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Reno’s next big gamble (commentary)


The Barber Brief is an independent e-newsletter and blog written by Dr. Alicia Barber on the Substack platform. It is reposted by This Is Reno with her permission.

By Alicia Barber

This week in the Barber Brief Alicia discusses how the timing of public planning and Jacobs Entertainment’s acquisition of land in Reno’s “northwest quadrant” coincided, and how city leaders decided to hand the reins to the developer.

Anyone who studies the development of cities becomes keenly aware of the perils of failure to plan, to act in haste without considering the full breadth of potential repercussions, to make a series of uncoordinated decisions without considering how (or even if) all the pieces will fit together. Throughout history, the failure of cities to thoughtfully plan has resulted in the marginalization of populations, the destruction of character and continuity, and the creation of places where no one wants to go.

Failure to plan has long been the governing story of downtown Reno. Throughout the city’s history, those in control over its most prominent spaces repeatedly gambled on the next big thing, hoping to reinvent, rebrand, and redefine the city in the eyes of the world, without taking the time to carefully construct a vision of its own, to work with the community to retain what they valued most. (For more on that, check out my book Reno’s Big Gamble: Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City now available in eBook).

The main culprit, ultimately, was the privileging of a single industry—gambling—which, as it expanded, pushed residents out from the spaces it came to dominate. It did that not because people didn’t want to be around tourists (or because residents never went to the casinos themselves), but because the physical form and function of casinos proved incompatible with regular city life. Rather than integrating into and complementing their surrounding environment, casino resorts strive to be exceptional—not to fit in but to stand out, to serve as an escape, a departure from the everyday.

The Virginia Street facade of Circus Circus, part of The ROW, which has an inward focus and no street-front retail or attractions. Photo: Chris Vega for ThisisReno.com.

And for the most part, that’s okay. As competition weeded out the smaller fish, most area resorts—the Atlantis, the Peppermill, the Grand Sierra, the Nugget in Sparks—came to occupy a space apart, at little cost to what surrounds them. The most problematic in terms of urban integration has been the tri-resort The ROW, the self-proclaimed “city within a city” in the heart of downtown, which has steadfastly retained its inward focus, forcing revitalization efforts to essentially work around it.

Reno’s urban revival gained new vigor and direction with the revision of its Master Plan, a 2.5-year process involving thousands of residents that was adopted in 2017. That and the more focused Downtown Action Plan put residents and livability first, bringing Reno into alignment with best urban practices. Just this week, the website Strong Towns reposted a 2017 article by Arian Horbovetz called “The Big Urban Mistake: Building for Tourism vs. Livability” that I highly encourage you to read. It will sound strikingly familiar, laying out the perils of catering to large-scale, big money promises to bolster tourism rather than building a strong, resident-centered downtown where everyone wants to spend time. With its new Master Plan in hand, Reno acknowledged the continuing role of entertainment in the core “Entertainment District,” but made a strong move toward the second, more sustainable path.

But then a new player entered the scene. In mid-2017, Jacobs Entertainment, a massive gaming and entertainment company that had long held a financial interest in the Gold Dust West, purchased the Sands Regency. The company began to amass real estate on and around West 4th Street and to demolish motels and other structures in the name of blight reduction and revitalization, for what Jacobs, by the fall of 2017, described as a future “arts and entertainment district” called the “Fountain District.”

On June 13, 2018, these two trajectories met, as City Council faced the decision of whether to proceed with the already-budgeted development of a more specific plan for the Northwest Quadrant, an area of downtown that had been left largely undefined in the Master Plan (see p. 108) due to its eclectic composition. As it was, the plan encouraged (and still does) the City to “continue to support a mix of employment, service-oriented uses and residential uses through infill, redevelopment, and adaptive reuse of underutilized properties in the area.” The question at hand in June 2018 was whether to proceed with a more specific plan for the area, or let Jacobs Entertainment take the lead. The prescient 20-minute discussion can be viewed on YouTube here.

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