NOTE: The following represents a collective effort among many individuals in the Reno community to establish a timeline for developments related to the historic houses of the UNR Gateway and to urge the university to give the community more time to save them.
Reno community members who have been closely involved with matters related to the University of Nevada, Reno Gateway are urging UNR President Marc Johnson to halt UNR’s imminent plans to demolish ten of the historic Queen Anne houses of the University Gateway district. It is our collective position that to raze these houses months or even years before building anything in their place would be a senseless act of destruction in violation of the public’s trust. A petition posted just last week by the Historic Reno Preservation Society already has more than 1,700 signatures from concerned citizens who also strongly oppose these plans.
All alternatives to demolition have not been exhausted and time has not run out. Contrary to the repeated assertions of UNR officials and spokespersons, those closely involved in preservation efforts strongly believe that the university has not provided the community with every opportunity to save as many of these houses as possible. Rather, UNR’s two efforts to relocate the houses were formulated and executed without any input from state or local historic preservation experts or organizations, and their failure in no way represents the exhaustion of all alternatives.
The claims by UNR that this demolition is required in order to raise funds and design the Gateway’s new buildings seem unsupported by previous university construction projects. Fundraising and architectural design for new construction can easily proceed, as it always does, without clearing a site, as the construction of the Engineering Building now underway on Evans Avenue clearly demonstrates. Indeed, fundraising and design for the College of Business building are clearly both well underway; Collaborative Design Studio has produced several generations of renderings for the new Business building, and the administration informed the UNR Faculty Senate as far back as November 2016 that a major private donor was interested in funding nearly all of its cost.
We urge university officials to be transparent with the community about how much time remains before potential groundbreaking for any new construction in the Gateway, and in the interim work openly with the community, this time with input from experts in historic preservation and state and local history, to formulate strategies to preserve these irreplaceable aspects of Reno’s disappearing 19th century heritage.
A Summary of UNR/Community Meetings Regarding the Gateway Houses
Those in the community who have been working to find solutions for these houses would like to help set the record straight when it comes to the university administration’s characterization of the past three years of discussions with that community regarding these houses and their fate. Since representatives of UNR have been meeting with the City of Reno’s Historical Resources Commission (HRC) and others about the houses, their removal has always appeared to have been the university’s primary objective. In contrast, the City’s Historical Resources Commission has encouraged a methodical and open-ended approach employing best preservation standards and practices to evaluate these historic resources and all options for preserving some of them in place before condoning their relocation.
Should relocation of these houses be deemed the only viable option to preserve them, the view of preservation organizations and specialists has always been that it should proceed with a view toward the long-term safety, integrity, and viable use of the structures, not as a simple act of removal to sites with sufficient square footage to fit them.
The HRC is the City of Reno’s professional advisory board for historic resources and the body that represents the public voice regarding historic preservation in Reno. This body was unfortunately not among the hundreds of people consulted in the creation of the University of Nevada’s Campus Master Plan 2015-2024. Neither were the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), the Historic Reno Preservation Society (HRPS), or anyone with specific expertise in historic resources. Because the university has no set policies governing evaluation of the historic structures it acquires, UNR was apparently unaware of the historical and architectural significance of the houses its new growth strategy planned to displace. A 2016 investigative report by This is Reno confirmed that, indeed, historic resources had not been considered in the university’s master planning.
As a result, the larger community and the HRC only became aware of the university’s plans for the Gateway after the revised campus master plan had been completed. Growing concerns in the community for the fate of the historic houses located there only intensified in February of 2016, when UNR was seeking the approval of the City of Reno’s Regional Center Plan, which formalizes the desired density for the UNR Gateway to bring it in keeping with the Master Plan. Because the new Floor Area Ratio (FAR) specified for the Gateway seemed to preclude retaining any of these houses in place, the HRC approached Reno City Council and UNR with their concerns.
University representatives attended several HRC meetings that winter and explained the need to build in the Gateway District to accommodate the university’s growth. In a February 16th meeting on the UNR campus attended by UNR President Marc Johnson, Todd Lankenau of Collaborative Design Studio, HRC chair Alicia Barber, HRC commissioner Melinda Gustin, and a few others, UNR Executive Director for External Relations Heidi Gansert showed a Powerpoint featuring photographs of various Queen Anne houses throughout town, ostensibly to demonstrate that the houses in the Gateway were not unique in the city. At that point, it became clear to those in attendance that the UNR representatives were not familiar with how historic resources are professionally evaluated, and the HRC began a series of significant efforts to help out in this regard.
