Reno’s Blight Problem

July 5, 2016

The City of Reno has a blight problem.

No, the problem isn’t that Reno is suffering from a plague of urban blight. Despite the proliferation of vacant and deteriorating single-family houses and mid-century motels on the northern edge of the traditional casino core near Interstate 80, blight is not the cause or condition of the degraded appearance of this section of town, much of which is owned by a group of private investors.

Rather, the city’s blight problem is the fact that a handful of these structures are being defined as “blight” without a thorough and transparent public discussion of whether the term actually applies to them, who should be held responsible for their degraded condition, and whether money from the city’s limited blight reduction fund should be expended tomorrow (Wednesday, July 6th) to demolish two of them: the Golden West Lodge and the Heart o’ Town Motel on the 500 block of North Virginia Street.

If you haven’t been following the discussion, the City of Reno is poised to spend about $216,000 from its $1 million blight reduction fund to demolish these two late 1950s motels, which have stood vacant for many years across Virginia Street from Circus Circus. The City’s proposed plan is to foot the bill to demolish the buildings, requiring the property owners to repay the City upon the future sale of the properties. If the property owners don’t pay the City back, the City would impose a lien on the property and take ownership of them. This decision is scheduled to be made at noon tomorrow at a hastily scheduled special meeting of City Council.

Clearly something should be done with these long-neglected vacant motels. Anyone can see that they look terrible in their current state and don’t reflect well on our community, and it’s understandable that many downtown business owners, city officials, and residents want them gone. That’s not the problem; the problem is the mechanism by which the City is proposing to get rid of them and the lack of an open and transparent public process in hatching and executing that plan.

At its heart, the primary problem is defining these properties as examples of “blight” at all. The deteriorated condition of these two motels is not due to the systemic forces that commonly produce urban blight (abandonment, deindustrialization, and depopulation). It is the result of a strategic, economically-motivated decision deliberately pursued and entirely controlled by the property owners.

A “blighted” property, by standard definitions, is in extremely poor condition due to one or more of the above factors. Demolition of a blighted property may be warranted if it is in such poor condition that its continued existence poses a significant public hazard and/or an obstacle to investment. That’s basically the argument that was being made by the entities that supported the demolition of these motels at the City Council meeting on June 21st.  But neither of these two conditions applies here. First of all, the safety issue is a red herring; these properties are no less a public hazard than any other vacant downtown property—and perhaps less so, as they are encircled by fences. Cited as evidence of their imminent danger was the existence of needles on the floor and the stripping of copper wiring, both of which are no indication of structural instability and are easily resolved.

Secondly, a reputable local developer (HabeRae) with experience rehabilitating and transforming similar structures has now offered to purchase these motels (and their neighbors) in order to adaptively reuse them (that the offer was rejected as too low is not a reflection on their potential for rehabilitation, just of the owners’ self-imposed threshold for an acceptable profit  margin). And Northern Nevada Urban Development Co., the LLC that owns the structures, turned down those offers, ostensibly because they feel confident that they can receive a higher offer for the land fairly soon. Therefore, the condition of these motels, despite their degraded appearance, is clearly not an obstacle to investment in downtown. Rather, the land on which they stand IS the investment, purchased specifically for purposes of profit, with no intent by their purchasers to ever improve the structures on it.

No one is disputing that these motels don’t look good. But that does not make them irredeemably “blighted”; that makes them neglected by investors who have chosen to keep them in poor condition as they await more lucrative offers for the land on which they sit.

It isn’t entirely clear, since none of the conversations took place in public, but demolishing the motels seems to have been the brainchild of Operation Downtown, a group currently numbering 32 individuals originally assembled (with the best of intentions) by Mayor Schieve last year into a private working group to analyze and brainstorm solutions for downtown’s blight and homeless problems (I wish Operation Downtown were a public group; I’m not sure why, as advisory to the Mayor and city staff, it doesn’t have public meetings; it’s not even clear who’s on it). A Reno Gazette-Journal article in October of 2015 indicated that the Golden West Lodge might be demolished with the city’s blight funds, but didn’t indicate whose idea it was, and City staff at that point seemed to indicate that it wouldn’t come to that.

