The city and the university have a land plan that will kill a park plan. Are the casinos lurking in the background?
With little fanfare, redevelopment activities in the downtown are slated for expansion.
The University of Nevada, Reno and the city of Reno are planning to redevelop a strip of land running from Sierra Street on the west to Evans Avenue on the east. It will be just one block wide, from Ninth Street to the freeway (technically, Eighth Street). This strip of land is already within the city’s second, more recent redevelopment district that wraps around the older, downtown redevelopment district.
Within this four-block strip, officials visualize retail space, shops and cafes, and housing—precisely what it currently contains.
This would cancel out the university’s previous plan for the four-block strip—a park.
Redevelopment generally refers to state or federal statutes that give local government power to establish redevelopment agencies to deal with urban decay. However, that does not seem to apply in the university case. Though stores along Virginia Street are kind of run-down, much of the area is not. Indeed, two of the Center Street properties have recently been renovated.
The university’s plans—and especially the prospect of redevelopment powers being used—have made some community leaders nervous. They say that Reno’s past redevelopment activities are a warning against expanding those activities.
“The city [of Reno] has been forced to subsidize the debt service of the redevelopment fund with general tax revenue for the past several years,” said columnist and labor figure Andrew Barbano. “Their solution has been a non sequitur, establishing more property tax-funded redevelopment districts which drain money from police, fire protection and parks as well as maintenance and construction of roads and schools. Both Reno and Sparks are in serious financial jeopardy due to this corporate welfare profligacy. Sparks is in danger of going bankrupt first because its cash flow is weaker, it has a smaller citizen base. …
“Despite what officials say—that the cities are not on the financial hook for corporate welfare programs—the facts are otherwise. At a Reno council meeting where approval of the Cabela’s financing was on the agenda, former city finance director Andy Green got up one more time to assure the council that the taxpayers were not on the hook. A review of the 600-page bonding document revealed otherwise. But who has time to read legislation putting the public in hock?”
Former Reno councilmember Toni Harsh said there are real benefits to redevelopment districts, but the districts should be temporary, and the benefits only come to pass when the districts “sunset”—that is, end their bureaucratic life. But in the Truckee Meadows, she said, redevelopment never ends because the life of redevelopment districts is extended so more bonds can be issued. When she heard about the university plans, she called it “redevelopment to pay for redevelopment to pay for redevelopment that didn’t reach its expectations.”
“We keep forming these things, and it just keeps going on and on and on,” Harsh said. “Where are we fixing the blight?”
Redevelopment is intended to upgrade blighted areas, thus making property more valuable and hiking tax assessments to produce more revenue for public services like schools. But so far, redevelopment has mainly meant debt, not revenue.
Technically, the university will not be expanding into the redevelopment strip. Although it owns land in the strip, officials say no public funds will be used there.
That makes some faculty members ask why the university is even involved, then. Why is the university even getting into issues of off-campus commercial development? “How is that our business?” asked one.
“I believe that the university needs to be surrounded by the kind of auxiliary aspects—bagel shops, delis, little art shops—that really become a way to encourage our students to remain on campus and to really be full-time students,” said UNR President Milton Glick.
Glick said students who mostly stay on or near campus have a higher graduation rate.
“Secondly, our stake is that some of these businesses will come here because the university is interested in those kind of businesses. So we won’t have a financial stake, but we have a huge stake in that neighborhood. That neighborhood is very much a part of making the university better.”
Glick also candidly acknowledges that, while the strip of land already contains the things he describes, they’re not the kind of things he wants to see there. He wants upscale housing, boutique-style businesses. When his attention was drawn to residential motels where students live, he said, “But I don’t believe it’s the kind of housing that will attract more students and more people to want to come downtown.”
That kind of language sounds as much like economic development and tourism promotion as educational development, and Glick also said he’s not looking at just the effect in the four-block strip, but from the university to the Circus Circus. He hopes that improvement in the looks of Virginia Street between Ninth Street and the freeway will encourage additional upgrades.
“So we’re hoping this will trigger more development, so eventually you have lots of activity running all the way to the river,” he said. He said he wants to make the area more attractive to investors and developers.
Glick said that STAR bonds—instruments under which the taxpayers have to pay most of the cost of commercial construction—and condemnation will not be used in the four-block strip. But that would be the city’s decision, not that of the university.
He said he’s aware that some homeowners in the strip are not willing to sell, but he said recent changes in state eminent domain law would protect those people. The university itself owns a block of the strip.
At the university’s behest, the Reno City Council on Sept. 23 voted to amend the city master plan to rezone the strip for commercial and mixed use.
In Reno, the City Council and the Redevelopment Agency are the same thing. Why not let the city handle the four block strip so the university doesn’t get involved in the city’s troubled redevelopment?
“They won’t,” Glick said. “They’ve focused all their energies so far on the riverfront, which I think they’ve done a great job.”
The notion of the university servicing commercial development is itself controversial. Barbano argues that the university’s plans are the latest development in a long-running effort by casinos to shift development away from south of the river to the north, where favored gambling properties operate—City Hall moved from south of the river, the Riverside converted to a non-commercial property, government acquisition of the Pioneer Inn Casino in the south. Now it’s the redevelopment strip, designed to make north of the river more attractive and welcoming. Meanwhile, he said, the Siena Casino south of the river strangles, discouraging any further casinos to the south. Is the university being used by the casinos?
Glick said he’s had no conversations with casino executives about the project.
“I have talked to the mayor at great length about it, but I haven’t talked to the casinos.”
Barbano said there were assurances that no public funds would be used in the previous redevelopment districts, but that it happened anyway. He said the involvement of the university in these kinds of redevelopment matters take the campus away from its basic function.
“This is a laughable perversion of public policy and abandonment of the educational mission … This is merely a reflection of longstanding reality: The more things change, the more they remain the same. All must serve promotion of the downtown gambling industry.”