Aggravation in the arts district

A downtown gallery owner considers suing the city for its redevelopment failures

Tara Lee Bertucci is getting fed up with crime downtown and the failure of the city of Reno to do anything about it.

Tara Lee Bertucci is getting fed up with crime downtown and the failure of the city of Reno to do anything about it.

Photo by David Robert

Summer. Downtown Reno. It was 93 degrees, and the man wandering in the small art gallery was dressed wrong for that kind of heat. Not one, but two long black duster-style coats cloaked most of his six-foot frame, and he wore leather pants and boots. He carried several tote bags and a metal-handled cane. It was the cane that scared Tara Lee Bertucci, the owner of Amaranth Gallery on Sierra Street.

“The guy was huge,” Bertucci says. “And I tried to talk to him, but he didn’t reply. Just walked around the store, then took jewelry off the display right at the counter.”

He didn’t try to hide his actions. Bertucci walked into the back of the store and pretended to talk to her husband.

“I pretended like he was just getting in from the parking garage,” she says.

The shoplifter left the store. Police arrested him not long after this in nearby Fulton Alley. The man had some of the jewelry still in his possession. After he was booked into the Washoe County Jail, he began calling Bertucci, accusing her of violating his civil rights by calling the police.

“He called work, and he started calling my home,” Bertucci says. She tried to get a judge to issue a protection order, but since the man was in jail, the judge ruled she didn’t need protection.

Last week, Dell Marvin Roberts, 43, of San Francisco, was sentenced to four to 10 years in prison, the maximum penalty for burglary, and six months in the Washoe County Jail for petty larceny.

The incident is just one reason that Bertucci, who rents business space in the city-owned Parking Gallery, isn’t sure anymore that she wants to be among the pioneering store owners in Reno’s nascent arts and commerce district.

Crime, redevelopment delays and a rent that seems too high to Bertucci are among the reasons the gallery owner is considering filing a lawsuit against the city of Reno. She’d seek a retroactive rent reduction and damages to her business due to what she describes as gang and drug activity, as well as the city’s failure to get restaurants on the property across from the Century Riverside 12.

Bertucci opened her gallery in June 2001. She expected a few thriving eateries to have been built on the city-owned lot at Sierra and First streets by now. She says she’d been told, in 2001, that an agreement between the city and developers White-Leasure was a “done deal.” Months later, she read in the paper that the developers had never paid a deposit to the city and had never signed a development agreement. Recent deals have also fallen through, including one with the developer of a pool hall on the site. The dirt lot remains vacant.

“We really believed the city—that development would happen down here,” Bertucci says. “I was stupid to believe that.”

Bertucci doesn’t really consider herself stupid. The last business she and her husband started, she describes as a success—a computer store they opened with $5,000 in 1994 and that turned into a $5 million enterprise.

Bertucci isn’t thrilled about her story being in the paper, because if Reno folks think there’s crime downtown, it will further harm her business.

“If word gets out, people might not come down here,” she says.

She appreciates the efforts of the Reno Police Department’s bicycle cops, who do a great job despite their very small ranks. But she usually sees only two bicycle cops per shift patrolling most of downtown, and to her that’s hardly enough.

Then there’s the condition of the city-owned Parking Gallery, the building that houses Bertucci’s gallery. When she comes to work, she smells urine in the parking garage and has to step over beer cans and other trash, she says. She’s come across such items as underwear and socks on her front steps and in a nearby city planter.

Besides the struggle to keep the parking garage clean, it seems the security cameras have been broken for at least a year. Bertucci recalls that a female parking garage supervisor was beaten and robbed at 10 a.m. one day more than a year ago. Bertucci was told then that the garage’s security system didn’t work. Cameras were dirty and monitors broken.

A recent visit to the security booth at the garage’s entrance seemed to indicate that the system had not been repaired. Two video monitors flashed muddy repetitive images showing parts of the garage. A third monitor was dark. When asked how the cameras were working, the security guard politely said, “No comment.”

“I wonder if the casino parking garages even have security cameras,” responds Dorene Soto, economic development manager for the Reno Redevelopment Agency. Soto couldn’t say how long the cameras had been broken. The agency is in the process, she says, of getting bids on a new camera system.

“And we’ll be installing some extra ones,” Soto says. “The garage is being used a lot more. On Saturday, I came downtown and had to park on the sixth floor.”

Soto contends that things are far from dismal downtown. She points to the near-immediate success of the Beaujolais Bistro, a French restaurant that opened this fall.

“They thought it would take a while for people to find out about it,” Soto says. “But they opened to reservations-only if you wanted to have dinner.”

As far as rent on the stores in the Parking Gallery building, Soto says Amaranth Gallery has one of the best deals in the building. The store pays 85 cents a square foot, compared with a new furniture store and Esoteric Coffeehouse, which both pay $1. River Gallery pays 50 cents a square foot for its 5,000-square-foot space, but that’s because the gallery uses only about half of that space. The rest is used as a kind of communal storage that River Gallery shares with other building tenants.