They began by formulating new language for the amended Regional Center Plan that acknowledged the historic resources located in the Gateway and indicated that “In relation to potential historic resources, redevelopment in the University Campus Gateway Precinct on parcels not abutting North Virginia Street should prioritize in the following order: 1) preservation; 2) adaptive reuse; and 3) development that evaluates compatibility and integration of potential historic resources. Relocation of historic resources should be encouraged only in lieu of demolition.”
There was strong community support for integrating some of these houses with proposed new campus construction. Mike Van Houten of Downtown Makeover argued that the houses were valuable aspects of Reno’s history that should be incorporated into the University’s plans, as the City’s Master plan supported.
Facing increasing public concern that UNR intended to demolish these houses, President Johnson came to the City Council meeting on March 9, 2016, and explained the need for more dense development in the Gateway. He also, notably, committed to preserving the houses, if not in place, then in appropriate locations. His statements voiced there included the following:
“The last meeting we had, we talked about some alternatives to just leaving the houses where they are, the alternatives of possibly moving some of the historic homes to appropriate locations. Alicia Barber and Melinda Gustin are working on some additional alternatives. We are actively looking for additional alternatives as well, and we are committed to preserving these historic houses that are in this Gateway District, not necessarily in their current locations, but in locations that are appropriate to their history.”
“We’re committed to work with the HRC and start from scratch. We haven’t got the building built yet, or designed….we will continue that discussion and find some good alternatives before we finalize the design.”
This commitment to relocate the houses as a last resort was incredibly reassuring to the entire community because it indicated Johnson’s commitment to—but only as a last resort—relocating the houses to appropriate locations in coordination with the HRC, rather than demolishing them. But first, he publicly committed to starting from scratch with the university’s designs for new construction in the Gateway, taking the identified historic resources into account, and bringing some of those ideas back to City Council.
At this point the HRC’s next goal was to provide the university with as much information as possible regarding this historic cultural landscape linking the community to the university, in order to allow UNR and the HRC to best collaborate on ideas that might integrate some of these houses with campus expansion plans. At HRC urging, the City of Reno commissioned and funded a professional architectural survey of the houses and provided the results to Heidi Gansert. That survey concluded that six of the Gateway houses were individually eligible to the National Register of Historic Places and most of the rest are eligible as contributing structures. That’s just the National Register. One—the Mary Sherman House—is already listed on the city and state historic registers, and they are all eligible for those registers as well.
Additionally, with the help of the community, a digital tour of the Historic UNR Gateway was created for Reno Historical to confirm their dates of construction and to illuminate some of the stories and people that, along with their architecture, lend all of these houses such rich historical significance.
At President Johnson’s invitation, representatives of historic preservation interests including HRC chair Alicia Barber met with UNR officials and Todd Lankenau of Collaborative Design Studio on campus on March 29, 2016. Barrie Lynn brought a large interactive map that would allow the group to experiment with different configurations of historic houses along with new university structures with the square footage the university required for its new buildings. Community members held a well-attended meeting later that same day where local residents were excited to use the board to consider various options.
President Johnson and Heidi Gansert then attended a special meeting of the HRC on April 7, 2016 where Johnson stated that the Business building’s designers, Collaborative Design Studio, would go back to the drawing board and evaluate whether some of the houses might be incorporated. Johnson stated the following:
“So are all options on the table, forever, until we find your solution? Well, maybe not. But we certainly do want to continue to have conversations in this order of—well, in the other order—of opportunities. Right now we’re only trying to place one building. The rendering of a closed Center Street, to actually have a good campus feel, could that include some of the historic homes? Certainly. Could it have buildings on both side of the street? Yes. Could some of those be historic homes? Possibly. I think we would have to work with our professional planners to try to work that out.”
