Open for business
South Wells Avenue employees and employers want to come out on the other side of a street paving and renewal project still working
Mundo Travel has been on South Wells Avenue for about a year and a half. Travel agent Karla Martinez has been with Mundo for about a year. She saw what recent construction on the street did to business and is worried about what a much more ambitious improvement and renewal project, scheduled to begin later this month, will do.
“It was a problem because the people were having to figure how to get here, and there was also a problem with parking,” she says, reluctant to take her eyes from her computer screen, with its travel plans, to chat. “And at that time it was very slow.”
She’s not the only one who’s worried. At one business after another up and down South Wells, workers and owners are wondering whether their businesses will still be operating when the changes are complete. The renovation is designed to make a declining and tattered South Wells Avenue a better place to do business, but some merchants don’t know whether they can survive the cure.
Over the past few weeks, small paving projects on Wells and its cross streets have wreaked havoc with company incomes. During the major construction period, the entire length of Wells, from Kuenzli to South Virginia, will be removed down to a depth of 18 inches and new pavement installed.
The residents of the area are just as concerned. South Wells Avenue is essentially a neighborhood, a line of stores that cut through a residential area, and the interests of the merchants have not always meshed with those of the residents. (This entire story, and the city’s renewal project, deals only with the south end of Wells, between Kuenzli and Virginia.)
Martinez’s company serves mostly Latinos, and that’s a reflection of a sparkling array of diversity that lines Wells Avenue these days. Businesses have names like Dhanshree, Dragon Spring, Chez Vous, Ryan’s and Murillos. It bespeaks an exciting present. It’s also a long way from the Wells Avenue past. In an area where residents were once heavily Italo-American, there is not one Italian restaurant.
A slowly developing problem
In the postwar years of the late 1940s and ‘50s, Wells was not dramatically different than it is now. It was a strip of commercial in the midst of homes. The principal change is that there are now few homes facing right on Wells itself. Walk a few steps down most cross streets away from Wells, though, and there’s nothing but residences.
In those earlier days, the city was small enough that people in Reno often knew Wells Avenue merchants, such as Art Rempel, Betty Hall, and Carl and Lawrence Bogart, by their first names. As late as 1963, there were no street numbers on Wells south of Colorado River Boulevard.
But sprawl came to Reno, and it was felt everywhere. At the south end of Wells, a strip mall, Shoppers Square, opened in 1963. In the winter of 1964-65 an open-air mall, Park Lane, opened across Plumb Lane from Shoppers Square. The town began spreading south.
The impact of these developments was noticed most in the downtown. The new shopping areas drained away downtown merchants like Skaggs Payless and Sears. Park Lane even hijacked a downtown landmark, a beautiful pedestal street clock, and moved it to the mall to be its symbol. (Both Shoppers Square and Park Lane later enlarged their facilities.)
The attention paid to the downtown distracted attention from the impact that also fell on Wells Avenue. The new shopping areas were so close to South Wells that what Wells lost most dramatically was not businesses but customers. A drive to Shoppers Square and Park Lane was not much farther than a drive to Wells Avenue. In fact, Wells essentially empties into Shopper’s Square at its south end. It can be said that when businesses abandoned downtown to relocate south, they did it by using Wells to get there.
But transitions happen slowly, and the decline of the street’s customer base was not quickly apparent. As the years passed it was, though. Certain buildings would lose stable tenants. One would be, say, a carpet store for a few months, then a real estate office for a year, then a clothing store for a while. There’s even a decommissioned Catholic church, now a bank.
It was still a commercial district in a residential area. What have changed are the names on the buildings that face Wells. The neighborhood post office became an auto parts store and is now a pawnshop, and the neighborhood no longer has a full post office. What used to be the corner neighborhood store now changes commercial tenants regularly. (One of the best features of Juicy Burgers is a Happy Motoring! tile in the bathroom from its previous incarnation as a service station.)
There are signs of a sort of stability if one has some memory of the area, which is not often the case in a rapid-growth, high-turnover city like Reno. IGA Market started out as Eagle Thrifty Market, then became Raley’s Grocery and now is IGA. (Unknown to shoppers, the building sits on a vast emptiness, once the Eagle Thrifty lower level, now sealed off.) 1501 South Wells was Baker’s Furniture, then J and M Furniture, then Good Morning Furniture.
