by Dana Gentry, Nevada Current
November 1, 2021
The plan seemed solid. Provide the burgeoning number of University of Nevada Reno students residing in hotels and rentals with a safe, direct, dedicated path for bikes, scooters and skateboards through decaying downtown to Midtown, a thriving area south of UNR.
“Students are essentially cut off unless they want to walk or drive in the area, which is really congested,” Ky Plaskon, president of the Truckee Meadows Bike Alliance, said in an interview. “In between Midtown and the University is downtown Reno, a kind of dead zone of closed businesses, pawn shops and fake storefronts.”
A $140,000 taxpayer-funded study of three alternatives, including adjacent Virginia Street, settled on Center Street as the best route.
“It’s a straight shot from point A to point B,” says Plaskon. Other alternatives required bicyclists to mingle with traffic, he says, creating a disaster waiting to happen.
The $13 million plan won preliminary approvals and the Regional Transportation Center began work on the design, which is about a third completed, officials say.
Then came the letter from attorney Michael Pagni of McDonald Carano on behalf of three adjacent Virginia Street casinos owned by Caesars Entertainment Inc. — Circus Circus, Eldorado and Silver Legacy — requesting the RTC study “new transportation investments along the Virginia Street corridor to revitalize downtown and create a clean, safe and attractive destination.”
The company, Pagni says, was invited by the RTC to weigh in.
“When Caesars Entertainment realized that thousands of people might be riding bikes through downtown, but not directly past their casinos,” the company opposed the approved plan, Plaskon says, “saying that despite the engineering studies, it believed Virginia Street in front of their casinos would be better for a bike path. Caesars also requested another study.”
“We understand initial studies have considered Center Street as a possible location; however, we believe Virginia Street is a more appropriate corridor,” Pagni wrote in the letter to the RTC. “Virginia Street generally has fewer vehicles and slower traffic then (sic) Center Street. … Additionally, Virginia Street provides greater access to retail and other business uses which are likely to be frequented by bicyclists. Activating Virginia Street with bicycle connectivity is more aligned with current and future development plans.”
Now, the city and RTC are backtracking and commissioning a Downtown Placemaking Study. City council members, with the exception of Jenny Brekhus, who voted against a do-over, say the new effort doesn’t spell the end of the Center Street plan.
But a June email from RTC director Bill Thomas obtained by the Current says the Center Street plan is on hold.
“Pausing the project after completion of the 30% project plans was my decision. We did consult with key City staff about this pause but it was neither initiated nor promoted by them,” Thomas wrote to a variety of interested parties, including Reno and Washoe County officials. “It was my determination that materially significant facts/questions had arisen such that further evaluation was warranted before we proceeded to final design.”
An August report from the RTC notes no concerns have surfaced.
“So, what’s the relationship between the two? Shouldn’t we finish one before we move on to the next?” Brekhus asked during an interview. “We were working on Center Street, and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, ‘Let’s do Virginia Street.’ And the question is, ‘Well, what’s going on with Center Street?’ So it was like pulling teeth to understand.”
Pagni, the attorney representing the hotels, said via email the hotels are “not opposed to consideration of other alignments.” He declined to say if that included a bike path that bypassed the Virginia Street casinos.
“We’re trying to hold accountable the elected officials that approved this and made a commitment.”
Brekhus says the RTC’s design phase may have revealed legitimate concerns with the Center Street plan.
“But bring them forward in a public setting in the context of that project and the technical nature of that project,” she said. “Don’t be a part of a bait and switch over to another street.”
Washoe RTC project manager Maria PazFernandez says the design of the Center Street project continues and the RTC is “still finalizing details regarding the final scope of the project, which will also include the results of the Downtown Placemaking study. Based on these results, the 30% design plans might need to be adjusted to better complement the vision of downtown Reno.”
An RTC report from August identifies no concerns with the Center Street project but notes Virginia Street is being considered as an alternative.
“The City of Reno and the Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission have caved, stopping the project mid-stream and spending $150,000 to ‘study’ the area again to try to solve a fundamental problem facing Downtown Reno,” Plaskon says.
But RTC Executive Director Bill Thomas says the project received only “initial approval.”
“What seems to be either misunderstood or intentionally ignored (we have explained this on many occasions) is that the initial approval was necessary to allow us to move forward to spend public funds on this potential project,” Thomas said via email. “That approval was a necessary but not final approval of the project.”
“They study and study and study,” Brekhus said of the Washoe RTC, “But then they have a real problem matching that up to their programming. And I’m concerned that that’s where this one’s going.”
The University Student Senate said in a letter it supports the protected bike path on Center Street, which UNR announced recently it hopes to rename University Street. A spokesman for UNR President Brian Sandoval said “we do not have enough information at this time to comment.”
The study to take a second look at locating the project on Virginia Street drew one letter in support and 16 in opposition, Reno city officials noted in September.
Mayor Hillary Schieve said at the Sept. 8 meeting that those opposed to taking another look at Virginia Street were “gaslighting the process.” She did not respond to the Current’s request for comments.
“There are a lot of people behind the scenes that are really concerned with the way that this has gone down,” Plaskon says. “We’re trying to hold accountable the elected officials that approved this and made a commitment.”
But city officials say the design process has revealed concerns, such as eliminating 80 parking spots on Center Street — 25 of them in Midtown, where a loss of parking hurts business. The other 55 spaces would be relinquished in downtown Reno.
Plaskon says the Bike Alliance is working to educate business owners that the loss of vehicle parking would be offset by bicyclists.
“You have a parking problem right now. People can’t find parking so they don’t go. When you put in a bike path, a protected one and you put in bike parking, then instead of losing 80 customers, you’ve gained a thousand because people want to come and can come, whereas right now, they can’t,” he said.
Reno councilwoman Neoma Jardon says the suggestion that the placemaker study negates the bike bath approved for Center Street is a “conspiratorial sort of crazy” theory. She said the council is ensuring it’s “expending taxpayer dollars in the appropriate way in the appropriate places so as not to have to go back and do them again. I think that frustrates our taxpaying folks significantly.”
Plaskon says duplicating its efforts is exactly what the council is doing.
“What they’re essentially doing is starting over by doing another study. And that’s not okay,” he says. “That’s not the way that we do things in government.”
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