That sounded incredibly encouraging, and the HRC—a group that by its very requirements includes professional historians, architects, engineers, and preservation specialists—looked forward to more hands-on collaboration with university-hired planners to discuss options for retaining some of the Center Street houses in place. Unfortunately, that did not occur. At the City Council meeting on April 27, 2016, when the Regional Center Plan was up for a vote, Councilman David Bobzien, the council’s designated liaison to the Historical Resources Commission, expressed disappointment that he had not received any of the promised materials from President Johnson.
In her public comments to City Council, HRC chair Alicia Barber urged City Council to adopt the HRC’s amended language but also expressed her disappointment in the lack of productive dialogue regarding how to integrate these houses with new construction in light of their demonstrated significance. However, given the assertion from UNR that they would continue to collaborate with the HRC to discuss all options, City Council passed the amended plan.
Less than three months later, on July 14, 2016, President Johnson and Heidi Gansert attended an HRC meeting and announced that the university’s planners had completed their analysis and had determined that all twelve of the historic houses must be removed. As a justification, it was stated that based on their analysis, the university could secure far fewer offices from converting the houses into offices than they could from a new multi-story building. President Johnson then asked a stunned HRC to help UNR find new locations for all of the houses. It seemed then that the university’s analysis of these historic resources had been limited to quantifying their useful square footage, not a comprehensive evaluation of their intrinsic historical and cultural value.
Frustrated by the university’s seemingly superficial and end-driven analysis, the HRC composed and circulated a letter to all involved parties in September 2016 in which they expressed their cumulative frustration that University of Nevada officials were not taking seriously their commitment to evaluate all alternatives to relocating all of these houses or taking their historical value into account.
At that point, the HRC did not believe that the university’s stated desire to move ahead with relocating all twelve houses was warranted. The community’s interest in discussing the possibility of leaving the Center Street houses, in particular, in place stemmed from several comments Johnson had made earlier:
- First, on April 7th, he told the HRC that the university’s initial goal in the Gateway was to construct a “signature building” facing Virginia Street that would alert the community of the university’s presence. Obviously, Center Street does not face Virginia Street, so it seemed reasonable to further evaluate the possibility that the new College of Business building might both be sited closer to Virginia Street and at the same time integrate the row of historic houses on the west side of Center Street.
- Second, the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County (RTC) revealed that their plan to install some sort of transit stop on Virginia Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets would require much less land than UNR appeared to be reserving for this purpose. Here is a comparison of those two assessments by the RTC (left) and UNR (right):
Source: rtcwashoe.com (left) and UNR President Marc Johnson, as presented to the HRC (right)
- Third, President Johnson had publicly committed on March 9th to preserving the Gateway houses in place or elsewhere. He told Mayor Hillary Schieve, and she assured the public, that the houses would not be demolished. As a result, the community believed it was important, and fully warranted, to further explore all options to keep some of the houses in place, focusing on those of Center Street, before moving on to what was mutually agreed upon as the final option: relocation.
Again, the HRC and HRPS set out to methodically explore alternatives. HRPS commissioned an architectural rendering to depict how the historic houses on the west side of Center Street could be integrated with the square footage the UNR said it needed for its new Business building. After months of analysis, she was able to demonstrate that the desired massing for the new College of Business building would be compatible with retaining the historic houses on the west side of Center Street (with their non-historic additions removed) were the Business building to be moved a bit further west toward Virginia Street, onto property that it appeared the RTC would need to acquire for its new transit station, but would not be using in its entirety. The below image is only intended to demonstrate available massing, not design.
In the diagram, the historic houses on the west side of Center Street are indicated in red, the stated RTC spatial needs appear on the bottom, and all the remaining space is shaded blue.
This visualization depicts the space that could be available for prominent UNR construction, were the university to enter into a partnership with the RTC to coordinate development on the Virginia Street-facing parcel. Again, this is simply showing massing, not design or setbacks.
Johnson and Gansert agreed to meet with representatives of HRPS in July of 2017 where they viewed these 13 boards and a short visualization of this option. President Johnson seemed, by their accounts, to exhibit interest in the idea, but never followed up with them.
What the community did not know at the time was that the UNR administration was already working on plans to relocate the houses without the involvement of the HRC or any other preservation professionals or organization. Ron Zurek informed the Faculty Senate about this plan in November of 2016, although the community did not find out about it until much later.
