Too Late to Save?
Taking a walk along fourth street in downtown Reno can be a quiet journey these days. Where many motels once stood, there are now vacant lots with chain-link fences around them. Other, soon-to-be demolished motels are also fenced off, while those that are still standing are being offered money to shut down as well. The famed Chapel of the Bells, which closed its doors in February and sold to Jacobs Entertainment, is also set for demolition later this year. The two buildings that used to surround it have already been taken down. The flow of foot traffic around these areas has steadily declined, as many people now stick to the more crowded, less vacant areas of the Biggest Little City.
Alicia Barber, a writer, historian and consultant worries about old significant structures being caught up in the sudden sell off.
“A lot of historic properties seem to be threatened in a way that they weren’t before due to all sorts of different types of development...from local developers, out-of-state developers, like Jacobs Entertainment, who’s been demolishing the motels lately, but then also the growth of the university, which was in a kind of pause mode for a while with the recession,” she said.
With so many recent demolitions in Reno, bulldozing away mid-century architecture with a distinct aesthetic form, social media activists and volunteers have begun to appeal to the city in favor of saving the structures that have yet to meet the same fate.
“What makes cities different, what attracts people to different cities, are the unique qualities that city has. If you erase your history you just become like any [American] town, where there aren’t any really defining characteristics,” said Barrie Lynn, a realtor and chair of the advocacy council for the Historic Reno Preservation Society. “And so I think that a lot of people really don’t understand the connection between sense of place and historic preservation, the stories that make the city unique...just from my perspective as a realtor, people really do care about that.”
Both Barber and Lynn are advocating for what is called adaptive reuse of older structures in Reno when they aren't at the point of what they call necessary demolition. The two actively voice their concern about the rapid demolitions taking place, as they feel there is a worrisome lack of public discussion or input, both from historical and social perspectives.
Barber said that she feels Reno has been losing its historic and communal character since 1973, when the Eldorado casino was built, wiping out an entire city block. Adding to that, in 1974, the completion of Interstate 80 through Reno and Sparks significantly impacted residential portions of both cities, including nineteenth-century Victorian houses that Barber is petitioning to save from university construction and relocation.
“Reno didn’t really retain a vision of how to keep a sense of its own historic character and identity and continuity as it moved forward, and there’s always been this strong influence of business and economics in determining what the physical landscape would look like,” Barber said. “And the big transformations that happened with the hotel casinos in the 1970s just fundamentally changed downtown forever, I mean not just in its appearance, but in its whole function.”
With the long-time, continuous development of Reno, as well as massive structures of hotel casinos, such as the Eldorado and Silver Legacy taking up numerous blocks, downtown has become varied in its uses, including for lower-income housing in the numerous motels dotted around town.
The motels that make up the unique signage of Reno played an important role during the past century, and still do, housing weekly tenants during the lows of tourism, and the highs of more expensive hotels and housing in a growing economy.
The Displacement that Ensues
“These motels have been a part of this gradual, decades long process where a lot of the different components of downtown have become places for lower-income residents to live, and there really aren’t a lot of options for them,” Barber said.
Barber said that one of the most discouraging aspects of demolitions, especially of motels, is the displacement that follows.
“It’s terrible, I think one of the most difficult aspects, and one of the most frustrating aspects of seeing this recent wave of demolitions of motels is that there’s no plan even for what will replace them, there doesn’t seem to be a plan to replace them with anything anytime soon,” Barber said.
“So, you can’t even evaluate the loss of that structure and the housing that it represents, and the loss to the people, not only current residents, but potential future residents, I mean these are very fluid populations who live in these motels and the remaining motels downtown.”
While it has been reported that Jacobs Entertainment helped some of those who were displaced by motel demolitions, Barber said she was worried about the loss of those motels for others going forward, especially since the landscape they once sat on is not being used for anything at the moment.
“You can’t just like re-house the residents who happen to be in a motel at any given moment and then say 'Well, you solved the problem,' because those people now have a place to live, other future people who might have needed that place now don’t have that as an option,” Barber said. “So, to see these structures that at the very least are shelter for people who need a roof over their heads, to see them being demolished without anything in their place that benefits anyone, is really, I think, a huge slap in the face.”
