by great retail, and Wefi, but come on! How long does it take to actually COMPLETE the building? It would be a much more attractive place to live if some retail occupied the bottom floor. Maybe a pet-spa, gourmet grocery store for the residents of Park Towers, Arlington Towers and Riverwalk Towers, a salon perhaps, ANYTHING to get the hustle and bustle of people going on the sidewalks surrounding Riverwalk. If they are truly 90% sold out, they should have the money to begin this project, especially since they raised their HOA fees by 50% the first year they were occupied.
  • Palladio, Montage, Wingfield Towers, Waterfront - Yes, they are high priced. No doubt when a 2-bedroom in the Palladio is going for $600,000+. However, I feel that eventually there will be enough interested buyers that the Palladio will fill up. It may have to drop its prices to do it, and it may have to wait a year or longer, but there's only 20 units remaining. Here's my take on Wingfield Towers and the Waterfront, as much as it pains me to say so, I don't see how these two projects would turn a profit. With soaring concrete and steel prices, perhaps it's not the right time to build high 30 story rises downtown, because you just can't offer the units at a reasonable price. For example, Wingfield Towers was originally pitched to me by the developers a year ago as a $210,000,000 project. A LOT of money. Even at that price, to make their money back the average unit price would have to be $430,000 at least, to break even. 2 and 3 bedrooms and higher floors would be more, and 1 bedrooms and studios probably less, in the $300,000's; so around Arterra's and Palladio's price points. I heard through a source that Wingfield Towers funding was approved last month via private loan for $340,000,000, a much higher number after the project was adjusted for construction cost increases. Now, the average unit price goes up to $681,000. In L.A., SF, or New York, that price point wouldn't phase eager urban buyers, as is the case in L.A. where many downtown projects are selling out. However, I'm not sure if Reno YET has the population base to support that many high priced units? Perhaps I am missing some other source of income for these projects other than selling residential units. So correct me if I am wrong. Now, take the Waterfront project, which is on hold because design schematics came back over-budget for what the project was budgeted for, which I believe is in the $200,000,000 range. This tower has less than half of the amount of units Wingfield has, so I don't see how one could possibly turn a profit on a project like that unless there was extensive retail on-site as well, or again, if I am missing some other source of income. Plus, right now, the surrounding neighborhood is literally empty. Nothing, except an adjacent parking garage tower, and acres of paved empty parking lots with chain link fencing surrounding most of them. I guess you have to start somewhere, but I think this area could use a more District-at-Victorian Square type of development.
  • The City of Reno should consider measures similar to what Los Angeles is enacting, basically telling developers 'If you want to be part of a massive redevelopment effort downtown, a certain percentage of housing has to be affordable to people making half or less of what the median income is for Los Angeles.' And then those prices and rates are locked in for 48 to 50 years. 20% of the many residential projects planned for Grand Avenue area in L.A. fall into this service industry workers can live and work downtown, thus helping out with the commuting problem. It's kind of unique...having affordable housing right next to half million dollar condos.
  • On the up side of this argument, there ARE lower-priced projects downtown, such as Belvedere Towers, Grant's Landing, Colonial Garden Court Condominiums.

2. Invasion of the Pawn Shops and Antique Stores - Probably the least attractive thing about northern Downtown, north of First Street, are the amount of pawn shops. All of them present a cheapness about downtown I feel most visitors bypass. There's something 'dirty' about the whole pawn shop business to me. Not that it's illegal, just kind of slimy. And there are TONS of them, and sadly some of them occupy really cute old buildings downtown. It's a challenge, because the City can't exactly say 'Ok pack up and move you aren't the right type of retail we want downtown'.

3. Facades - While the streets of downtown Reno are now beautiful, adorned with flower baskets, groovy lighting and new landscaping, some of the facades of buildings downtown still manage to peek through all the beautification and cast their ugly shadow. My biggest losers in the category? Let's start with the fireball attached to the old National Bank building (now Harrah's). It doesn't work with the building and needs to go. It looked ok when it was Planet Hollywood, but rather than taking the sign down they just dorked it up. Second? The whole Horshoe thing going on next to the Nugget Casino on Virginia St. It's not a casino anymore, it's a convenience store, and it doesn't need the rusting, darkened no-longer-lit facade that once used to be the casino. Third? The parking garage frontage on Plaza street, across from Amtrak Station. On a positive note, Mayor Cashell expressed concern of facades downtown, and new redevelopment director Mark Lewis has some proactive ideas, like low-to-zero interest improvement loans.

4. King's Inn - I have ranted about this enough in previous posts. It needs to come down or be redeveloped. There's nothing positive to say about this oversized pigeon coop.

5. Upgrading of casinos. It's been a looooong time since any of the casinos downtown have made serious upgrades to their properties. I am excited beyond belief that L3 Development already has a vision for the Fitz. Will it start a chain reaction of competitive renovation? Perhaps, I hope. Grand Sierra Resort, Atlantis and Peppermill are all in expansion mode, and new players are coming to town to play, and given all the recent proposed 'Keystone District' zoning changes to allow unrestricted gaming and hotel, someone wants to play close to downtown. Perhaps some new blood in town will prompt the downtown casinos to upgrade their facades, or their restaurants, or something. I still wish the Silver Legacy had built a roller coaster in its dome bubble.

6. Temporary Parking Lot for 5 years on the site where the Pioneer Hotel Casino used to be. Bad bad bad idea to use this prime redevelopment space as an open-faced parking lot with no landscaping, very little lighting, and about as aesthetically unpleasing as you can get.

So there you have it. Those are my major concerns for downtown Reno. Affordable housing is probably my number one concern, because as Myrna the Minx over at put it, you can't have a full downtown with just a bunch of part-time rich folks using these condos as second homes. I have concerns and will always have concerns over downtown. If I didn't, I wouldn't have started this site.

What are your thoughts? And that doesn't mean I want 20 comments saying 'downtown Reno sucks'. Be constructive and creatives in your comments, give City officials an idea or two (remember they visit this site)


Post your comments
Posted by: Todd - 4/19/2007 1:03:05 PM
I am 100% in agreement about the pawn shop topic, as I'm sure many people are. I've always wondered how are they still in business and who really goes in them, not to mention what kind of leases they are on since it seems as if the leases would be higher for such prime locations.

Posted by: ModGirl - 4/19/2007 3:46:01 PM
Condo pricing: A sore subject for a lot of people, including myself since I can't even afford to live in one of the studios and I work close to the downtown in my professional field. Is the whole mixed use concept being stalled because of the greedy realtors..... or poor budgeting on the developers part? Back in the day Palladio was selling their one bedrooms for $225K. Imagine if that were still the case! The bastards are doing something right, they jacked up their prices 150K, cut down the square footage of each unit, and TA-DA, there are only 20 units left to sell. Who are the people who threw down 600K for a 2 bedroom? I can tell you one thing, they are people with a lot of disposable income, who want to be in the middle of it all. They are people who want to spend money on shopping and entertainment provided by our local retailers, helping the downtown businesses prosper. Not only that, these are residents who LOVE Reno. They will be the ones involved in making our downtown the place to be ( at least I hope). No matter what the price these condos are going for, it's better than a dirt lot, or a vacant casino. It's only a matter of time before prices drop... If the units remain vacant. Patience. Patience.

Posted by: Wiley_n_reno - 4/20/2007 9:50:24 AM
first off, there is nothing wrong with acting as Cheerleader. Indeed the facades have to be upgraded. What about the dirty overhang at the prime corner of 4th and N.Virginia? Those convenience stores look just awful! Cant the city give interest free loans for this? We all know it matters. Also it would be nice to save and sandblast as much as the older architecture as possible. I was just in Downtown Long Beach for the Grand Prix and they've done a great job upgrading without losing the feeling of a 1940's city. The Mayor has said he'd like to operate the bulldozer to knock down the Kings Inn himself. Also Reno needs a better river downtown walkway on the North side... from Wingfield park to The Freight house area.... along the general lines of Bostons Freedom trail. Something lit at night and uniform in design.

