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An Open Letter to UNR President Brian Sandoval, Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, and Reno City Council regarding the proposed renaming of N. Center Street to University Way
November 5, 2021
URGENT! It has just come to my attention that at the November 10 Reno City Council meeting, under item D.2, Mayor Schieve and Reno City Councilmembers will consider accepting a recommendation to permanently change the name of N. Center Street to University Way, between the Truckee River and Ninth Street, in addition waiving the standard six-month waiting period for the change to go into effect.
Members of the Reno community have just learned that on September 23, Washoe County’s Regional Street Naming Committee, which forwarded this recommendation to the City Council, approved this request, which came directly from President Sandoval, without soliciting any input from the community at large or consulting any experts in the history of Reno, Nevada, Center Street, or its name—and that these efforts were begun back in April (and perhaps earlier) by President Sandoval with the written support of Mayor Schieve and others.
Despite that months-long involvement in this effort, Mayor Schieve’s intent to “surprise” the community with this plan was revealed just this week, when she appeared in a video called “The Next Stage of Downtown Reno” stating, “I’m looking at an initiative with the University to change one of our streets into University Avenue [sic]—I’m not going to say which one.”
A permanent renaming of one of Reno’s original streets deserves extensive community discussion, as there are far greater implications and repercussions than those related to branding, City-University partnerships, public safety, and the impact on the few businesses or other entities that happen to be located on the street in the present day. The change would constitute a permanent disruption to the continuity of a fundamental component of Reno history.
Changing the name of N. Center Street to University Way would permanently erase the name of one of Reno’s original streets, named by the Central Pacific Railroad in 1868, from the only section of street that was originally given that name. This is a distressing proposition with significant repercussions for Reno’s historical continuity and for the longstanding heritage and meaning of Center Street to Reno’s history and to local residents. It completely fails to acknowledge or respect the important role that N. Center Street plays in Reno’s history.
To pursue this name change in such a top-down, non-inclusive manner as though it is entirely justified by current strategic priorities and the historical record is neither accurate nor responsible. The fact that this measure appeared on public agendas for the Board of Regents and the Washoe County Regional Street Naming Committee does not constitute public engagement with Reno citizens or the historical community. This decision demands deliberate outreach in order to ensure that it is thorough, supported, fully vetted, and supported by Reno residents and that all potential implications and repercussions have been considered.
Please view my full letter with supporting documents and photographs below.
See below for a history of the “University Avenue” name through newspaper articles.
President Sandoval can be reached directly at email@example.com
Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve at firstname.lastname@example.org
Councilmember Neoma Jardon at email@example.com
Councilmember Jenny Brekhus at firstname.lastname@example.org
Councilmember Devon Reese at email@example.com
Councilmember Oscar Delgado at firstname.lastname@example.org
Councilmember Bonnie Weber at email@example.com
Councilmember Naomi Duerr at firstname.lastname@example.org
Looking back, looking forward
January 4, 2021
I was so pleasantly surprised and honored to find myself included among Reno Gazette-Journal columnist Sheila Leslie’s list of Heroes to inspire Northern Nevada in 2021 with some very kind words she wrote about me and my efforts to keep the community informed about Reno development, historic preservation, and related issues. You can read the full column at the above link.
I’m so grateful for the support, and encourage anyone who shares these interests to sign up for my upcoming free newsletter, The Barber Brief, where I’ll offer information, research, and analysis to promote greater citizen participation in issues related to Reno’s development. Happy New Year!
Don’t Confuse Special Interests with the Public Interest
My op/ed on why certain members of Reno’s real estate development community are backing Reno City Councilmember Jenny Brekhus’ opponent, and why that should concern anyone who believes councilmembers should act in the public interest, was published by This is Reno on October 28, 2020. UPDATE: Brekhus won.
The City’s Plans for a Reno Heritage Center in the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot
Just over five years ago, in the fall of 2011, the City of Reno began to lay the groundwork for renovating the historic Southern Pacific Railroad Depot on Commercial Row into a community Heritage Center. I worked closely on the plan with historic preservation specialist Mella Harmon and then-City of Reno Strategic Development Administrator Maureen McKissick. Not only a strong campus-community collaboration, the plan fits squarely into the goals of the recently completed Downtown Action Plan and the current revision of the City of Reno Master Plan by generating more foot traffic and general visitation at a downtown site in need of physical enhancement, connectivity, and walkability and by promoting adaptive reuse of historic resources.
Although plans for the Heritage Center were well underway, they were placed on the back burner due to budget constraints and shifting City priorities. There’s been a lot of turnover in City leadership over the past few years, and I think everyone could use a quick recap of what’s been done so far and why, and what the next steps would be.
Why a Heritage Center?
The purpose of a Heritage Center is to offer residents, visitors, and students a central downtown location where they can gain a sense of why Reno is here and learn about its rich cultural and architectural heritage. A Heritage Center can house interpretive exhibits, meeting and instructional space for historical, cultural, and educational organizations (i.e. the Historic Reno Preservation Society, the City’s Historical Resources Commission, Our Story Inc., Scenic Nevada, Nevada Humanities, Washoe County School District and UNR classes), tour groups, and special events of all kinds. It can also serve the purposes of a general visitor center, providing information about community resources, events, and attractions.
Why the Historic Railroad Depot?
The Depot is the ideal site to interpret Reno’s history to the public due to its exceptional historical and architectural significance. Completed in 1926, this is the fifth depot on this same site, all four previous depots having burned down. In 2005, the railroad tracks were lowered through downtown and an addition was constructed on the west side of the building to provide access to the Amtrak trains from below ground level. That freed up the historic portion for other uses and the City of Reno gained title to the building in 2007.
The building is comprised of five connected areas running west to east: the historic baggage office, restroom facilities, waiting room, ticket office, and district freight & passenger office. The proposal would involve the installation of permanent interpretive displays in public areas, but could also accommodate other uses including state-of-the-art meeting and event space, more extensive exhibits, oral history program offices, a reading room, and retail or dining. There are Section 106 protections on both the interior and exterior of the historic section of the depot, which were filed pursuant to the ReTRAC project that lowered the railroad tracks.
What has been accomplished so far?
The City has in the past (I’m not sure about now) identified this project as one of its federal priorities, laying the groundwork for potential federal funding. In 2012, the City received an HPF grant from the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office to complete two important tasks. First, the City commissioned the building’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, a designation the depot received in November 2012. Secondly, the City commissioned an extensive Historic Structure Report from Architectural Resources Group. Completed in 2013, this 100+-page report outlined the building’s overall significance and development, described its current condition, provided recommendations for repairs and restoration, offered recommendations for further research, and detailed several different options for adaptive reuse (these are just a few):
Outreach to community organizations has already generated enthusiastic support for the idea from entities on the UNR campus and throughout Reno.
A decision should be made regarding the desired use of all the building’s spaces. The estimated cost remains unknown, as the total cost will be driven by the final design and architectural plans for the rehabilitation. It is anticipated that, at a minimum, there will need to be a re-design and rehabilitation of the restrooms, repairs to the exterior of the building, and potentially a modern HVAC system. In 2012 the cost of that work was estimated at approximately $600,000.
Successfully listing the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot in the National Register of Historic Places made it eligible for a variety of grants from the National Historic Preservation Program under the National Park Service and other entities. These include CCCHP grants, which are administered through the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office. Other possible funding sources include the Union Pacific Foundation (who have already been contacted by City staff and have encouraged an application from the City) and other potential funding, including from private foundations, should be evaluated as well. The Boise Depot in Boise, Idaho provides an excellent model, as a city-owned historic railroad depot of the same vintage and many shared characteristics.
The Southern Pacific Railroad Depot is one of Reno’s most significant landmarks, and retaining it as a public Heritage Center will not only enable the City to benefit from revenue-generating event rentals, but will make an emphatic statement that Reno values its history, and is committed to preserving and promoting it for the benefit of everyone.
What Can the Public Do?
Let your elected representatives know that you support the City’s existing plan to renovate the Depot into a Heritage Center rather than opening it up to private development, as they appear to be considering. The City’s Historical Resources Commission will be discussing the issue at its monthly meeting on Thursday, June 8th at 3pm at the McKinley Arts & Culture Center at 925 Riverside Drive. Let your voice be heard.
Nevada’s Iconic Dishes
Late last year, I was invited to contribute a feature for FoodNetwork.com on iconic dishes of Nevada and where to find them. Defining Nevada’s iconic dishes has always been something of a challenge, and I’ve taken it on to varying degrees in the past as a columnist for edible Reno-Tahoe and in occasional impassioned, Bourbon-fueled late-night conversations with friends.
The Silver State doesn’t have an obvious cuisine like, say, Louisiana (who CAN’T rattle off ten iconic Louisiana dishes in thirty seconds?) or Maine (lobster, crab cakes, blueberries…). The difficulty of identifying regional dishes is not unusual in the American West, whose population has long been comprised of a mix of diverse native and immigrant groups, none especially dominant since statehood. But that’s no consolation with the clock ticking away toward a deadline and a blank screen staring you in the face.
So what’s a food-loving cultural historian to do?
Taking the word “iconic” to heart, I thought about the dishes many associate with Nevada, for a number of reasons–foods connected to varying aspects of the state’s culture, from casinos to ranching to mining; foods associated with communities with a longstanding Nevada heritage, from Native American to Basque; and iconic dishes found at some of the state’s most beloved restaurants.
And so, after several months researching eateries, chatting with chefs and staff, savoring bites and sips, and securing photos of all those tasty tidbits, we have a list. It may not be definitive, but it hopefully speaks to the eclecticism that is the Nevada culinary landscape–and I hope will inspire others to embark upon their own foodie tours of Nevada. And if you happen to get down to Dirty Dick’s saloon in Belmont for their signature Bloody Mary, tell Diana I said hi.
Reporting on Reno’s Ongoing Revitalization
I had the pleasure of speaking to Boston Globe writer Susan Moeller as she put together her recent article about Reno for the Sunday magazine. You can read the full article here.
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
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.
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.