Preserve Nevada, the state’s oldest statewide historic preservation organization, opposes plans for the renovation of Reno’s historical Lear Theater that includes converting parts of the property into residential housing units.
In a Jan. 5 letter to the Reno City Council and other stakeholders in the theater, former Governor and U.S. Senator Richard Bryan expressed the organization’s concerns about plans to revamp the nearly century-old building – including the possible construction of luxury apartments next to it as a funding mechanism. Bryan is also chair of Preserve Nevada’s board.
“We at Preserve Nevada, the state’s oldest statewide historic preservation organization, write to express our misgivings about and to offer our help regarding plans for Reno’s historic Lear Theater and the surrounding area,” the letter began.
Decades of planning yield no outcome
This Is Reno last reported on the Lear Theater in June. For more than two decades, it has been the subject of speculation by passersby on the Riverwalk as the property was gated and unused. 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 have never come to fruition.
The building is historically significant. It was designed as a church by famed Black architect Paul Revere Williams, the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects. It operated as such until it was purchased from its congregation through a $1.1 million donation by of one of its parishioners, Moya Lear, in 1998.It has since changed hands twice.
The theater was most recently acquired by Artown Reno in 2011. The non-profit organization knew that if plans to revamp it failed, it could always be sold again—something that was unsuccessfully attempted in 2018.
In early in 2020, Artown released the new plans to revamp theater, which came onto the radar of local historical preservationists and arts and culture advocates.
Historic preservationists concerned by plans
In May of 2020, This Is Reno published an opinion piece by former Sierra School of Performing Arts board member Randi Thompson entitled “Save the Lear.” In it, Thompson noted she was “breaking the silence now” about that organization’s failed 2018 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.”
Ken Krater, a Reno native, is a developer and president of Krater Consulting Group. He has been working with Artown on the plans for the Lear.
Krater said in the spring of 2020 that “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.”
Krater and his group also said they 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.
In June, Krater also said that an apartment complex was an at least tentative part of those plans—though not just beneath or behind the theater. He said he and his group had put together projections for possible financial returns associated with the addition of apartments and had begun working with city officials on things like flood control and would be seeking input from community stakeholders. He said the tentative plan would be for an apartment complex with 45 to 50 units built to the east of the Lear, with potentially another eight or so units built into the back of the building facing First Street.
At the time, Krater indicated that he was aware that there would be hurdles to jump in order to gain approval for a new structure next to the historical theater—which is on both local and national historical registers. However, he said he believed 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.
In September 2020, Krater appeared on KTVN’s Face the State and reaffirmed plans for a luxury apartment complex on the site.
“A theater [alone] doesn’t generate enough revenue to be able to finance renovation of the theater, and, so, I always thought in the back of my head that we need to figure out some sort of revenue-generating source that can complement the theater,” Krater said during his appearance. “So, essentially, what I came up with is the idea of building a beautiful apartment complex next to, but not attached to, the theater—because obviously apartments are in high demand.”
Local historian Alicia Barber spoke with publication Our Town Reno following Krater’s Face the State appearance to express her concerns for it and the surrounding area, including Bicentennial Park to its east.
“As much as we all want the Lear renovated, everyone should be alarmed at what this proposal would do to the public streets around it,” she wrote in an email to Our Town Reno. “Back in 1973, the Fleischmann Foundation gave the City of Reno an emergency grant to purchase the triangle bounded by Ralston and First streets and the Truckee River, specifically to prevent that area from ever being privately developed. And now this plan requires the City to permanently close the adjacent block of Ralston Street along with a major chunk of Riverside Drive, the most beautiful drive in downtown Reno, to build luxury apartments there? That’s outrageous.”
Preserve Nevada offers to work with stakeholders
In the letter, Bryan expressed his organization’s willingness to work with stakeholders, including Artown and the City of Reno, to help preserve the theater—which Preserve Nevada has placed on its list of Nevada’s 11 Most Endangered Places.
Bryan wrote that members of his organization, “are concerned about the plans being discussed.”
Preserve Nevada opposes both the idea of building apartments on the site and also the notion of having the City of Reno abandon parts of Riverside Drive and Ralston Street.
Riverside Drive, Bryan’s letter read, is “the only street that enables one to drive along the river” and noted that “the street, the river, and the drive are historic in their own rights.”
“…We have just recently signed an NDA…If these discussions prove fruitful we will share the plans with the community.”
It also stated that the creation of Bicentennial Park “was intended to stop exactly the kind of building now proposed in the middle of Ralston Street” and that a proposed outdoor amphitheater there would duplicate one that already exists a few blocks east in Wingfield Park.
“We urge all of those involved to do their best to protect the history and beauty of Riverside Drive along the Truckee River, and continue to work together on behalf of preserving the Lear Theater and its intrinsic value to the past and present to the Reno area,” Bryan concluded.
This Is Reno reached out to Krater and Artown Reno for comment. Krater said he had not seen the letter and was unable to speak about the matter because he had a non-disclosure agreement with Artown.
Artown responded with a written statement but made no comment on the Preserve Nevada letter.
The statement said Artown’s goals of restoring the theater and seeing it turned into “a financially feasible community theater in perpetuity” had not changed.
The statement concluded: “Artown is in preliminary discussions with a group who are interested in preserving and building out the theater. To this end we have just recently signed an NDA. We plan to start discussions on what might be possible for the community, the theater, Artown and this group in the coming weeks.
“We are not at liberty to discuss anything further at this time. If these discussions prove fruitful we will share the plans with the community.”
Various organizations’ estimates to restore the Lear Theater have varied dramatically. Artown’s own estimates have ranged somewhere around $6 million, but Thompson and others have said they believe that’s not near enough money.
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.