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Park Lane, The Grove, and the Future of Reno

A while back, I wrote about the plan that had bubbled up about Park Lane Promenade (I did not like it.) Recently, there has been some press about it in the RGJ, and Mike at ReReno also wrote about it. I thought Mike’s post was great, raised some nice questions and the comment thread had a great discussion about urban-development killing parking requirements.

Virginia Street has been designated a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) corridor. Virginia Street is already where the RTC Rapid bus runs every ten minutes all day long and the RTC Connect bus runs every 30 minutes almost 24 hours a day. With that infrastructure, projects that touch Virginia Street can comfortably be a little more intense, mixing in residential uses alongside the commercial/gaming/convention that already exists there, with less concern for parking.

The developer’s current proposal

The main issue I have with the developer’s proposal for Park Lane Promenade is that the development doesn’t respect Virginia Street – putting a few single restaurants separated by parking and other easements in front of a giant parking lot with a big box store on the other side. The opportunity with this location is to inject some life into that entire corridor from the southern boundary of Midtown into the two big casinos and the convention center. The opportunity is to transform that area of town into a place people want to be, on foot and on transit.


The Grove

Another issue in that area is the street grid – or lack of it. The whole part of town south of this project down to Moana Lane between Kietzke and Virginia suffers from a what appears to be a complete lack of any design concept. It just turned into what it currently is from a gradual intensification of old farm roads. This part of town is now closer to the center of the whole metropolitan area than it is to the edge of any part of it. It needs to be newly subdivided into a grid of honest-to-God streets, which have sidewalks, and stop lights, and crosswalks. In short, something most modern developers and cities don’t have much experience doing.

A more charming pattern

Ever wonder why cool houses or apartments in parts of town that aren’t completely devoid of soul are so expensive? Well, it’s because nobody knows how, or is willing, to build that stuff anymore. Want a strip mall? You can build one of those anytime you want. Want an apartment complex? Easy-peasy. Want a warren of cul-de-sacs full of identical houses governed by a stifling HOA? That’s child’s play.

This  developer has a large lot to work with. It’s almost half the size of Downtown Reno. That’s big. With that much space to work with, imagine a mixture of public space (park or plaza), plus retail, plus residential, on the location of the former Park Lane Mall and a transformation of the surrounding neighborhood. The public space would serve as an anchor for a new neighborhood, not a new strip mall. This neighborhood would have some key attractions: the movie theater, for example, remains an attraction.

Want a city laid out on a grid that’s easy to walk around and owned and built by many individuals over many years? There don’t seem to be too many people or developers or cities that know how to do that kind of thing anymore. The last 60 years or so has been a time when almost nobody knows how to build any new old stuff.

The future belongs to those who can figure out how to build new cities that increase in desirability as they age.

Today in pretty cool ideas: A digital trailhead for Reno

One of the great things about Reno is that it’s full of people who know how awesome it is. One such person is Eric Hatch, who wants to build a digital trailhead for downtown Reno. The vision: Anyone with a gps-enabled device could sync that device to this trailhead, and the trailhead would draw maps showing the pedestrian activity patterns of those who had synced up to the trailhead.

The video is great and highlights a very important point: Reno is a great pedestrian environment.

Better yet, there are a lot of locations around downtown that would be perfect spots for the trailhead. The one that springs to my mind immediately when I see the drawing of the trailhead is the train trench cover at Virginia and Commercial Row.

Eric Hatch recently presented this idea to the City Council (link). The reception was good, but the project could still use some actual financial support.

Park Lane Promenade – ugh, another strip mall

Mike at ReReno is right on the mark when he calls the latest proposal for Park Lane Mall “absolute crap”. It’s just another strip mall. And I’ll go one further. If what this part of town needed – this far from the freeway – was another strip mall, then the strip mall with Save-Mart at Plumb and Lakeside wouldn’t be full of empty storefronts. The strip mall next to the Atlantis wouldn’t be full of empty storefronts. All of Shopper’s Square would be leased up.

This part of town needs an entirely new concept. It is an area ripe not for redevelopment – but for development. The form that development takes will determine whether the area is set back or advanced–for years.

The developer's proposal for Park Lane Promenade.

The developer’s proposal for Park Lane Promenade.

The future of the part of town between Plumb and Peckham along Virginia Street is very important to Reno’s identity – both its self identity and that which outsiders perceive. The potential is there: the transit service, the TOD plan, the three major attractions (Peppermill, Atlantis, and Convention Center ). But what has to follow along and make the area live up to its potential is a catalyst. A major developer – and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be this one – needs to take that next step forward and break out of the strip mall mold and build something that will cause the entire area to transform along those lines.