“The rent is pretty common for the area,” Soto says.

Soto remains hopeful regarding the development on the mid-block property across from the Century Riverside. The agency is talking with several businesses about taking the place of the pool hall, a business that recently dropped out of the much-touted plan for restaurants, entertainment and housing on the property.

“At the end of March, we’ll have an exact timeline,” Soto says.

Soto says she hasn’t heard complaints from other shop owners about crime in the downtown area.

“There’s a lot of excitement downtown,” she says. “The theater is doing really well. And the tenants I have talked to are very happy.”

Bertucci wasn’t always the “black sheep” of Reno’s arts and commerce district. When she moved in, bolstered by the city’s promises, she was active in the Riverwalk Merchants Association. For a while, she served as vice president.

In September 2001, a still-optimistic Bertucci sent e-mails to Soto about ideas she had for the downtown area:

“The Smithsonian has been looking for a West Coast satellite museum site,” she suggested. “Can you imagine the number of people who would visit just to see the Smithsonian-Reno? … It would be a real benefit for people working and living downtown to have a 24-Hour Fitness Center here. Possibly the old Penney’s across the street? … I know we are all having a little ‘down-in-the-dumps’ time right now, but there is a bright future out there; we just need to hang in there.”

Soto replied, asking for contact information for the Smithsonian.

“Keep the ideas coming,” she wrote.

By the end of a long, dismal winter season, though, Bertucci was starting to keep track of the scenes outside her door:

· March 6, homeless woman camped out on our steps, drinking alcohol from two small bottles.

· March 8 & 9, drug dealers on North Sierra.

· March 10, homeless men partying in the elevator when I was leaving the gallery.

Bertucci’s accounts list the value of shoplifted merchandise, which Bertucci estimates to be an average of about $300 per day during a special event such as the downtown Wine Walks.

During an Art in Bloom show in April, customers complained about “the drunks outside and one male who approached a young teen girl for sex.” After the event, as she walked holding her husband’s hand to the Siena Hotel Spa Casino for dinner, a car of men pulled over and offered Bertucci money to have sex with them.

During Hot August Nights, gang and drug activity was rampant in the area, Bertucci says. She closed the gallery early on Aug. 2-3 and didn’t even open on Aug. 4, 6-7.

By Aug. 26, she’d had enough. She typed up an e-mail and sent it to everyone: the mayor, the city council members, other Riverwalk merchants.

The e-mail was the beginning of the end of Bertucci’s good relationships with her neighbors and landlords.

“I wish you all the best in facing these problems alone,” one individual responded the next day, “and remember, if you aren’t part of the solution …”

Bertucci resigned from the Riverwalk Merchants Association. She says she’s been frustrated over the lack of attention to these issues. Now it seems the city is waiting for her lease to expire—for the squeaky wheel to finally leave the neighborhood, rather than get any needed attention.

“No one from the city will talk to us,” Bertucci says. “No one will physically come here.”

Soto says there’s been noreason for her to visit Bertucci. She’s chatted with other storeowners when she’s been downtown shopping.

“I haven’t heard from Tara,” she says. She did receive an e-mail that the gallery owner sent out in August. But that was months ago.

“Her lawyer called, but we didn’t hear back from him until [early February],” Soto says. “She was concerned about rent because things had been slow.”

Bertucci was given the opportunity to sit down with the city’s property manager and work out a plan, according to Soto.

"[Bertucci] wasn’t willing to do that,” Soto says. “If she’s having difficulty, we need to look at the books. We have to be businesspeople, too. Show me there’s a problem. Other tenants are saying things are pretty good.”

Bertucci’s lawyer, Ken McKenna, says the matter may be forced into court if the city doesn’t attempt to respond to Bertucci’s concerns.

“Tara loved being down there, being a part of downtown redevelopment and getting in on the ground floor of a retail environment,” McKenna says. “But at this time, we think it’s unfair for her to be paying the rental value of an established retail space. … I see the city giving away property and giving huge concessions to large corporations. Mom-and-pop organizations ought to be given at least the same consideration. It’s funny. The little guy doesn’t get a break, but the big guy does?”

McKenna, whose own office is just blocks away from the Parking Gallery building, is optimistic about an eventual thriving arts and commerce district. He’s excited about the changes Mayor Bob Cashell pledges to bring to downtown redevelopment.

“I’m really a believer," McKenna says. "But security issues, the city’s failure to perform correctly as landlords and failure to develop—these need to be cured so that downtown is a friendly, safe environment. That will lead to the growth of the downtown core. … I spend a lot of time down here. I have faith that it’s going to happen. My concern for my client is that she survive for the next few years."