From the recording of that November meeting, Ron Zurek:
“On the west side of Center St. there are six houses, including our Real Estate house. We have a commitment to the City Council, the historical community, and to others that we will re-locate these houses. We are going to make every attempt to keep them together as a group. We have located a site; thank goodness it belongs to the State of Nevada, so we will be able to negotiate a good deal. It is just south of the freeway, and we are hoping to present a plan that will be approved by everybody–that will allow us (one by one) to move these houses and again, keep them together and preserve the historical context, and yet be able to use that very important site south of the campus.”
The community only learned later of this plan, spearheaded by Heidi Gansert, apparently to secure funds from the State of Nevada (perhaps through Housing and Urban Development?) to move some of the houses to publicly-owned land (eventually a city park, although other sites may have been considered) in Reno to be used for housing by Washoe County. She did not involve the HRC or anyone in the preservation community in that plan.
After working on this plan for what must have been close to a year, President Johnson and Heidi Gansert attended a meeting of the HRC in September 2017 and presented it to the commissioners as a done deal. Slides in their presentation depicted five of the historic houses wedged into Eighth Street Park, a narrow park perched on an embankment on the south side of Interstate 80 between Record Street and Valley Road. In the following slide shown to the HRC by UNR, north is at the top of the slide.
Source: Marc Johnson presentation to Historical Resources Commission
The HRC tried to explain that this site was completely inappropriate to the long-term preservation of these five houses or their intended use. The houses would have no front or back yards, and would have backed up against the steep embankment stretching down to the rushing traffic of the interstate. The houses originally located there had been removed in the 1960s to make way for the construction of I-80, and the land had been allowed by NDOT to become a city park because it had been deemed unsuitable for any development, much less habitation.
Apparently City of Reno Assistant City Manager Bill Thomas was also involved in formulating this plan, because he showed the exact same presentation shown by President Johnson to the City of Reno Recreation and Parks Commission in October of 2017. Clearly officials at the state and county levels were also involved, but no one mentioned anything to the HRC or SHPO.
The Board of Regents was then asked to pre-approve the relocation of all of the Gateway houses, something that was also not mentioned to the HRC or SHPO. It was at that time that historian and former HRC chair Alicia Barber wrote a previous blog post stating that the fate of the Gateway houses deserved a transparent public discussion.
In any case, sometime over the next few months, that plan fell apart, because the UNR spokesperson said so in the announcement that UNR was opening a Request for Proposals (RFP) in April of 2018 to relocate the houses.
Like the university’s previous relocation effort, this RFP was uninformed by historic preservation best practices and did not demonstrate knowledge of what responsible relocation of these houses must entail. Its writers did not consult the HRC, the SHPO or any preservation specialist when formulating its language, requirements, or timeline. Its description of the houses contained barely any information about them, not even their dates of construction or any of the information that was provided to UNR including the architectural survey or information posted on Reno Historical.
The university’s RFP gave applicants just six weeks to “show ownership, or show written contractual site control, of the real estate proposed which the house(s) will be relocated to.” For anyone hoping to acquire multiple houses, this was practically impossible. Indeed, as it turned out, no applicant could demonstrate ownership of enough land in Reno in that short timeframe to relocate more than a single house. It is surprising that the university did not then conclude that perhaps its stated timeline was unrealistic.
The HRC and HRPS backed one group’s proposal to move the houses to Evans Park, in the UNR Gateway. Because that land is publicly owned, the group had to quickly schedule public meetings with the HRC, the Recreation and Parks Commission, and Reno City Council to discuss it. In truth, the only reason they were even able to present as complete a proposal as they did was because they had begun work on it in February, a full two months before the surprise RFP was issued, in order to offer a responsible alternative to the university’s Eighth Street Park plan. Reno City Council expressed interest in the proposal and unanimously supported their application to UNR, contingent upon continued discussions over valid uses of the park.
City attorneys later issued their opinion that the Deed of Gift granting Evans Park to the City of Reno in the 1920s would prohibit its use as anything but a park, although the applicants, Truckee Meadows Heritage Trust, contended that their proposed use would still quality as a park. Reno City Manager Sabra Newby contacted the group to see if they would be interested in two other city-owned sites: one on an industrial site near Keystone Avenue adjacent to the railroad tracks, and another at the former CitiCenter site in the shadow of the National Bowling Stadium and a massive parking garage. Both might have contained the requisite square footage for multiple houses, but they were completely unsuitable for these historic Queen Annes, both in terms of their settings as well as the inability to conceive of any practical use or tenants for them there. Other options might have been considered, but the university’s timeline precluded any additional exploration.