The preparatory road construction has caused serious economic losses up and down Wells. For weeks construction has been going on, both on Wells and on cross streets, to get ready for the full-fledged renewal work this month, and the damage to the businesses has attracted news coverage. The nature of that coverage has exacerbated the problem, the merchants say, particularly on television because its hyperbolic tone left the impression that the street is a war zone that is unreachable. “We’re here. We’re open. Parking is our main problem, not accessibility,” says one businessperson.
On the east side of Wells Avenue, at the corner of Colorado River Boulevard, there are two businesses, one of which is likely the oldest business on Wells. Indeed, the owners have a sign on the old building:
On the opposite corner is probably the newest business on Wells, a seafood restaurant, Las Islitas. It’s been here, in a former McDonald’s building, for about nine months.
Right between the two these days is street construction, and it has hurt business. Deluxe, Reno’s last big industrial laundry (there were once six of them), normally has full shelves of finished laundry packages ready to be picked up. Most of those shelves now are bare. The owners retained their hotel clients, but business from individuals has fallen off sharply because Wells Avenue has gotten such a reputation for being difficult to reach.
“We haven’t had one customer today, yet,” Rosa Kolbet said one day last week at about one in the afternoon. “They can’t get in.”
Rosa and Ralph Kolbet have run the laundry since 1950 and owned it since 1966. Ralph, once a civilian war worker in Carson City during World War II, now uses a wheelchair, but their two sons help run the business. They worry about whether the newcomers across the street will survive. “Just new and just starting—that’d be awfully hard, wouldn’t it?” says Rosa.
Across the street at Las Islitas, Santiago Valdivia is working in the restaurant, which is owned by his brother. He says the period of improvement is a serious worry. The street construction is already cutting into their trade: “Yes, it’s difficult. I think it’s difficult because people think it’s closed.” While the changes are a looming threat to the business in the short run, he nevertheless says, “But I think it’s good. … I think it’s better for all the businesses.” If Las Islitas survives the renewal project, he thinks, it will benefit from the improvements.
Avenues toward improvement
The funding for the renovation of Wells is coming partly from the Regional Transportation Commission, partly from the city, partly from special assessments on the property owners. Each owner will be assessed according to the size of the property, and some of them were jolted by the original estimates of their shares. But U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, at the request of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, obtained a $300,000 grant, and it reduced the property assessments substantially. Moreover, the property owners are being given 20 years to pay the assessments, with the first bill not coming due until 2006. In the end, the businesses will pony up $670,870.
As the time for the start of work on the project came closer, a new idea appeared—construction at night (7 p.m. to 5 a.m.). The idea was that if the street is relatively clear during the day, business will be damaged less. But the proposal pitted the merchants and the residents against each other.
Adam Nicholson lives on Cheney Street, which crosses Wells about halfway along the distance of the renovation area. He went to a City Hall meeting held to brief residents and merchants on the plan and argued, “This is not just a business district. It’s a residential area.” During the meeting, a compromise proposal was advanced—use of jackhammers only during the day and early evenings. The City Council approved the plan for evening use, with day use permitted only if a notification procedure is followed.
Over the five years of planning for the renewal of Wells Avenue, the relationship between Wells denizens and the city has been relatively peaceful for a city with a history of hostility between city officials and those they govern. The city has from time to time held briefings for those with a stake in Wells Avenue, in addition to the normal meetings and public hearings.
City Councilmember Toni Harsh says the city made a vigorous effort to reach out to everyone involved. She says there were meetings at Veterans Memorial School that were “engaging, open, and everyone felt like they were part of a team. I’m not telling you there wasn’t contention. There was. But it was all aired, so that before everything was settled, people felt they had been heard.” Councilmember Jessica Sferrazza Hogan and city staff members Jenny Brekhus and Gary Stockhoff were vigilant to make sure concerns were addressed, according to Harsh.