Reinventing Reno and Reuse
“It’s hard to understand, but I think what you see there, that is part of this great desire to reinvent Reno and reinvent its image, is that those motels, despite the fact that they’ve been important residences for disadvantaged populations, are seen as a problem,” Barber said. “They’ve been defined as blight, and they’ve basically been defined as something ugly and makes Reno look bad...that’s just an obsession with image instead of a recognition of what’s really needed at this time.”
Barber and Lynn both agreed on the idea of adaptive reuse of structures in Reno, meaning that the city would instead maintain the original structures of buildings set for demolition and redevelop what is already there.
“People think, 'Oh, it’s out of code let’s just tear it down, it’s unsafe,' but there’s a difference between a building that needs code upgrades and a building that is structurally unsound, and one that is in danger of falling down,” Lynn said. “Buildings that need code upgrades you can do seismic retrofitting to protect it from earthquakes, you could enlarge window openings...there’s things that you can do to make a building safer. If a building is not in imminent danger of falling down, there’s not really a good reason to demolish it unless you have plans to redevelop that exact parcel.”
Lynn is worried that not only is misinformation being spread regarding these demolitions, but that it also hinders investment and future development.
“A vacant lot really sends a message of desertion and disinvestment, and it can deter other investment. And so once you demolish a building, you take away any future potential for that building to be reused, you take all of those options off the table, so, if there’s not an immediate need to redevelop a lot, and as long as a building isn’t in danger of falling down, I think that there are a number of reasons to not demolish that building,” Lynn said. “It’s far more expensive to build from the ground up then it is to renovate an existing building, and I just think there’s a lot of misinformation about blighted buildings, the cost of bringing buildings up to code, and when is a building actually structurally unsound, I think there’s just a lot of misinformation about that.”
Lynn’s biggest concern is that Jacobs Entertainment will take years to complete their proposed Fountain District, and in that time, could decide to pull out, leaving vacant, undeveloped lots behind.
A Closer Look at What Blight Means
Lynn and Barber also agreed that there needs to be a community-wide discussion about blight, as they see it as completely fixable.
“I think it’s [blight] being totally misused in Reno...I think it’s being used to mean unattractive, ugly, deteriorating. But, when I think of blight in terms of how its defined in urban studies in planning, a blighted area is one that’s been basically abandoned. We look at a blighted area as a place where property ownership is probably so fragmented or unknown that there really isn’t even a sense that someone has a responsibility to this area, and that person could actually improve it if they wanted to,” Barber said. “So, that word is being used today for structures and areas where we know who owns the area, we know who owns that structure, we know that they’re actually a affluent person, or they’re a group of people, or property investors, who are just allowing structures to become dilapidated or unused, or deteriorating because they’re holding onto that property because they want to sell it at a later date, and they want to make some money.”
Barber said that using the term blight so loosely lets a lot of property owners off the hook who should assume responsibility of the property.
Renovating Rather than Demolishing
Lynn held similar sentiments, giving examples of adaptive reuse that have happened in Reno.
“Far too many times I’ve seen something demolished and we’re still looking at the vacant lot. I can give you dozens of examples, and sometimes what you’ve got is a structure that sits there that everyone thinks is so ugly, and it should be demolished, then all of a sudden someone comes along and they beautify it and then you’re like, wow,” Lynn said. “Thankfully, they had that to work with, to start with, the Kings Inn is a prime example, which is now the Third Street Flats. That sat vacant for 40 years, and it was considered a nuisance, it was considered blighted, but I tell you what, if that had been demolished, I don’t think we would be looking at anything on that site right now, we’d still be looking at a vacant lot. I don’t think it would have happened.”
“I think that, yes, blight is an actual thing, but a vacant lot can be blight, and I think that we need to be looking at a lot more ways to actually cure blight that involve building up a property rather than breaking it down. Renovating rather than demolishing.”
Reporting by Robyn Feinberg for Our Town Reno