PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: Hot air balloons at Reno's new Glow Plaza on West Fourth Street in July 2021. The developer wants the plaza site to remain a vacant space for "concerts and festivals."

Reno residents Jan. 10 will have a chance to ask questions about a developer’s plans for downtown Reno’s Neon Line District – months after city officials approved a development plan for the area.

That plan has few specific details about what will be built in the 15-block district and when. There has been little public involvement in the planning process.  In addition, the Reno City Council didn’t set requirements for affordable housing units in the plan.

Critics of the city’s planning procedures say housing in the area is a major issue, particularly because the developer, Jacobs Entertainment, razed many of the old motels along Fourth Street. Those rooms were rented by the week and served as housing of last resort for about 600 people.

Alicia Barber, a Reno historian who keeps an eye on downtown redevelopment plans and is the author of the Barber Brief, urged residents to get involved in the conversation about decisions that will affect the core of the city for decades to come.

 “Any entity that controls that much land in the heart of downtown has an unsurpassed ability to singlehandedly determine the future of the area they control, potentially for generations to come,” Barber wrote in the latest issue of the Barber Brief, which features a detailed explanation of the city’s role in planning the Neon Line District. She noted that the public has largely been left out of the decision-making process.

Explanations needed

(The Jan. 10) meeting, although woefully late in coming, provides an important opportunity to voice as many concerns, questions, and requests as possible,” Barber wrote. “…There are three basic things that the City and Jacobs can provide at this meeting: explanations of past decisions; information on what concrete plans are underway and envisioned for the future; and identification of what specific opportunities still exist for residents to influence what happens in this area, to ensure that it provides the maximum possible benefit for those who live here.”

Public meeting: The City of Reno is scheduled to host a Neon Line Community Meeting on Monday, Jan. 10, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the National Automobile Museum, 1 Museum Drive in Reno; the meeting also will be broadcast on Zoom. Registration for either is available online. Live questions will be accepted, but city officials ask that those planning to attend submit questions in advance (via an online portal) to “help us understand what concerns you may have.” The live question-and-answer session will follow the city/developer presentations.

UPDATE, 1/4/22: Reno officials today cancelled the “live” portion of the Jan. 10 meeting due to a surge of COVID cases in the area. The meeting is now online-only. Registration for the Zoom meeting is available by clicking on the “registration” hotlink, above.

The Neon Line District is the largest downtown Reno redevelopment project in decades. Plans call for 2,000 to 3,000 residential units, a 6,000 seat amphitheater, and renovation of the Sands Regency Hotel and Casino. The development agreement has a 20-year timeframe.

A big slice of downtown

Jacobs Entertainment’s owner, Jeffrey Jacobs, began buying up real estate in the area around West Fourth Street in 2016. The company acquired parcels occupied by small businesses, a tavern, a gas station, a wedding chapel and 19 old motels. Nearly all of those structures already have been demolished.

The development plan calls for a $1.8 billion entertainment district anchored by two casinos owned by Jacobs Entertainment. The district also would presumably encompass hotels, shops, restaurants and condo towers. No detailed building plans have been submitted and, with the exception of some public artwork installed by Jacobs on West Fourth Street, the parcels have remained vacant lots.

“It’s perfectly natural for a private company to pursue its own interests, in development as in anything else. But it would be naïve to assume (and disingenuous to suggest) that the private interest of a company (particularly a for-profit one) pursuing its own private goals is always going to match the public interest…  that’s where the people need to step in and ask, “What about us?” – Alicia Barber, the Barber Brief.

Barber noted that with such a huge redevelopment area, “Jacobs could have put together an overarching master plan that would have transformed this part of town into the walkable, bustling neighborhood we’ve wanted the heart of downtown to become once again…  But Jacobs didn’t do that. There is no master plan.”

 Although the developer has touted the district as a hub of “hotels, retail stores, and restaurants,” she said, “it’s less and less likely” that those plans will come to fruition. “Why not? Because there’s nothing requiring anyone to build them,” Barber said.

IMAGE/JACOBS ENTERTAINMENT: The ‘Neon Line District’

A developer’s fiefdom?

Jacobs in December submitted a new application to make the newly-designated “Glow Plaza” on West Fourth Street (from Washington Street eastward toward Ralston Street), a permanent “festival and concert grounds,” with no buildings. As Barber noted: “That means the entire south side of Fourth Street between the Gold ‘N Silver and the Sands Regency will remain empty and inactive most of the time.”

By designating the Neon Line District, Barber wrote, “the City has condoned the creation of a completely new type of district: one that places a single company in complete control of an entire area’s branding, appearance, and marketing—allowing them to extend their privately-selected brand into public (and others’ private) space.”

She urged residents to attend the Jan. 10 meeting, either in person or online, to ask questions, demand transparency in the planning process and help “steer the ship back in a more resident-oriented direction,” reversing Reno’s trajectory of catering to autos over pedestrians, and towards the best practices for urban development.

Barber said she has many questions for the City of Reno, including:

• If this entire “district” isn’t owned or master-planned by Jacobs Entertainment, then why should this one company be allowed to unilaterally decide what it’s named, what its boundaries are, how it’s marketed, and what its streetscape elements (like streetlights) look like? Shouldn’t a district have members who get to participate in all of those decisions, like the Riverwalk and Midtown?

• What exactly does the City consider to be the “public benefit” of this Development Agreement, how was that decided, and by whom? Is the City defining privately-selected and installed sculptures and signage that went through no public process as “public art”?

• Is Tax Increment Financing still being considered for this area, and if so, when will that be proposed, and how will the City ensure widespread public participation in discussions about it?

Barber’s questions for Jacobs Entertainment include:

• How exactly do you intend to develop the land that you plan to retain, and when? Do you plan to construct any outward-facing retail, restaurants, or other commercial amenities at street level on any of it, and if so, where?

• Will the “Glow Plaza” be the area’s only outdoor concert and festival space?

• Do you plan to purchase any more parcels and if so, where, and for what?

• What happened to the neon and other signage from the motels you demolished?

•  What are your specific plans for the historic Nystrom House and when will they be initiated? Are you willing to re-list the house on the City of Reno’s historic register to protect its historical integrity?

Barber encouraged residents to register for the Jan. 10 meeting, to submit questions in advance and to share their questions and concerns with others in conversation or on social media.

“(The meeting) can only be successful if it becomes a robust conversation that goes beyond what we already know to clarify how development of this area can truly benefit the people,” she said.

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