One major rupture in the relationship between the South Wells community and the city came in 2002, when the city installed two roundabouts for three months on Wells between Crampton and Thoma Streets to see how they’d work. The reaction was immediate and universally angry.
Pet store owner Linus McKibben says, “The two small roundabouts they put in were devastating. They were terrible. And I didn’t have one customer say anything good about them.”
“People were freaking out at the roundabouts,” Nicholson says. “People who were going around to make a left turn never could count on that person [who was] going straight through stopping. So both cars would come to a stop as the one going down Wells tried to do the right thing, and the other one didn’t trust him.”
The fiasco nearly destroyed Wells Avenue confidence in the project and in city government. Ahora, a Reno Spanish-language newspaper, ran a cartoon showing a lively, booming Wells Avenue before the improvement project and closed and shuttered businesses after the improvements. But with the passage of time, the rift seems not to have produced lasting effects.
The roundabouts were gone after three months, but the reconfiguration of the lanes that accompanied them stayed, and they give drivers a taste of what a two-lane Wells will be like after years of four lanes. Drivers interviewed at stoplights have ranged in their reactions from unhappy to surly.
Tom Stewart owns Truckee Meadows Herbs, one of the street’s best known businesses. It draws customers looking for high-grade saw palmetto from all over the city. He is also the head of the Wells Avenue Merchants and Property Owners Association and an effective spokesperson for the renewal project. He says of the two-lane street, “Wells Avenue is known for rear-end collisions. The city was trying to make it a safer street.”
While residents and merchants are heard from through the normal planning and public hearing processes, that’s rarely true of other stakeholders—drivers and customers. Person-on-the-street interviews at some businesses, particularly those that attract regular Wells users, turned up some comments. The single most common reaction to the plans for Wells Avenue is that it has already lost its greatest asset—the broad boulevard.
“I used to love to use Wells Avenue because it was a wide street—spacious,” said a customer in a coffee shop at Wells and Interstate 80. “Now it’s two-lane. I avoid it.”
A couple at a 7-Eleven said the narrowing of the street was a case of people going to government for help instead of solving the problem themselves.
“The problem with collisions isn’t the lanes,” she said. “It’s the poor markings of the street numbers on Wells. People drive along looking for the numbers and plow into the back of the car in front of them. I’ve seen it happen.”
Her husband added, “And that’s something the businesses have to fix, not the city.” He paused, then said, “Besides, I don’t believe that’s why the street was—why the four lanes were gotten rid of. They did it so people will have to go more slowly and see the stores and the shop windows and be pulled in.”
“Where do you get the idea that fewer lanes means fewer collisions?” demanded a contractor at a paint store. “It’s exactly the opposite. Two lanes will make more collisions. And the center turn lane is no help. There’s a reason they’re called ‘suicide lanes.’ The wide street was Wells’ biggest selling point, and they got rid of it.”
A woman having lunch at Ryland and Wells said, referring to the north end of the street, where the wide four-lane street will be retained, “It’s a lot easier driving down here than up there. Guess where I’m going to spend money?”
Making Wells work
But if one of the strengths of Wells Avenue is being eliminated, others remain. For those who believe that shopping locally is a way to nourish a community’s economy, Wells is a rich lode to mine. Nearly all shopping and business is local. The street has rarely had much chain ownership, and what there has been has usually been franchises like 7-Eleven and Jimboy’s Tacos.
Chains have, however, driven some Wells Avenue companies out of business. Siri Office Supply, a longtime Reno company with a loyal following, suffered from the moment that chains like Office Depot and Office Max came to town (RN&R, Aug. 28, 1996). After hanging on for a long time, it finally expired in 2000. Carson City’s Custom Office Supply then opened a store in the building but folded it after a year. The building now houses a thrift store.
South Wells Avenue enjoys another strength that other declining shopping areas, such as the Village Shopping Center, do not have. It is linked to major traffic arteries, so just getting to Wells stores is relatively easy. One end of Wells is at Interstate 80, one exit away from the Spaghetti Bowl. The other end of Wells is at Virginia Street, Reno’s main street.
