55.5 F

County Considers Future of Downtown Structures as Part of Master Plan


Washoe County Courthouse. Image: Bob Conrad.

Washoe County plans to study options for its downtown master plan that include new construction, additional parking, and some demolition and renovation of buildings in downtown Reno.

Proposed projects would take place from approximately 5 years from now through 2040. It takes the county up to 5 years to plan, design, and construct new buildings.

“There are pieces that involve renovating existing buildings,” said Assistant District Attorney Paul Lipparelli. “There are pieces that involving parceling property differently, abandoning streets, building new projects, potentially getting other governmental approvals…”

Commissioners heard a presentation last week from consultant Arrington Watkins Architects, which discussed scenarios to improve the county-run legal and judicial facilities. The commission then asked county staff for a potential timeline and for more clarity on what’s necessary to move forward.

The Washoe County facility conditions index presented by Arrington Watkins Architects. The Court Street parking area received the highest rated mark as fair, while the court tower north is rated as severe.

The following was recommended by Arrington Watkins:

  • 1 S. Sierra St. – Two new court rooms on the third floor of the South Tower
  • 75 Court St. – Demolish existing old jail and existing judge’s chambers and court functions; demolition of the add-on structures of the existing historic courthouse will allow the remaining structures to return the court house back to its historic form and can be used for supplemental court services and a partial museum
  • New court house in the Court Street parking area, along with new office building or Alternate Public Defender, Public Defender and Human Services
  • Pioneer parking area – New parking structure with about 1,800 spaces
  • Closure of Court Street to vehicular traffic
  • Creation of a unified campus with additional green space to be open to public
  • After 2025, new court facilities will be developed to meet projected needs into 2040.

The commission also wanted merits and drawbacks of various funding options, which could include design-bid builds, seeking bonding approval that would impose a new tax, alternative tax sources that are already authorized, and public-private partnership proposals.

County Commissioner
Bob Lucey.

Such plans would cost an estimated $409 million over the next 20 years, including escalation costs. However, Commissioner Bob Lucey noted the open market will determine final cost.

Despite technology that makes communication easier, Lucey said unifying all departments into one complex would make more sense than the current arrangement of being in separate buildings. Also, he said hearings should be conducted in person.

“You still have to have that personal connection that’s part of the judicial system,” Lucey said. “It’s how we’ve always done business here in our country and it’s continued process for the right of justice. People are going to have to be in the courtroom with the judges. We are not going to a full technological — at least not in the next 25 years — I don’t see it. That’s just my opinion.”

Commissioner Marsha Berkbigler said there are flaws in the designs of existing courthouses. She’s spoken with judges who are concerned about safety.

County Commissioner
Marsha Berkbigler.

“They’ve made rulings with people standing in their courtrooms who then walked out into the hallway together with fear of what would happen once those people got out into the hallway or once they got outside the building because they were going in the same place and walking down the same halls (as everybody else),” Berkbigler said. “One of our justices was concerned because there were witnesses to a trial in the hallway and the person who was being tried for felony was — although with a lot of police around him — he was still walking right in front of them as he walked down the hall. I just think we’re asking for a problem if we don’t address this.”

Washoe County’s population increased 22.4 percent to about 504,000 between 2008 and 2018 and is projected to increase to 726,000 by 2040. Court filings have also risen an average of 1.3 percent each year the past 17 years.

Peter Sangiorgio, principal of Arrington Watkins Architects, told commissioners his firm conducted a facility condition index by assessing each building’s condition, calculating ongoing maintenance costs and deferred maintenance cost, calculating replacement costs and dividing all maintenance cost by replacement costs.

It showed the Court Street parking area was in fair condition, the Mills Lane Justice Center was in poor condition, the Court Tower North in “severe” condition and the Liberty Center (350 S. Center St.) in “critical” condition.

The parking structure at 220 S. Center St. and the historic courthouse were classified as “replace,” although commissioners made it clear the building wouldn’t be torn down.

Even though the facility at 1 S. Sierra St. was built in 2006, Sangiorgio said it scored poorly because maintenance costs are huge.

Lucey noted that most people don’t realize how expensive it is to operate such facilities. He also said nothing has been finalized.

“This is just the beginning of a discussion,” Lucey said.

Carla O'Day
Carla O'Day
Carla has an undergraduate degree in journalism and more than 10 years experience as a daily newspaper reporter. She grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., moved to the Reno area in 2002 and wrote for the Reno Gazette-Journal for 8 years, covering a variety of topics. Prior to that, she covered local government in Fort Pierce, Fla.