For more than two decades, Reno’s Lear Theater has been the subject of speculation by passersby on the Riverwalk. Over the years, the theater has raised money—and expectations. However, despite a few performances in that time, plans to turn it into a regional cultural center never came to fruition.
Now, something may finally be done with the Lear by current owner, non-profit arts organization Artown.
Before Artown purchased the Lear Theater for $1 in late 2011, it was owned by the Reno Sparks Theater Community Coalition. Popularly known as the Theater Coalition, this group was composed of members of the First Church of Christ, Scientist—which had occupied the building since the completion of its construction in 1938.
The building was designed as a church by famed black architect Paul Revere Williams, the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects. Williams’ other Reno projects include the Luella Garvey House (589-599 California Ave.), the ranch house at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park and the Loomis Manor (1045 Riverside Drive).
Services were held there until 1998, but it was back in 1993 that members of the congregation began thinking about what might be done with the church. The building was already getting older, though not on any historical registers yet, and was an architectural treasure for the city—but it was too big for the congregation of the First Church of Christ, Scientist.
The idea of the building as a theater caught on. Church member Moya Lear donated $1.1 million for the property—including the church, its parking lot and a house at 528 W. First St.—to be purchased from the congregation, which used the funds to build a new church on Peckham Lane. The papers were signed on Tax Day—April 15, 1998—and the theater was renamed in Lear’s honor.
For a little over a year, the Theater Coalition hosted performances in the building while raising donations to have it restored and remodeled into a proper theater. These were shut down by city fire officials, however, because the building needed improvements to bring it up to code. The Theater Coalition continued raising donations and making some improvements to the Lear Theater but never managed to get it open.
Records of exactly what renovations were made and from whom the money came to complete them have never been available. Estimates of $10 million donor dollars raised and put back into the building have been tossed around, but the Theater Coalition was unable to provide documentation of these numbers when it transferred the property to Artown, and Artown’s board members have never been able to track it down, despite searching through all available old paperwork.
The Artown board took ownership of the Lear Theater, its parking lot and the house at 528 W. First St. knowing that if plans to make the Lear Theater operational were unsuccessful, they could sell the theater and keep the house as a permanent office space. Six years later, in 2018, that’s what they planned to do.
In May of 2018, local media reported that the Artown board had selected Sierra School of Performing Arts to take over the Lear and was in negotiations with the youth arts organization to work out details. A year later, SSPA announced those negotiations had fallen through. Explanations for the failure were few.
Now, another year on, Artown has again announced possible plans for the Lear.
Expensive apartments promised
Last month, This Is Reno published an opinion piece by former SSPA board member Randi Thompson entitled “Save the Lear.” In it, Thompson noted she was “breaking the silence now” about SSPA’s failed attempt to acquire the Lear “because we recently learned that Artown has entered into an ‘exclusive’ negotiation with a California developer, who has a local partner, who wants to acquire the Lear,” and one of the “concepts may be housing in the basement and a ‘small’ theater upstairs.”
This Is Reno reached out to Artown on May 28 to learn more and was informed that the board had read the opinion piece and had no comment at the time but would be in touch soon with news. A few days later, Artown announced to the media that it would be hosting a virtual press conference June 8 to provide updates regarding this summer’s festival and the Lear Theater.
After providing information about the upcoming Artown festival and how it’s been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Artown board turned its June 8 press conference toward a scripted discussion of the current status of the Lear Theater.
“Artown has stewarded the Lear for years, and you’d be, honestly, amazed at all of the efforts our organization has undertaken to preserve this historical and cultural treasure,” Mark Hatjakes, Artown board chairman, said. “Let’s look to the future with the exciting news we promised early in the program. With the goal of giving the Lear new life, we’re proud to announce a partnership with Ken Krater.”
Krater, a Reno native, is a developer and president of Krater Consulting Group.
“In working with Artown, my understanding is that what’s really lacking in this town is more of a quote ‘community theater,’” Krater said. “We’ve got the Pioneer [Center]. There’s a lot of smaller venues, but we’re lacking in that, say, 250-seat theater for these larger events—for everything from children’s ballet on up. And, so, my plan would include that type of theater.”
It would also include new construction on the property.
“We’ve come up with a couple of alternatives,” Krater said. “We’re going to be looking at other methods and other potential ways to save it. But, basically, what we’re seeing is that if we build an adjoining building that would not impact a theater—and … we’d restore it to, again, its former glory—but an apartment building would be a great use. … It would create a permanent income stream to help pay for the theater improvements as well as an income stream, again, to maintain the theater in perpetuity.”
Krater said he and his group have put together a pro forma and begun working with city officials on things like flood control and will be seeking input from community stakeholders. As of right now, he said, the tentative plan would be for an apartment complex with 45 to 50 units built to the east of the Lear and potentially another eight or so units built into the back of the building facing First Street. The units would be expensive, priced at least at current market rate, to create a revenue stream for the Lear.