Not everyone on Wells is happy with city government. In some stores, the level of paranoia is very high, perhaps a carryover from the Jeff Griffin years in city government when officials ruled by divide-and-conquer. One woman who contacted the RN&R about her problems with the renewal project was reluctant to give her name because “they” could retaliate. She says of the renewal project, “It’s going to be another train trench.”
Others have more generalized complaints.
“The businesses on this street that have pushed this project are the ones that are best able to afford the losses during the construction,” one owner says. “I don’t know if I’ll live through this. They’ve used their financial stability to put me at risk. It’s easy for them to say this is good for all of us.”
That breach between marginal businesses and others is perhaps most pronounced in attitudes toward a planned roundabout. The disastrous experience with the two temporary roundabouts has not stopped the city from planning a roundabout at Wells and Regency, one of the places where Wells links up with South Virginia. The well-established businesses favor it while the less financially secure ones are nervous about its effect on their bottom line.
Restaurant owner Ed Lewis, sitting down and feeling fried after a shift of standing up and flipping burgers (which comes on top of 22 years flipping burgers at his location), said of the renewal project, “Personally I would not have said yes to it. I don’t think how the sidewalks are laid out is why business is better or worse. … I would look at what can I do to make my business do better, not, ‘Gee, if they made nicer streets and street lamps and all, my business would do better.'” He also says no one should expect a rapid improvement, that a similar project in Berkeley was successful but only gradually.
It is certainly true that long-established businesspeople have had greater freedom to be involved in the planning process than hard-pressed owners of new and struggling businesses. Stewart says he has attended every single city meeting, hearing and briefing dealing with Wells Avenue.
That kind of an investment in the process has worked for the merchants.
“I went to the meetings and voiced my opinions,” says McKibben, surrounded by the parrots, parakeets and monkeys in his pet store. “When they originally started with it, they wanted three or four roundabouts, bulb outs, a median the full length of the street. I was definitely against most of that.” The city’s plans were changed to meet the objections of those who attended the meetings.
Some of the merchants have kept the planning process at arm’s length, so they weren’t prepared for some changes, but groups like the Merchants and Property Owners Association and the Hispanic Chamber have tried to keep them informed. The Hispanic Chamber, for instance, alerted its members that for merchants planning someday “to install or replace gas, water, or sewer laterals, telephone or television cable … that will require street trenching,” this will be the time to do it, while the street is torn up. While it is a wise reminder, it means laying out more dollars at a time when fewer are coming in.
Can the street survive the cure?
One thing that has not surfaced on Wells Avenue is the attitude toward less upscale businesses that is such a feature of downtown Reno and Sparks redevelopment efforts, in which officials try to proscribe frowned-on businesses such as pawn shops. Wells Avenue has a tattoo parlor, fortune teller, a pawn shop, thrift stores, check cashing outlets. Many of those who have pushed the renovation project oppose any effort to screen out disapproved businesses.
“Those shops add flavor and color to the neighborhood,” says Stewart. “It would be nice maybe to have some other stores that are a little more upscale, but I would hate to see the little stores go. I think they add the uniqueness to this area.” And he hopes and expects that the renewal will bring more upscale companies to the neighborhood.
Stewart has been in business for 20 years at two locations, both of them on Wells. That kind of loyalty to Wells Avenue is not uncommon. When convenience store owner Ed Yocum sold his store on Wells four years ago, he then opened a steam cleaning business—right next door to the convenience store.
The fear of losing a business is not an idle one on Wells Avenue. Workers and owners have watched neighboring businesses shut down, and even a loyal following is not enough to save a merchant, as the fate of the Pepper Tree is showing. The popular store owned by Rose Ann Capriotti is set to close on May 13.
Wells Avenue has seen plenty of adversity over the years, and the renewal project, while offering hope, is, in the short term, another hardship. While it is going on, businesses on the street will still be open and looking for the community’s support.
As Wells Avenue employees and employers brace for the project that could save their businesses—if it doesn’t kill them first—Karla Martinez, back at her travel agency, likely speaks for them all.
“For me that’s fine because they’re going to repair the street and that’s good for everybody … because the street is very bad, bad condition. See, if you’re looking at it that way, it’s good. On the other hand, for the business it’s not very good."