In another Reno Gazette-Journal article about the motels on June 13th of this year, Mayor Schieve praised Operation Downtown and the Reno City Council for their support in aggressively targeting blight. And yet, the first time that using city funds to demolish the motels appeared on a public meeting agenda was just three weeks ago, on the agenda for the June 15, 2016 meeting of the Reno City Council, with a staff recommendation to approve (the item was continued to June 21st due to the outbreak of a fire near Caughlin Ranch). There was great support for demolition of the motels at the June 21st meeting from representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, the Regional Alliance for Downtown (RAD), and Operation Downtown, who seemed surprised (not in a good way) that anyone should be questioning this plan, apparently months in the making. But you can’t help but arrive late to the table if you weren’t invited to the meal.

Let me be clear: I did not then, nor am I now arguing that these motels should be saved from demolition due to their architectural or historical significance. Rather, speaking only for myself, I argued on June 21st that demolishing these structures without a plan for their replacement seemed premature and, obviously, would permanently eliminate any opportunity to incorporate them into any future plans for the area—plans that to my knowledge have yet to transpire. I also challenged the notion that these motels were beyond hope of possible rehabilitation. Buildings in much worse condition than these have been made attractive and appealing through adaptive reuse and rehabilitation, in Reno and elsewhere.

That notion was supported by another of the voices raised in opposition at the June 21st City Council meeting—Kelly Rae, a reputable local developer who through her firm HabeRae has made a career of transforming structures many considered deteriorated and even irredeemably blighted (remember the old Firehouse with the Volkswagen spider on top, anyone?) into some of our area’s most innovative and appealing housing and mixed-use developments. Rae spontaneously offered during the meeting to purchase and redevelop these two motels in order to demonstrate their potential for adaptive reuse, and after a robust discussion, City Council postponed their decision on the motels until July 20th in order to allow her offer to be considered. Last week, the property owners rejected both of HabeRae’s two offers—first, to purchase these two motels; and second, to purchase the buildings in addition to several neighboring properties owned by the same LLC.

The owners’ rejection of those offers seems to have prompted the “emergency” special meeting of the City Council tomorrow, for which the motel issue is the only item on the agenda. After the June 21st meeting, I, in good faith, placed the motel issue on the agenda of the city’s Historical Resources Commission (which I chair), which next meets on July 14th. Due to this hastily scheduled special City Council meeting, we now won’t get a chance to submit formal comments as a body to the City Council, which our Commission is charged by city ordinance to advise regarding Reno’s historic resources (by the way, the term “historic” is defined by Nevada state statute as any structure at least 50 years old; this is different than “historically significant,” an important distinction).

Even the emailed newsletter of the Regional Alliance for Downtown (RAD), issued this morning (July 5th) indicated that City Council would not meet again regarding the motels until July 20th. Apparently few people even know this special meeting is happening.

If the City continues with the plan to demolish these motels despite the fact that a reputed developer has determined them perfectly suitable for rehabilitation (a position many more might take, if given the opportunity), then the City isn’t just trying to eliminate blight through this action; it’s making a determination about what kind of development it supports in this area. And if that’s what’s really happening here, then the City’s role in this case has clearly moved beyond blight reduction into the realm of city planning, without consulting the Planning Commission, the Historical Resources Commission, or the general public, as two other efforts currently underway (Reimagine Reno, and the “Downtown Action Plan” that the City hired Progressive Urban Management Associates to produce) are doing.

I understand that some downtown business owners, city officials, and residents don’t want these motels to be adaptively reused at all—that they don’t want to see them turned into affordable housing or artist studios or mixed-use development or boutique motels. They want something completely different to stand there—something that more clearly supports the widespread desire for greater density, walkability, and ground-level, pedestrian scale development in the downtown core. I get it. I’d be in favor of something like that, too, should a plan arise to construct something specific that would warrant the demolition of these motels. But a public body like the City doesn’t get to label a structure irredeemably “blighted” and use the City’s blight reduction fund to demolish it simply because it is run-down and because a vocal and powerful group of private citizens would prefer to see something else in its place—something that isn’t even being proposed (at least not publicly). That’s not how blight reduction, or how government, is supposed to work.

