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Virginia Street placemaking survey results raise more questions about downtown’s future

By Bob Conrad

The city of Reno’s consultant that is exploring potentially major changes to downtown’s Virginia Street yesterday said more than 2,700 people weighed in on the matter. About 40 people attended a presentation last night at the McKinley Arts and Culture Center that presented some of the community feedback.

A city survey drew wide ranging comments about what Virginia Street should look like in the future. The consultant, San Francisco-based Gehl, repeatedly stressed potential for “activating spaces” downtown.

“Even though the project for this is placemaking on Virginia Street, [it] is part of a network, so we can’t just assign it in isolation,” said Gehl’s Sofie Kvist. “So it’s really important that all these spaces work together, even though the focus of the actual project is beginning.”

They called out The Row casinos’ fake facades – among a number of problems – as a hindrance to pedestrian activity downtown. Kvist called such areas “dead spots” – 70% of the spots on Virginia Street downtown – where people don’t engage with the street.

Survey results also confirmed what most locals already know: Downtown is not a destination for Reno residents. Half of the respondents said they don’t feel safe downtown.

One person attending the meeting last night said downtown is unsafe, prone to crime and smells like urine. 

Kvist said that means there is opportunity for improvement.

“One of the things that was mentioned by a lot of people was that…they don’t feel safe all the time at all times of day on Virginia Street,” Kvist added. “One of the things that we learned through this process was that Virginia Street draws local visitors for events, but it’s not really a place that we might gravitate towards every day,” she said.

When there are no events, which is most of the year, Reno residents don’t go downtown.

The fake facades of The Row casinos, including Silver Legacy and Circus Circus, were called a hindrance to pedestrian activity in downtown Reno. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

“Everyday invitations are not quite there,” Kvist said.

Downtown housing, however, is changing the dynamic of people coming to and living in Reno’s urban center.

“That also means that there’s an increased local population, and they are going to … need amenities,” Kvist said. “And with this, it means that the downtown is on a trajectory to become what we call a complete neighborhood where people live, people work [and] people play…”

Basic neighborhood amenities, such as a grocery store, are absent downtown.

What actually changes downtown remains to be seen. Kvist said they will again survey the community before drafting potential design changes for the street.

Downtown Reno's micro-mobility project.
Downtown Reno’s micro-mobility project was installed at the same time a placemaking study was being launched in downtown Reno. Local business owners said both projects happening at the same time was confusing for residents.
Image: Ty O’Neil / This Is Reno

Questions remain. 

“Who’s going to pay for it?” asked Landon Mack, who owns Palace Jewelry and Loan downtown. “I have multiple concerns. How many consulting firms are we going to hire? It’s very, very difficult to understand where we’re going.”

He cited the micromobility project and the placemaking study survey as confusing to be happening at the same time. 

He said he’s not opposed to changes but was critical of how the city handled the changes. 

“It just seems to be when big casinos want to do something, the city just folds up like a cheap suit,” Mack added. “There’s just too many questions.”

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