“They’re not going to be affordable by any stretch of the imagination,” Krater said. “The goal is to drive the rents up as high as we can to increase that revenue stream. And my team is absolutely confident that [people would] want to live in a beautiful building that sits right next to the Lear Theater.”
Krater told media no renderings for the apartments are available at this time as it’s much too early in the process. He said he wouldn’t expect those for a year at minimum. Krater and his group would like to see Riverside Drive from Bell Street to Ralston and First abandoned by the city and given over for use as an additional outdoor space for the Lear—a proposition that would be time consuming.
And he’s aware that there will be hurdles to jump to gain approval for a new structure next to the historical theater—which is on both local and national historical registers. However, Krater believes a detailed plan to restore the theater and approval for a new building would make the project eligible for both New Markets Tax Credits and Historic Tax Credits.
“I think that we can create a project that we can finance, that we can bring this income stream, restore the theater, create a space for non-profit groups at minimal cost,” Krater said. “And I think there’s a lot of consternation in this community because that building has sat empty and some of the trees have died, but I think once this project is done and it’s open and people are enjoying that theater, we’re going to be able to put all of the past behind us and look forward to decades of great use of that beautiful, historical structure.”
Krater said ownership of the proposed apartment complex would have to be settled on at a later date.
“I’ve been in some conversations with the Artown board, and that’s something that, in my mind, will be fluid as we work through the pro forma—whether it’s my group or a joint venture or Artown,” he said. “I think what is more important is what’s the right way to create an ownership group to save the theater. And if my group…were to become an owner, we would make sure all of the agreements were in place in perpetuity that would allow Artown to operate the theater, and maybe another group comes in that’s more oriented toward special events…and becomes a partner. My goals is, ‘Let’s save it.’ Once we figure out how to do that, we’ll figure out what the ownership group needs to look like.”
New proposal criticized
During the press conference, media asked the Artown board to explain what had happened with the failed negotiations to transfer the Lear from Artown to SSPA.
“I think that’s on the public record,” responded board member Oliver X. “We were unable to reach an agreement that worked for both parties, so we agreed to dissolve the negotiation process and step away from it amicably.”
According to former SSPA board member Thompson—writer of the recent This Is Reno op-ed—this was not the case. She said SSPA was shocked when negotiations to acquire the Lear fell through.
“We lined up the politics,” she said. “We lined up the funding. We lined up the support. We spent weeks speaking to all of the different theater groups…All of these groups, we said, ‘This will be the community arts center. You can all come use it.’…We did all of the outreach that Artown asked us to do. But, every time, they kept changing the sale agreement.
“The bottom line is that they wanted to be able to take the facility back if we failed to make it into a theater. And we said, ‘Fine, you get the first right of refusal,’” Thompson added. “But they wanted it for a dollar. We’re supposed to go out and raise $15 million and start renovating this building, and you want to get it back for a dollar?”
Artown’s estimates to restore the Lear Theater have ranged somewhere around $6 million, but Thompson said she doesn’t believe that’s near enough money.
“So, I don’t know if Artown and Ken Krater have done a deep dive into some of the complications of this—and we did,” she said. “That’s why we were very cautious. That’s why their $5-to-6-million renovation is bullshit. Our bottom line is about $15 million because you have to do a lot to get the sump pumps going. We were talking about doing some landscaping in the front to make sure it could withstand flooding.”
The idea of abandoning a portion of Riverside Drive to the theater is one she’s entirely behind.
“It’s a great idea. It’s what Dave Aiazzi and [late former mayor] Bob Cashell talked about. You could create an outdoor plaza there and, again, make it a lot safer for the building.”
But Thompson’s not keen on the idea of an apartment complex and, like others, wonders if one could be approved on the historic property. She said when SSPA was working to acquire the Lear, its board had discussed possible new structures on the west side of the theater.
“And you can because the west side had some existing structures that were taken out,” she said. “You can’t touch the east side. So, the fact that [Krater] wants to do some stuff on the east side—he’s got some historical covenants he’s got to work with.”
In the end, Thompson said she’s not pleased with Artown’s handling of the Lear but cares more about seeing the theater operational than who makes it happen.
“My sister sang in that building in 2002, I think it was, and it was one of the coolest concerts—and I want to see that again.…And the last thing Bob Cashell said to me was, ‘I want to see this thing done before I die.’ And he was the first person who joined our team,” she said, pausing to collect her emotions. “And I just want to see this done for our community—I really do. And I just can’t believe how badly Artown is handling this and how this community is letting them.…I’m sorry. I get a little emotional on this project. I’ve been working on it for three years now. And it’s not what I do. It’s not my day job. It’s just my passion.”
This Is Reno will continue to report on new developments concerning the Lear Theater as details about plans for its restoration become available.
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.