The existence of run-down buildings on a piece of land is not an impediment to development. Experienced developers have no trouble envisioning a proposed new structure on property already populated with buildings. One need only look two blocks east of these motels to the future site of the Standard at Reno, where a developer recently purchased an entire city block filled with dilapidated single-family homes with the intent to demolish them all and construct a single student housing structure in their place.

Demolishing these two motels using funds designated for blight reduction via a process that was not transparent and inclusive would set a troubling precedent. If these motels, then why not the old Masonic Lodge, or the Freight House, or the Reno Brewing Company Bottling Plant? You might say, “Oh, that would never happen. Those are too historic.” But if these motels are demolished using the City’s blight funds, without a greater opportunity for public discussion or consultation with the City’s Historical Resources Commission, the precedent has been set. Without a public process that involves abundant opportunity for public comment and consultation with the city’s own advisory boards, the same thing that is happening to these motels easily could happen to vacant, long-neglected, privately-owned buildings that carry greater architectural and historical significance for our city. What’s to stop it?

Involving the public isn’t an onerous process. It’s easy to charge people with opposing views as obstructionist to your preferred plan, but it’s an unfair charge to lob at people who had no opportunity to be involved in concocting that plan in the first place. If you don’t want to see members of the public showing up at the eleventh hour to question some of your assumptions and decisions, there’s an easy solution: invite them to the table when those decisions are first being made.

Reno’s limited blight funds should be used in situations where private investment cannot proceed without the City’s help—for instance, when a degraded property’s owner can’t be located, or when a property owner has struggled in good faith to keep a property well maintained but simply could not manage to do so, or if a structure is literally falling down or poses a significant and immediate threat to public safety.

Yes, the fantastic Mural Marathon at Circus Circus, directly across from these motels, is next week. Yes, we are just embarking upon a summer chock-full of special events and it would be nice for Virginia Street to look prettier for our visitors and residents. But that doesn’t justify calling these owner-neglected properties irredeemably “blighted” and sidestepping the public process in order to make them disappear.

It doesn’t matter how many newspaper articles have been written about an issue; if it doesn’t appear on a public agenda, it hasn’t been part of a public process. As Jane Jacobs once wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Reno’s Endangered Historic Buildings

There is much work to be done to preserve Reno’s architectural heritage. Some of our most historic properties are in dire need of realistic solutions in order to survive. Some are owned by sympathetic property owners in search of feasible solutions; others may require organized intervention to avoid irreparable damage or even demolition. For all, awareness of what’s at stake is the first step to ensure the preservation of some of our city’s most significant, and most beautiful, historic structures.

I’ll have more to say about this in the weeks to come. But for now, take a look at some of these buildings. They deserve the attention of local residents, who can help to persuade their owners to take care of them and help find the resources that will allow them to do so. Whether fifth-generation Renoites or new arrivals, we are all stewards of Reno’s heritage. These structures, ranging from 19th century Queen Anne homes to modest commercial brick buildings to architectural landmarks, all have enormous potential to contribute to our city’s character, its ongoing revitalization, and our economy. But when they’re gone, they’re gone. Let’s not allow that to happen on our watch.

Embracing the Divorce Capital of the World

A postcard from the 1940s adds a little humor to the notion of the Reno divorce. Postcard from the personal collection of Mella Rothwell Harmon.

Perhaps it’s no big surprise that Reno, Nevada hasn’t done much to promote or even to acknowledge its six decades as Divorce Capital of the World. The title might seem a dubious honor, implying that Reno’s culture proved so poisonous to the concept of stable wedlock that the city’s married couples didn’t stand a chance.

In fact, Reno’s migratory divorce trade played a pivotal role in enabling the matrimonially dissatisfied, abused, and abandoned to be free of their conjugal constraints, in the process increasing the widespread acceptance of divorce, empowering thousands of men and women to take charge of their own lives, and hastening the enactment of similar legislation nationwide.

At the same time, the divorce trade played a significant role in establishing Reno’s image and its tourist economy, something I covered at great length in my book, Reno’s Big Gamble. The unique industry clearly demonstrated the economic potential of attracting outsiders to the state (and to Reno in particular, as its largest and most accessible city) by legislating highly desirable activities not available elsewhere, and paved the way for its embrace of legalized wide-open gambling.

