PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS A row of 19th century buildings are some of those the University of Nevada, Reno wants to demolish.

In May 1903, a small, poorly-tended reservoir on the grounds of Nevada State University at the corner of Ninth and Center streets came apart. Water rushed down the hill and flooded homes in the neighborhood.

Something similar is going on now. University of Nevada, Reno, agents have fanned out in the neighborhood, buying the 19th century homes they once flooded, to expand the campus to Interstate 80. Some local residents are trying to stop them.

“It’s one of the only nearly intact rows of pre-1900 homes in Reno,” said Debbie Hinman, who wrote an account of the neighborhood history for Footprints, the publication of the Historic Reno Preservation Society. “There are some over in the Elko and Eureka street neighborhood, but we don’t have a lot of 1890s homes sitting around, all in a row like that.” Most of the homes are built in a Queen Anne style.

The homes were familiar landmarks for generations of students. For those in the 1960s and ’70s, for instance, one home with a tower recalls the years when a large poster of W.C. Fields was displayed in a window of the tower. The tower and poster were photographed many times, appearing in the campus newspaper and yearbook.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, tales of the past attest to its place in city history

A home on Eighth Street between Center and Lake is reachable only by a footpath. It was the home of Frances Humphrey, a well known local educator and counselor. She lived there from her birth to her death. Other houses in the area were homes to Sen. Thomas “Spike” Wilson, the Ferris family (George Washington Gale Ferris invented the Ferris wheel), and Nevada State Veterinarian Winfred Mack. Mack also worked at the university. In fact, most of the homes have university connections.

“Most of them, people who lived there, were connected to the university, so it was a true university neighborhood,” Hinman said.

In a home on Lake Street, there lived a woman who saw her children leaving her one by one. When a son went to California to buy himself a wedding suit, she doused herself with kerosene, strapped herself to her bed with baling wire, and set herself on fire. She perished, but the home survived and Reno Mayor Edwin Roberts and his wife later lived there.

A campus plan for the neighborhood—which UNR calls the Gateway Project—shows tall buildings and a bus station. “This vibrant retail- and academic-oriented neighborhood center will be developed primarily by the university and will extend campus life to the south of the current campus, in the area between campus and I-80,” reads a campus publicity document on the project.

A campus “strategic plan” reads, “Planning for the Gateway Project is a collaborative effort with the City of Reno and the Regional Transportation Commission. It is proposed to involve closure of Center and Lake Streets between 8th and 9th streets and routing traffic towards the Virginia Street corridor. We will explore the possibility of constructing an academic facility, such as a College of Business complex. The Gateway Project will also likely include student housing for upperclassmen and outdoor recreational fields.”

Context

Opponents of the project will take their concerns to the Reno City Council next month, but they may be acting too late. The project has been under way for many years (“More redevelopment” RN&R, Oct. 15, 2009), and the city council signed onto an early iteration of it. Moreover, UNR has acquired all but one property on the Center Street corridor.

Local figures who deal with the city council on a regular basis say they suspect the campus has the upper hand.

“They [residents] have a lot of chutzpah, but—,” said one, his voice trailing off.

“They’re the Owens Valley and the university is Los Angeles,” said another. “They needed to figure out what was happening a lot earlier.”

Nevertheless, City Councilmember Jenny Brekhus said, “They [the homes in the neighborhood] have so much meaning and context to the area. I mean, we just went on a college tour and went to Pasadena. Like, Cal Tech’s admission and financial aid office is an old Grecian mansion, you know? It is the context. It is built into the fabric. … It’s just mind blowing that we are not realizing that preservation is part of the mix of a successful community.”

She also questioned the impact of the campus plans on traffic, in an interview taped on April 2 at UNR.

“I was here last night [at the campus] and I-80’s backed up. It could be something to do with the basketball game!” she joked.

Nearby residents in the area have long been critics of the way the city tolerates campus policies that they would not tolerate from businesses—lack of parking, for example. And they say they want the campus to grow up, not out—and if it has to grow out, to do it to the north, where expansion costs are less and do not break up longstanding neighborhoods.

Some of them—and the critics of the Center/Lake street plan—want the city to hold onto the park between Lake and Center, not give it up to the campus. UNR documents suggest that university officials already consider the park transfer a done deal: “With the new master plan a small deeded park will remain in a fashion that best suits development.”

But the opponents of the Center/Lake street plan also face the influence of the Reno Gazette-Journal, which has been pushing its own “town/gown” plans to make Reno a university town, a notion that was also supported by some past city councils.

“There is an avenue for the university to meet its growth needs,” Brekhus said. “But I don’t think that losing these buildings, which are really well-documented in the relationship [to the campus], is the way to do it.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...