It’d be a useful thought exercise for these guys to sit down with Google Maps and look at two things side by side. Here, I’ll facilitate.

On the left, downtown Reno. On the right, the Park Lane site.

On the left, downtown Reno. On the right, the Park Lane site.

If this were a greenfield development–part of Damonte Ranch, say–it wouldn’t be weird to build a giant strip mall the size of half of downtown. But, this development is half a mile from downtown. It’s directly adjacent to the epicenter of urban Reno’s (not downtown Reno’s) renaissance. It is a slap in the face to everything that the TOD plan stands for to build the strip mall this developer is planning on this site. And we need to tell the developer, and we need to tell the planning commission.

The proposal has a few nice elements to it. These elements are included in the “intensification plan” – to be read as beyond phase 1. Phase 1 includes a pharmacy, a couple of fast food restaurants, some “shops”, parking lots, and landscaping. Despite the proposal’s language to indicate that parking areas are not visible from the street, most of the Phase 1 Plumb Lane frontage is parking.

This project should be mixed-use. It should go beyond “interfacing” with surrounding uses (in terms of where driveways connect on different sides of Plumb or Virginia), to the point of reconnecting or forming new connections in the street grid. The way forward for this part of town should be to break up these giant lots by connecting the street grid through them. Of course, modern day site planners must be subjected to electroshock therapy at the academy if they so much as say a single word in defense of the concept of well-connected street grids. This site plan is a textbook example. All the “roads” inside this giant megablock are curvy affairs that terminate in or are redirected by either culs-de-sac or small traffic circles.

Since all the architectural renderings in the plan are merely this elevation or that elevation drawings of various cookie-cutter strip mall architecture, one gets no sense of the vistas, from within, without or looking through this project. How does it relate to the surrounding scenery visually?

Finally, the language in the project proposal treats pedestrian amenities as some kind of cosmetic feature. Pedestrian orientation is a design philosophy. What are the pedestrian pathways in this project? That is not accounted for. There will be sidewalks and there will be landscaping. That is what is accounted for.

It’s good that someone wants to do something with this lot. But what they do with it matters greatly to the future of the city. This developer should try a little harder.

NDOT’s Kietzke Lane Safety Management Plan study is the best thing to happen to roadways in Reno since… ever?

At the July 10, 2013 Reno City Council meeting, a representative from the Nevada Department of Transportation presented a study and recommendations for improving the conditions on Kietzke Lane in Reno along the right-of-way where Kietzke is a state highway.

Usually you hear about state DOT’s as boogeymen for good urban planning. The cliché is that DOT’s are all about moving cars, and frequently as a result of this, pedestrians, people on wheelchairs, and cyclists suffer an undue burden. Nowhere in Reno is this more true than along the Kietzke Lane alignment from South Virginia Street on the south to about the DMV on the north. This is precisely the area that NDOT’s study looked at.

A not unusual example of what it looks like on Kietzke. Imagine being a pedestrian there!

The presentation was full of photos of the current conditions. There are no sidewalks in many areas. ADA ramps for wheelchairs end at utility poles that are in the middle of an abruptly ended sidewalk with raised concrete preventing further movement in the char. Bike lanes randomly start and stop.

The proposals are exactly what would be needed to position Reno as a 21st-century city with strong infrastructure for all users. Buffered bike lanes, bike boxes (!!!!), sidewalk continuity, pedestrian island medians, improved lighting throughout the corridor… this is the kind of stuff they’re talking about.

Unfortunately, there are some problems, not least among them being the conservative elements on the city council, and the concerns those representatives have that businesses in the area will object to the street parking being taken away. Many of the businesses on Kietzke Lane are car dealerships.

image This strip of Kietzke Lane is missing the bike lane that exists just a few hundred yards south, has no sidewalks to speak of, utility poles, and a tattered assortment of fences separating it from the surrounding streets.

Consistent sidewalks conforming at least to the minimum ADA requirement of 36” width, plus buffered bike lanes, would make this area not only much more safe and functional for all users, but it would also make the area much more attractive.

A community’s aesthetics go a long way toward how it is perceived by itself and its visitors.

It’s actually possible to keep street parking, enhance bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and make the roadway safer and more efficient. NDOT’s proposal calls for using buffer strips to isolate the bicycles from the auto traffic. The buffer strips would be zones where there would be no street parking. But if the buffer strips were used as street parking, cyclists would have a layer of protection from the auto traffic in the form of the stationary vehicles separating the two. Street parking would be retained to the satisfaction of nearby businesses.