Illuminating Reno’s Divorce Industry is a project of the Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries

The absolute centrality of the migratory divorce trade to Reno’s development, and its largely unacknowledged significance both nationally and in Reno itself, prompted the creation of the new online exhibit and archive, Illuminating Reno’s Divorce Industry–a project I was thrilled to participate in for the past 15 months. A project of the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries, this effort involved digitizing over a thousand photos, books, pamphlets, diaries, postcards, and other materials; recording interviews with individuals who experienced the divorce trade firsthand; writing narratives to explain the many facets of the trade; and designing an exhibit and online archive to bring this story–in all its marvelous complexity–to the public.

Browse the online library, read the narratives, and listen to the voices, and I think you’ll begin to appreciate the magnitude of this six-decade industry and its wide-ranging contributions to the culture of Reno, the state of Nevada, and the United States. The legacies of this trade are everywhere–in Reno’s architectural and business landscape; in the large number of local residents who came to town for a Reno divorce and decided to stay; in the city’s longstanding identity as a cosmopolitan crossroads; and in this rich and often surprising collection of colorful stories that hold such potential for further research, for tourism, and for strengthening the identity of a community almost perpetually in transition.

Goodbye to the Virginia Street Bridge

Photo by Bob Harmon

Scott Sonner of the Associated Press has written a nice piece on Reno’s historic 1905 Virginia Street Bridge, soon to be demolished. I was glad to be able to share with him my thoughts about its significance to the city and beyond. You can read the story here.

Early one morning a few weeks ago, I stood on the bridge with three amazing women who devoted years to the effort to integrate preservation of the bridge into plans for the future of downtown Reno.  I joined those efforts soon after I moved to town in 2003, inspired by the bridge’s understated elegance and classical form, its centrality to Reno’s development and identity, and the multitude of stories it contains.

Together, we worked for years in pursuit of a solution that would allow the bridge to remain in place while still accommodating the needs of flood control and the concerns of downtown business owners, and it is important that we did that. It is right and good for us to make every attempt to combine development with preservation of our most historic structures. It is critical for us to ask questions and to engage in those difficult conversations, sharing our opinions in a public forum. We should continue to do that as a city. We owe it to our past, recognizing that the future we are building will be infinitely enriched by embracing the stories of who and what we have been. The loss of each historic structure deprives us of a tangible reminder of our heritage, making it that much more difficult to connect to what came before us.

I’m proud of how hard we worked to save the bridge. And when it was clear that this bridge could not accommodate the level of flood protection required by the City of Reno, the Army Corps of Engineers, business owners, and the Truckee River Flood Project, I’m proud that each and every one of us who stood on the bridge that day participated in the process of determining what would replace it. We attended meetings of the Design Review Board convened to select a new bridge design, we met with its architects and engineers, and we discussed how to incorporate elements of the historic bridge into the new span. It is impossible to be a dedicated historic preservationist, at least a successful one, without also being a clear-eyed realist.

On that day, our final day on the bridge together, we talked about how much it had seen in its 110 years: the growth of the city’s population from fewer than 10,000 residents to more than 250,000; the devastating fires that brought down earlier versions of the Riverside Hotel and the Masonic Temple; the demolition of the charming little Carnegie Library to make way for the Post Office building now gracing the south bank; the golden peals of laughter and music cascading from the Mapes and Riverside in their prime; the hum of the streetcar traversing its length; and yes, the footsteps of the newly divorced, pausing for a moment at the railing to consider whether or not to join the ranks of the famed ring-flingers.

We brought with us armfuls of white roses and daisies, and flung them one by one, like discarded wedding rings, into the river, watching them land gently in the rivulets and catch in the rocks, until they finally broke free, winding their way downstream and out of sight.

Goodbye to a bridge that has served this city so well. Goodbye to your beauty and elegance, to your steadfast endurance through times both robust and lean. Goodbye to a well-worn path trod by thousands. Goodbye to the rings and flowers, to the crystalline blue of that morning sky. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

Photo courtesy of Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries