By Alicia Barber
A few weeks ago EDAWN President and CEO Mike Kazmierski penned an op-ed in the Reno Gazette-Journal (“Expressing a significant deficiency: Reno’s downtown, RGJ, 10/17/19) that encapsulates one of the major mistakes being made right now with respect to Reno’s revitalization and promotion: how we define Reno’s “downtown.”
Kazmierski rightfully praises the Downtown Reno Partnership and its ambassadors for the impressive progress they have made cleaning up their assigned beat.
But despite their efforts, he laments, “our downtown remains an eyesore to visitors and residents alike.”
He’s quick to add that not all of downtown is an unsightly mess, giving a nod to the “baseball stadium”—which, of course, also hosts soccer—small parks, the riverfront and Midtown. If those are all successful parts of “downtown,” then what exactly is he calling an “eyesore”?
You don’t have to be a long-term resident to understand that the “eyesore” in question is what the City of Reno has termed the “Entertainment District,” an area roughly extending from Sierra Street east to Lake Street, and from First Street north to about Sixth.
That’s the area that feels downtrodden and neglected, and that’s where many tourists and residents don’t feel safe because the streets are largely devoid of activity, mostly due to the internally-focused nature of the casino resorts like the self-described “City within a City” of “The Row”—the Eldorado, Silver Legacy, and Circus-Circus.
Kazmierski manages to pen his entire piece without mentioning the casinos once.
Why is that a problem? First, there is a lot of central Reno just outside that small casino core that is lovely, functional, diverse, safe, and working just fine. To label Reno’s entire downtown an “eyesore” is not only inaccurate, but perpetuates the notion that “downtown Reno” is defined by its central casino district, a perception that the city has been trying to counter for a few decades now.
What comprises Reno’s “downtown,” what urbanists generally define as a city’s business and civic center, has shifted, and our definitions and descriptions need to shift along with it.
‘Vibrancy, culture, energy, and green space’? What Kazmierski describes already exists, in abundance.”
The current “Entertainment District” was indeed once Reno’s downtown, back when the main business district spanned the blocks between the river and the railroad. It was a vibrant area bustling with banks, retail, offices, restaurants, apartments, and—yes—casinos, too.
But the construction of the high-rise hotel-casinos, beginning in the 1970s, brought an end to that era. Entire blocks of diverse businesses, offices, and apartments fell to the wrecking ball to construct hotel towers and parking garages, retail moved to outlying shopping centers, and services and residents fled.
Continuing to equate that casino core with Reno’s downtown, as though they are one and the same, not only does a disservice to all the surrounding areas where activity is booming, but fails to diagnose the specific affliction plaguing the casino core—specifically the failure by those casino resorts to address the problems their internal focus has created.
Rather than embracing or engaging with the city streets, they turn away from them, keeping their patrons safely ensconced in their secure refuges, separated from the streets by skyways, parking garages, and restaurants tucked deep inside.
The streets around those casinos can’t appreciably change until their owners take responsibility for the transformation their success has wrought—and not just cosmetically. They need to seriously rethink—and redesign—how those massive buildings physically engage with the streets in order to generate more activity on them.
In the meantime, it’s time to acknowledge—and celebrate—the fact that Reno’s downtown is not what, or where, it used to be. Kazmierski actually recognizes this in his piece, when he describes his vision of a great downtown.
“Great cities have great downtowns!” he writes. “We have all been there, a downtown that wows you with its vibrancy, culture, energy, and green space, a place that is clean and safe—representing the soul of the community and the people that live there.”
“Vibrancy, culture, energy, and green space”? What Kazmierski describes already exists, in abundance.
Walk south from the casino core across the Virginia Street bridge and you sense the shift immediately. Vistas open up, the river rushes below, and residents gather along its banks to dine and socialize.
Green space beckons in the lush landscapes surrounding historic landmarks, in Wingfield Park, and beyond.
Clustered in the blocks from the north bank of the Truckee River southward is the city’s civic heart, a vibrant and walkable area containing public spaces, the county courthouse, federal buildings, churches, a performing arts center, three major museums, successful restaurants and retail, high-rise office buildings, and everything Kazmierski just identified as the components of a great downtown.
This is the “soul of the community.” If you’re going to define one area as Reno’s downtown, this is it.
That doesn’t mean abandoning the casino core, which is slowly diversifying with the addition of residential high-rises, non-gaming hotels, and other amenities. That’s an important part of town, and it needs help.
But it does mean being honest about what that area has become and the specific measures required to fix it.
The casino core is not Reno’s “downtown,” and the sooner we acknowledge that, the more we can capitalize on the beauty, vibrancy, and yes, “soul,” exemplified by Reno’s new city center, and give it the attention, the promotion, and the credit that it rightfully deserves.
Alicia Barber, PhD, is a professional historian and the author of Reno’s Big Gamble: Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City.
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