In private discussions, UNR’s evaluation committee, whose members have never been identified, decided to award two of the houses to individuals, and selected the proposal submitted by Common Ground Urban Development on behalf of Burning Man plan to relocate the remaining houses to vacant land two miles north of the small town of Gerlach, 120 miles north of Reno.
Source: Common Ground’s proposal in response to UNR’s request for proposals, made available by Reno-Gazette Journal
The university then engaged with this group in negotiations for three months, and when Common Ground ultimately withdrew their application in October 2018, the university spokesperson stated that the next step would be demolition, an incomprehensible leap. It is not the community’s fault that Common Ground submitted an unworkable proposal or that the university’s rushed RFP had elicited no other options for saving the ten remaining houses.
The charming row of Queen Anne houses on Center Street comprise an incredibly significant cultural, historical, and architectural landscape, as they have nearly since the university’s establishment. Through their history of occupancy, they touch upon every aspect of Reno’s history, from education, business, and politics to journalism and the arts. The dates of their construction are contemporary with those of the university’s Lincoln and Manzanita Halls and their architecture and construction reflect a level of detail and craftsmanship that is increasingly rare in our rapidly developing city. In their longtime use as everything from residences to churches and offices, as well as their location adjacent to campus, they physically embody the true meaning of a “university town.”
The community would not be going to all this effort to responsibly evaluate the potential of retaining some of these houses in place, and crafting responsible relocation alternatives for them, were the houses not so significant. The local community did not voice widespread objections to the demolition of the historic houses on Evans Avenue, but the houses on Center Street are special.
The university may have fulfilled the requirements mandated by state law to document the houses of the Gateway before disposing of them, but these houses deserve more than the university’s “due diligence.” A state university should be leading the way in responsible stewardship of historic resources—not just those that were purpose-built for the university campus, but also for those the university acquires.
UNR officials have revealed multiple times to the UNR Faculty Senate that they have been speaking with a private donor or donors for years about funding a new College of Business building in the Gateway, and the university is understandably eager to announce this burgeoning partnership, but first wish to “resolve” the issue of these historic houses once and for all. We would respectfully state that this is not the way to go about it.
If the university does not wish for its new College of Business building and its donor(s) to be permanently associated with the destruction of irreplaceable historic houses, then the university should not demolish them long before the groundbreaking for any new buildings would begin. It is time for the university to get more people in the room—people representing both the university and the community—as well as specialists in historic preservation, to discuss the future of these houses.
Nobody knows when the RTC will be able to proceed with the northern component of their Virginia Street transit project, in the university area. If all the RTC plans to build in the Gateway is a bus pullout, then the majority of the half-block fronting Virginia Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets could ultimately be available for UNR’s new College of Business building. If the RTC plan never transpires, then the campus entrance that UNR wants so badly to enhance will still consist of two downtrodden motels. Why not wait until we know for sure what will be available on the Virginia Street-facing parcels and enter into a partnership with the RTC to plan the area together?
The row of houses on Center Street, perhaps with the single Riegg House on the east side moved to the south end of the west side, could be enormous assets if remaining in place. Responsibly restored, renovated, and filled with new life, they could house not just offices but retail, commercial, coffee shops or eateries, benefiting the campus community. Interpretive signage would reveal the incredible story of their survival and link past and present, for the future benefit and pride of the entire community.
However, if the university truly wishes all of the houses removed, they owe it to the broader community to provide an opportunity to give UNR its blank canvas without needlessly sacrificing these irreplaceable houses long before the site is needed. University leaders including President Johnson have stated repeatedly over the last 2+ years a commitment to relocating these houses rather than demolishing them, and the community believed them. If the university is currently open to proposals to move these houses, they should make that option public as soon as possible so that everyone is aware of what they are doing. But first, it is critical that UNR halt its demolition plans and be transparent about the anticipated timeline for new construction in the Gateway. With so much at stake, let’s work together, as befitting a true university town, to find a solution that works for everyone.