Posted by: Reno Passport - 4/20/2007 10:21:33 AM
Downtown Reno is truely an Unpridictable Beast, but has some serious potential to improve. I live downtown it is like the most painful anticipation ever. I concur with the group, downtown condo ownership is cost prohibitive for most single professionals and even dual-income couples. I would like to see some of the smaller "Pigeon Coups" in downtown revitalized. When will we see a mid-sized project that is not completely over the top. I think the condo builders need to take a closer look at Reno demographics and find a happy medium: A modest profit for them, and a reasonable price for young professionals. Why not make improvements to a 20-40 unit building, and see what happens, price them at $160,000 to $260,000, more people in this town can afford these prices. As for the downtown pawnshops, gonna be tough to change that trend. I bet the landlords really like pawn shops, as they do have cash flow and likely negotiate long term leases. BOTTOM LINE: Pawn Shops indirectly put cash in the pocket of theiving meth heads and gamblers (i am sure the casino's don't mind the Pawn Shops). Would be fun to track the amount of dollars handed out at a pawn shop, and how long it takes to enter the Casinos bank account.

Posted by: Tom - 4/20/2007 11:16:35 AM
A search on the Dickson Realty web site shows 24 Palladio condos for sale - I believe this is one more than they originally had to sell when they took over as the broker some months ago. These do not appear to be moving and there is very little daily activity at the job site. What all this means I do not know.

Posted by: Revi S - 4/20/2007 11:36:07 AM
Tsk tsk shame on you for bowing to those idiots on Diane's blog. Downtown still needs some work, but I fully enjoy living downtown and have since 1990. Diane is right, anyone who can't see the changes downtown is an idiot. I am not embarassed to take my family downtown these days; they enjoy it....tubing in the Truckee in the summer and ice sakting in the winter.

Posted by: doofus - 4/20/2007 6:06:53 PM
I wish you were the cheerleader for my neighborhood! Urban renewal / redevelopment is and should be an organic process. It is working well along California Avenue and Wells / Vassar. Something gets going, a community forms, and the redevelopment tendrils go out. A lot of small steps. "River North" is really coming along with the Palladio, Wingfield Park, the theaters, and the new retail along Sierra. Redevelopment is following the river. But in order to get the tendrils to N. Virginia, something has got to be done with the Masonic building along the river. It is the cork that is stopping development into the Virginia Street corridor. It seems like a great site for redevelopment, and the riverwalk could be widened by canilevering over the river a bit. Make that connection and we are really extending the riverfront development another block, with the 10 NVA plaza slowly reaching reality. With that anchor along the river, I think you would start to see private developement taking a look at the first few blocks of NVA (the Penny's and Woolworth Buildings on 1st are already in play. So now we are up to Center Street, at the edge of the Freighthouse District which would now be connected to all the riverfront redevelopment, with Grant's Landing across the creek. Pretty cool. Don't believe that all the schlock and pawn shops along NVA are paying high rents. Rents here are based on foot traffic. The major casino's have an interest in keeping foot traffic on NVA as LOW as possible - they want all the traffic in their casinos. So we will see this summer if all the reconstruction costs along NVA were worth it. When the Silver Legacy starts putting in windows and outdoor cafes, we will know if it was a success or not. Affordable housing is a huge issue not only downtown, but in the whole region. Requiring below market rate units passes the "swing" cost of those units along to the market rate units. To alleviate this, the developers in cities such as SF negotiate (or try to)added density of market rate units to offset their additional costs. That is also how the LA project is being presented. Here in downhome Reno, the developers just propose projects to their maximum financial potential gain, and the City goes gaga about the added tax revenue. I can't cite many (any, actually) cases where the City has not altered their zoning and density standards to get new development off the ground. And that's just wrong. It alters the lifestyle of the existing residents, without leveraging the power to make this a more inclusionary City. We can and need to better.

Posted by: RenoTeal - 4/21/2007 9:11:48 AM
My wife and I love the downtown area. We live near Mt Rose Hiway right now but are trying to sell and possibly relocate downtown. We spend lots of time down by the river walking, etc. The river is a fabulous asset that is slowly being utilized. We all know things are slow but need to remain patient. We very much appreciate the info we can access on your website. Keep up the outstanding work. I also see nothing wrong with being excited with the improvements downtown. If that's being a cheerleader, so be it.