PHOTO/DAVID ROBERT: The Bonanza Inn is one of several properties downtown that are closed and boarded up.

The results of a San Francisco consulting firm’s survey of 2,700 people who voiced opinions about downtown Reno confirmed what residents and visitors have known about the area for decades—but failed to ask about one of downtown’s key issues.

Key findings of the so-called “placemaking” survey were that the number of pedestrians on Virginia Street was much lower than expected. The survey also noted that residents often avoid the area unless they are going to an event. Many residents who responded said they shun downtown because they feel unsafe in the city’s core, and because there is a lack of places to rest. 

Ky Plaskon, president of the Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance, said the survey’s findings probably are common knowledge among Reno residents. The survey, conducted by the consulting firm Gehl, was touted by city officials as a way to help plan the future of the downtown core and Virginia Street after a long-planned bicycle-lane project on Center Street was put on hold. The delay (and possible demise) of the Center Street project came after The ROW casinos—the Eldorado, the Silver Legacy and Circus Circus, all Caesar’s Entertainment properties—asked the Regional Transportation Commission to consider a bike track on Virginia Street instead.

Plaskon was disappointed with the lack of public involvement and representation from The ROW on the project. The problems on Virginia Street that Gehl identified, including empty storefronts, blank walls and a lack of places to rest, are deliberate design choices, he said: Casinos have preserved those design failings as a way to incentivize tourists and residents to get off Virginia Street and go inside the casinos, he claimed.

“The casinos have succeeded in making the heart of our city a ghost town, and the fact that they aren’t at these placemaking meetings shows that they have no intention of changing that,” Plaskon said. “The public and our local businesses should recognize that one company is being allowed to ruin our city and demand that they come to the table.”

The survey didn’t ask about the bike-lane controversy, Plaskon noted, but he said it’s possible to make Virginia Street more bike-friendly and car-friendly at the same time. However, he believes the Center Street plan is the more viable option for a bike lane in downtown that would connect the University of Nevada, Reno, with Midtown. A safe track for bikes is essential in the downtown area, he said.

“If I’m downtown, and there’s a bike path there, and people are riding by on scooters and bikes, and I get attacked because it’s unsafe, then I have a lot of confidence that people would stop to help me,” Plaskon said. “But people in cars, just driving on through, they’re less likely to get involved. Part of what makes it unsafe is that it’s a place to drive through, not a place to enjoy.”

Toni Harsh, a former Reno City Council member, said the delay of the Center Street project, and delays and cancellations of other city projects, were among the reasons she didn’t attend the placemaking meeting.

“We had so many studies,” Harsh said. “We had study after study after study and had hired consultant after consultant after consultant, and all those studies were just put on the shelf. You take the study; they (report) the results; and nothing comes of it.”

When serving on the council and thereafter, Harsh said she saw many Reno projects eventually fall by the wayside, and that laws passed after careful deliberation were later sidestepped to accommodate developers. For example, she said, the council approved an ordinance restricting buildings that would cast large shadows on the downtown area. That “shade” ordinance was a part of the city’s River Plan.

“We had study after study after study and had hired consultant after consultant after consultant, and all those studies were just put on the shelf. You take the study; they (report) the results; and nothing comes of it.” former reno city councilmember Toni Harsh

“The River Plan was developed using a lot of expertise, not only in the environment area, but it also had a lot of government officials on it,” Harsh said. “The people who were building the plan were invested, and they’re the ones who would hopefully implement it. A lot of time and effort went into it.”

The shade restriction was waived for a developer in 2019. A subsequent lawsuit alleged the council acted to benefit the construction of a large luxury hotel.

Amy Pennington, the city of Reno’s project manager for the placemaking study, understands the skepticism about the process, but said that Gehl’s effort differs from previous studies and projects, because it is a more “vision-focused” roadmap for revitalizing downtown, rather than just an isolated construction plan.

“In the last five years, so much has changed in our city,” Pennington said. “We need to see where everything’s at. We’ve had lots of new development coming into the downtown area. We’ve had lots of residents coming in. We have new leadership at the university that wants to tie in the university with downtown. There are so many exciting things happening. To come together and get all the stakeholders at the table and have a fresh vision that is representative of where we are now, and where we want to go, is really important.”

After Gehl presented the survey results in November, attendees were asked to complete another survey that presented potential solutions to the concerns identified. The second survey featured a series of pictures of downtown scenes from other U.S. cities. Those results had not been released as of our press deadline.

City officials said the survey data will help planners map the future of Virginia Street downtown.

“The main goal to come out of it is to create a shared future vision for Virginia Street, where all stakeholders in our city are involved in that process,” Pennington said.

Local architect and Cathexes owner Don Clark said the placemaking approach considers the ramifications that a single improvement or renovation can have on the surrounding area and looks beyond the boundaries of single properties.

“I’ve been involved with some development myself along the way in various things that moved with the ebb and flow of the city,” Clark said. “Some have been more successful than others. But the biggest thing that matters to me is creating place. That can come in all sorts of forms. The casinos in the 1960s and 1970s used to be much more open to the street, and there was a lot of interaction for street traffic. What’s happened over time is that things have closed.”

After the information-gathering phase is completed, Gehl will present its design for the improved downtown area to the community, the City Council and the Regional Transportation Commission. That phase is expected to be complete in the spring.

Although no specific major improvements were suggested during the first placemaking meeting, Plaskon was encouraged that the consulting firm mentioned smaller changes, including installing benches on downtown streets.

“There’s this idea of a sense of place, and we all know what that means,” Plaskon said. “There’s no mystery around that. It means people on the street enjoying themselves and feeling safe. I get that city boosters needed a study to say that. We hope that what comes out of it is that we can be like every other city in the world and have a safe downtown—that we can help it recover and turn it into something that everyone wants to hang out with and enjoy.”

Join the Conversation


  1. Blank walls and no place to rest are very important. Those who come to visit Reno can find no friendly rest area, As a Local I don’t feel welcomed at all.


  3. I watched downtown Reno go from a live, vibrant area with always something to do, to an abandoned ghost town left to the fentanyl addicted zombies, & paranoid tweakers, & made it a place even us locals DREAD to go to, that’s saying a lot when I’M FROM CHICAGO! 💯
    There needs to be bike lanes, the little entertainer circles for street performers, we need bike paths again, when the 1 was on S. Virginia I started going downtown again on my e-Bike, as well as me noticing a lot others with the same idea, it “seemed” like the downtown was getting a breath of fresh air, only to have the oxygen squeezed right back out when they took it down with no other plans really for a solution to us that ride bikes/e-Bikes full time.

  4. Row casinos “could” remodel so that they opened up to broader sidewalks. Row casinos “could” invest in creating small eateries/attractions right across from them on Virginia St (the east side of the street). And what the hell with the nasty chain link fence construction junk yard on the old Harrah’s Plaza? The bike lane was a cool experiment, but the businesses on Virginia St. “should” be responsible for investing in their own futures.

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