Records show ROW casinos got added input on downtown projects
The Reno City Council tomorrow will consider approving an updated agreement with the Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission that outlines numerous street projects in the region.
Seven major projects are proposed to be included in pending federal funding. Among the projects are contested downtown micro-mobility changes surrounding Virginia Street.
Construction is estimated to start in 2025.
City officials said $62.5 million in funding is following an outside consultant’s studies that focused on changes on the main downtown corridor while keeping the long-planned Center Street cycle track off the list of improvements.
This Is Reno reporting found last year a concerted effort among city and RTC officials to kill the Center Street project while not openly admitting that is what they were doing.
Gehl Studios, the city’s hired consultant that studied downtown for micro-mobility changes, did not consider Center Street as a focal point in its plans because the street was excluded from the request for proposals issued by the city.
The city council at Wednesday’s meeting will consider adding to the RTC agreement Gehl’s recommendations for Virginia Street.
“Since the development of this list, Council accepted the Gehl Placemaking Study and the Micromobility Pilot Study,” a staff report notes. “The amendment to include Virginia Street from Liberty Street to E. 9th Street as identified in the implementation plan of the Gehl Placemaking Study and the additional streets as determined from additional public input and Reno City Council and RTC Board approval on the Downtown Micromobility Network.”
Ky Plaskon with the Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance is among a number of people who are opposing the agenda item prior to Wednesday’s meeting.
“We are skeptical that such a high-dollar application will be accepted,” he told This Is Reno. “Most of the projects approved in the last grant round were for $1 million or less. The city is asking for $62 million and almost no projects were approved in the last round for that much money.”
The city is not paying for the road construction, but the city has to authorize approval of RTC projects within city limits.
Plaskon said the funding should focus on pedestrian safety.
“These proposed projects don’t solve the serious safety problems that were identified years ago in the Downtown Circulation Study,” he added. “There are serious safety issues on Center and Sierra streets for students trying to get around downtown and midtown.”
The meeting agenda, however, notes “these projects would implement proven safety countermeasures for pedestrians and micromodes.”
Specific changes remain to be seen, but the city in March authorized “facade improvements” downtown.
Downtown casinos were mentioned last year by Gehl as having fake facades and “dead spots” that prevent people from engaging with downtown.
The city, using the federal money, will match business investments “to assist in restoring, substantially beautifying, and/or enhancing the entire facade of a commercial building.”
No specific facades have been identified by the city. Public records obtained by This Is Reno hint that downtown casinos will benefit.
ROW execs get extra input on plans
Gehl Studios was selected last year to study downtown. After an online meeting with city officials, Gehl’s Olivia Flynn in May 2022 sent a meeting summary to city staff.
She noted: “The city has an established relationship with the ROW, who are a huge influence and guide the business stakeholder discussion.”
She added, however, “Locals do like casinos, but they don’t go to the casinos on Virginia Street.”
Once the city launched Gehl’s survey for public input last year, there was internal discussion over how many people were filling out the surveys – and where they resided. By July 17, 2022, only 9% of the people filling out the survey lived in the downtown area.
ROW casino executives sent a letter to the city as a survey response.
“The ROW is pleased that the City of Reno is conducting the ‘Future of Virginia Street’ survey for community members,” Caesars Entertainment executives wrote in a letter to Reno City Manager Doug Thornley. The letter was forwarded to Gehl.
“While the survey is set up for individual responses, we hope the City will accept these comments from the ROW as the largest employer in downtown Reno,” the ROW’s representatives added.
The letter was sent in August of 2022. The ROW’s representatives continued to push their ideas to city staff through this year.
City staff, in return, ensured ROW representatives they would be kept informed about Gehl’s work. After a meeting with the ROW in December, city staff wrote to the ROW’s Ken Ostempowski.
“We will make sure you have advanced notice as we get to the next phase of input on the various concept designs,” the city’s Amy Pennington assured Ostempowski.
Ostempowski, the ROW’s general manager, in January then requested another meeting.
“We wanted to reach out and ask if we could meet to get an update on the Virginia Street study planning phase, including any recommendations or comments from other stake holders [sic],” he wrote. “This would allow us a chance to understand the scenarios being considered, give us the opportunity to provide feedback, and stay close to the project and all the partners involved.”
Pennington wrote back to schedule a meeting. That meeting, scheduled for two hours, took place in February. It included a number of Caesars Entertainment employees as well as developer and casino lobbyist Jessica Sferrazza.
After that meeting, Ostempowski sent to the city a list of bullet points of the ROW’s requests.
Those included “the creation of some street parking on Virginia Street,” bike lanes in Virginia Street “and a limited number of cross streets” as well “movable structures, sculptures, or other decor on the Reno Ballroom plaza as long as it can be easily moved during our activation of that space.”
The Virginia Street bike lanes, however, should not have plastic “or other type of engineered, [sic] bollards be installed separating bike lanes,” Ostempowski added. “If bike lanes are installed on cross streets, and those streets are adjacent to ROW properties, we would like to discuss which cross streets include these lanes, to ensure optimal vehicle traffic.”
Plaskon said he was given the opportunity to meet with Gehl about downtown recommendations for about an hour, a meeting at which he said he was unclear if his input was incorporated into anything.
“Most of the time was taken up watching the same presentation we had already watched at the public meeting,” he told This Is Reno.
City emails also show Plaskon’s inquiries and input to Gehl were punted between Gehl’s staff and city officials. He called that a missed opportunity.
“The city council should direct staff to work with bike groups so that we can come back to the council with a joint proposal that includes a school study and micro modal paths on University and Sierra Streets at a much lower cost,” Plakon said. “Applications aren’t due until June 10th so we have plenty of time.”