OPINION: Defining Reno’s downtown

The Light Chimes Wingfield
Light art illuminates Wingfield Park downtown. Image: Bob Conrad.

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.” 

Alicia Barber, PhD

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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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.

Submitted opinions do not represent the views of ThisisReno. Have something to say? Submit an opinion article here.

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10 Comments

  1. Gaming is an adrenalin circus with all the winners upstairs in the Executive Offices. Their lives are fine. Sorry about yours. They bought their environments. Go get your own…

  2. What i think the author really wants is Wells to be torn down and gentrified. Tourist traffic can be redirected here instead of the Virginia exit. Maybe we’ll have a brick walk outdoor mall with a chic movie theater, miles of shopping, some building designed by Frank Gehry that walt Disney can slap their name on and a few major league sports ball teams with their associated stadiums. She also wants the terrible traffic and necessarily good public transport needed to make navigating the downtown tolerable. $20 on a stale half sandwich. Maybe the current downtown can be rebranded as skid row and we’ll convert the abandoned casinos into homeless shelters or affordable housing for all the people displaced by the skyrocketing rent.

  3. Glad somebody countered the negativity that’s always aimed at downtown. Maybe it’s just me, but I never get hassled, approached by hookers, or feel unsafe walking downtown. Not sure what people expect and the most negative stuff is always from “locals”. I would love to see Virginia st closed to cars for about 4 blocks and a very pedestrian friendly area put in, well patrolled by law enforcement and kept clean, and a bit more parking. Our Riverwalk area is awesome, btw.

  4. And then blaming casinos for the superblocks is the same schtick used back east to blame urban revival demolitions on nefarious characters who wanted to demolish downtowns. No, just like back east, Reno had a dump and the only way to clear out the abandonment was to clear it out. It seems this author forget what the main reason for the existence of the city is.

  5. Is she still spinning even after putting down the pen? Might be an F1 tornado.

    The original made explicit use of the proper definition for Reno’s “downtown”. This one attempts to change the definition to fit a rebuttal. Disingenuous.

    How many times will I walk through downtown and get approached by a hooker? Literally half the time. It’s a concrete wasteland. Yes, the ACTUAL downtown. Twisting Midtown (it’s called Midtown for a reason) into Downtown is just intentional spin.

  6. Alicia’s article brings a necessary reframe of what downtown Reno is all about. Mostly it is beautiful, safe, filled with people having good times, walks along the river, and coffee in the parks. Yes, the casinos can do their parts to create more welcoming spaces and this is changing. We live in a great city full of vibrant change. Her article honors this.

  7. I completely agree that the Casinos need to rethink their outside presentation to the streets. Windows looking into the casinos, attractive restaurant activity around the outside would present such a better vision to the people walking in that area. They do tend to isolate themselves and their customers from the outside and that needs to change. There is no reason that they can’t do both, keep customers happy on the inside and bring more customers in through changing the look and access from the outside. The Casinos have some wonderful restaurants which could be attractively presented to the public. No reason to hide the inside from walkers.

  8. This is one of the few articles that points the finger at the almost always at least partially guilty parties: the casinos. They have their challenges,and they bring in quite a bit that is
    good, but they need to take responsibility for some of the problems that they create.

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