Other ways to mitigate this problem include signage directing visitors by car to offstreet parking. The NDOT rep was quite adamant that there’s adequate offstreet parking, and it’s hard to disagree. Much of this corridor is composed of strip malls with their own parking. Many of the most intensive uses have adequate parking available behind them on sidestreets. NDOT, the RTC and city traffic engineering department could work together to devise ways to flow the traffic from Kietzke Lane to the adjacent streets, taking significant strain off the one roadway and opening up opportunities for the businesses on the side streets. This would also have the advantage of promoting opportunities for street grid repair.

A buffered bike lane. Source: City of Seattle

At the end of the day, the real issue is that the middle of town is no place for a state highway. NDOT’s proposal is visionary, and would help place Reno in a category of cities known for having top-notch transportation infrastructure for all users. This project deserves your support. Contact the city council and the mayor, and encourage them to support this innovative proposal to repair one of urban Reno’s least attractive corridors. Here’s a list of the priority 1 recommendations.

Getting parking meters right in 2013 and beyond

Long ago I argued that Reno should install some parking kiosks. The ones I had in mind are neat, they print out a sticker you put on your window that says when your time has expired. Your windows can get a little gummy… but the system generally works well.


Imagine my surprise when I saw what Denver’s doing. They have parking meters that take credit cards. Awesome. No stickers.


Bernie Carter vs. Landscaping

Glad these projects are underway.

For the one that’s open and not immediately under construction, a little bit of landscaping would go a long way.


For the other one, well, go down there and get a good look. That building is standing naked before the world.

Changes of perception lead to changes of conception

There is a tension in Reno between three forces. These forces relate to perception. The tension is an impediment to future development in large swathes of the city. It goes like this:

The forces and their perceptions

  1. Reno is a grand old small city of majestic brick houses and old buildings and parks and mature landscaping. The force that comes through is one of preservation of value, protection.
  2. Reno is a suburban city. Everything is close enough that it’s an easy drive to get anywhere. It’s small enough that traffic is rarely a serious impediment to wanting to drive. It’s low-density enough that there is plenty of room to stash cars, except by the university. The force that comes through is one of subservience to automobile support infrastructure, at the expense of many other things that impact quality of life.
  3. Reno is a city full of zones torn between their former nature as comfortably middle-class early 20th century subdivided urban plat neighborhoods, their current reality as rough, mid-century strip-suburbia, and their potential future as dense urban development. The force that comes through is a ring of blight surrounding the downtown core, isolating the dense urban development on an island of sorts.

These forces constantly tug at one another and it mostly effects urban redevelopment. Solving #3 requires increasing density. This is at odds with the neighbors of force zone #3 – force zone #1. These folks want to preserve value, and keeping density out is the way to make that happen. The density would add attractiveness to the areas being densified, but in order to attract sufficient numbers of customers, the needs of force zone #2 must be met. There must be support infrastructure for automobiles sufficient to meet the standards of suburban dwellers.

There is more than one such example, such as the class perception issue that pervades the economics of getting projects going in Reno. There are other forces at play as well, such as the scale of income differences between what many of the city’s landlords and sellers want and the profit potential of the businesses, tenants, or developments they attract. And of course there is the issue of how unincorporated Washoe, and residents of other surrounding cities and townships, feel about their place in a metro area that is still, despite their existence, mostly called “Reno”.

Changing people’s perceptions – mostly what they see or judge looking out from their own zone of force – will be the key to changing the kind of city Reno allows itself to become. It is the only way to redirect the forces, currently at odds with one another, onto the same path, where they can support one another.

Tuning up Burncards: a content manifesto (of sorts)

My old blog, The Urban Blog, has a lot of Reno content on it. I like writing about urban policy and transportation issues. With The Urban Blog, I was majority Seattle-based for the majority of the time I wrote the blog. I have always had a tendency to bounce back and forth between the two cities, so I’ve just accepted that, and at one point I decided I wanted to live in Reno, so I moved to Reno. Something very interesting happened: the nature of my writing changed. I started Burncards with the intention of talking about more than urban design. The Urban Blog pushed around the edges a little bit, mostly reporting on music and cultural issues, and Burncards made it a point to pick up those topics.

Burncards needs more action. I need to do some urban writing about Reno. I’ve decided to make a new section on Burncards called The Urban Blog, where I will do the style of reporting that I was doing on The Urban Blog. Subject matter will not always be about Reno: you should see what’s going on in Seattle right now, and any other interesting thing that should appear.

This actually helps clarify the role of what the Gadflypaper section is all about. Gadflypaper is all about getting out in public with an opinion related to a policy matter facing the people of Reno. We may occasionally be kind of weird about that.

The rest of what Burncards tries to do should be fairly obvious, and we’ll try to keep the lights on. Turns out all of us stay really busy, which we use as an excuse for not doing Burncards. So, silly us. If you’d like to join in the party with your own unique voice on a subject, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.