Rocking the Comstock

The word on Fourth Street—move to the Comstock for comparable rates and free coffee

Neighbors want to know what happened to the plan to turn the Comstock Hotel into timeshare condos.

Neighbors want to know what happened to the plan to turn the Comstock Hotel into timeshare condos.

Photo By David Robert

From the front, the Comstock Hotel looks like any other closed casino in downtown Reno. But if you walk along West Street to the valet parking entrance, the old hotel is bustling with activity: men carrying suitcases, backpacks and pillows in; women pushing strollers out.

Call it luxury living if you’d like. Neighbors dismayed about the new low weekly rates are calling it a flophouse.

“To turn a huge place like that into weeklies is ugh,” says Sheryl Kleinendorst of Not Too Shabby, an artsy furniture shop and gallery across from the Century Riverside 12 Theatre. “What happened to their initial idea of making it into timeshares and condos? Those people are great.

“But this caters to the transient population. They’re here to blow what money they have. They’re not going to be customers of mine.”

When the Comstock closed its doors in November, neighbors noticed an immediate drop in foot traffic.

“It was an anchor for this end of downtown,” says Bill Schramm, owner of Antiques Emporium, a store between the Parking Gallery and the Flamingo Hilton. “The day the Comstock closed, we started losing business.”

The real estate had been sold in May 1999 to Judah Hertz of Sapphire Gaming LLC and the Hertz Group of Los Angeles. Hertz’s plans included not only running the Comstock, but also taking over the Sands Regency Hotel-Casino and the Flamingo Hilton as well. But the deals fell apart. And in December, the Nevada Gaming Commission turned Hertz down for a gaming license, citing ties to drug-runners, Israeli mobsters and “Hollywood Madam” Heidi Fleiss.

Hertz says the decision was unfair.

“I think it’s an assumption that is totally inaccurate, that I’m an associate of organized crime,” Hertz told reporters in December. “The people that they are talking about are truly not organized criminals.”

Now owned by Joel Gamel of Miami, Fla., the Comstock was to have been converted into 200 studios and one-bedroom condos. But conversion would have been expensive. It was simpler, indeed, to offer rooms to the working class and senior citizens at $150 to $260 per week.

What’s the master plan? Hard to say. Gamel, who’s staying at the Comstock, didn’t return RN&R phone calls.

Receptionists at the Comstock are happy to show rooms to prospective renters. On the main floor, a lounge offers residents a free continental breakfast with coffee, juice and rolls. Though the building’s outdoor pool and hot tub are closed for winter, the second floor bar is open nightly for drinks and karaoke.

The $150 rooms are of average hotel quality, some with a decent view of downtown Reno. Each has two double beds, but renters can substitute a couch for the second bed while supplies last. Cable TV is included. Optional add-ons include a microwave and a refrigerator for $10 per week, weekly maid service for $15 per cleaning and $20 per month for unlimited local phone calls.

To one Comstock resident, who didn’t give his name because, “I have to live here,” the offer seemed perfect.

“I needed a place kind of fast, and they made it easy,” he says. “They didn’t even have to check my credit.”

Schramm isn’t as easily impressed.

“They’re catering to a low-end demographic,” Schramm says. “They’re pitching it as a senior-living facility. That’d be fine. They need senior living down here.”

But what irks some shop owners the most is how the Comstock fits, or doesn’t fit, into the city’s redevelopment plans.

“They keep shoving this ‘We have a master plan’ down my throat,” Schramm says, throwing up his hands. “Well, what is it?”

When small-business owners first heard about the Comstock’s plan to offer weekly rentals, they took their concerns to city planners. Schramm says the neighbors were assured that they’d be notified if zoning for weeklies were under consideration.

“We were told we’d have some control,” Schramm says. But he says he was never notified. He found out that the Comstock was open for business when the TV advertisements started up.

“My trust in the city is gone,” he says.

The Comstock is zoned “hotel casino downtown.” That zoning designation does allow weekly rentals, just like the weekly rates offered by motels on Fourth Street.

“But there are some other issues,” says Bruce Ambo of the Reno community development’s zoning division. “It’s not as neatly defined in terms of what we think they’re doing and what they are doing.”

If the city were serious about redevelopment, Schramm complains, they’d make sure multi-million dollar casino properties weren’t bought and sold aimlessly.

“You shouldn’t be able to sell something like the Comstock to someone without a gaming license,” he says. “And if [the city] allows this building to fall, what happens when the next one goes down?”

Without casinos, there’s no way to market downtown at all, Schramm says. And that downtown needs to be marketed is obvious.

“It’s like there’s a fire in the house, and you put out the fire on part of a chair to sit down, then you let the house burn down around you,” Schramm says of the city’s efforts on the Comstock deal.

Kleinendorst agrees.

“I can’t even believe [the city] let it happen,” she says. “It’s right here in the middle of everything they’ve worked for. … I thought [the] Redevelopment [Division] would fight it to the death. According to them, this is their life, this is what they work for.”

When Kleinendorst looks out her shop window, she sees the progress that’s been made since the building of the Century Riverside 12. Reno might not be the best place to develop a historic shopping district, but any failure won’t be due to lack of effort.

“This is a great family place with perfect parking," she says. "It’s a perfect place to come. I’ve seen people walk by trailing their children. But if they don’t watch what’s going on one block over, it’s going to be a big mess. … I guess you don’t have control over a bajillionaire that buys a building. They just do what they want."