Word on the street

Business owners talk shop amid construction

Construction on Virginia Street will keep traffic closed in one direction through February 2019.

Construction on Virginia Street will keep traffic closed in one direction through February 2019.


Is midtown established enough yet to survive?

This article has been updated to reflect clarifying information received from the Regional Transportation Commission regarding the business support program for midtown businesses during Virginia Street construction.

Reno’s midtown district runs along a stretch of Virginia Street that was transformed by the construction of outlying malls and other routes to those malls. By the early ’80s, Virginia Street was no longer a highway through town, which sapped business along the street. It was a surface street, bypassed by most through traffic. Some longtime businesses remained, but, over the years, parts of the street became neglected. Since the mid-2000s, however, there have been efforts to rebrand the neighborhood and revitalize business there.

These days, midtown is teeming with restaurants, bars and retail shops. And aside from a few, they’re relatively new, many established during the post-recession rebranding effort. Now, they’re preparing to keep their doors open throughout a two-year street re-construction project.

The $80 million Virginia Street Bus RAPID Transit Extension project is intended to better connect the midtown district to the University of Nevada, Reno with increased bus traffic. It’s also planned to add landscaping—including some 300 trees—and roundabouts, widen sidewalks to bring them into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and upgrade utility infrastructure in the area.

The latter is what’s underway now, and according to the Regional Transportation Commission’s website, upgrading storm drains and utilities for AT&T, Charter, NV Energy, Verizon and the Truckee Meadows Water Authority will keep a 13-block stretch of Virginia Street (between Plumb Lane and Liberty Street) closed in one direction, seven days a week, for the next five months.

During this phase of construction, northbound travelers will have the options of Plumas and Center Streets and Holcomb and Wells Avenues to get where they’re going. Southbound traffic on Virginia Street will remain open between now and February, and many drivers already know they have the options of Forrest and Plumas Streets to travel south—options they’re taking. A recent Friday afternoon walk down Forrest Street revealed heavy traffic, which several residents walking in the neighborhood stopped to say has become the norm.

Also on these residential streets, the RTC has put up signage. It goes a bit further than the “businesses open during construction” signs placed along the route of the similar Fourth Street/Prater Way Project, though the efficacy of the signs for the Virginia Street project is arguable. Drivers headed northbound on Plumas will see them, but the signs—each of which lists about a dozen businesses with an arrow pointing east down a side street—are printed in small enough lettering that it would be difficult, and probably unwise, to try reading them from a moving vehicle.

The RTC’s website lists other measures it’s taking to encourage “the community to support local businesses during construction,” including a partnership with the rideshare company Lyft.

On its website, the commission announced that beginning on Sept. 7, Lyft would provide 50 percent discounts (up to $10 off) on rides from anywhere in the community outside of midtown to anywhere in the current Virginia Street construction zone. (Use the code RAPID in the promos section of the app.) According to RTC public information officer Lauren Ball, the project contractor, Sierra Nevada Construction, worked with Lyft to help subsidize midtown-bound rides.

Another company also attempted briefly to “alleviate” midtown traffic during construction. Independent of the RTC—and apparently without notice to other government entities—the bikeshare company Lime launched 100 of its electric scooters in midtown on Sept. 18. This was met swiftly with a cease and desist order from the City of Reno, which also released a statement saying officials were “stunned and disappointed at the recent actions of Lime” and calling said actions “disingenuous and irresponsible.”

In addition to the signage on Plumb and its Lyft partnership, the RTC is encouraging midtown shops to participate in a business support incentive program to generate commerce along Virginia, with a variety of strategies being considered, including having the construction company “purchase gift cards from Midtown businesses to distribute to crews, stakeholders and the community.”

Good news needed

It’s been just over three weeks since construction began. Two-way traffic is scheduled to resume on Virginia Street in February, but the project will not wrap up until 2020. Conversations with employees and owners on Sept. 21 revealed that, in addition to taking advantage of the RTC’s efforts and incentives, midtown businesses are making strategies of their own to survive years of construction. And while some reported faring fine so far, others said they’re already feeling the effects.

Signs on Plumas Street point toward midtown businesses to the east.


At Craft Wine and Beer on Martin Street, owner Ty Martin said construction has so far “made no difference at all” in his day-to-day, despite the fact that his business has yet to be listed on the Plumas Street construction signs.

“I was going to make an issue of that because I noticed there are a bunch, and then, like, one or two blocks before my street, there isn’t one. They just haven’t done one. … I assume that when I ask, they will produce one. It’s probably because it’s only me and Junkee currently, unless you include the check cashing place.”

At Shea’s Tavern, bartenders joked that the construction schedule was designed to leave plenty of vacant storefronts “for Starbucks when construction’s over,” and co-owner Jerry Shea was annoyed that road work that day had resulted in a broken water main that left his bar without water for several hours. But, in the end, he expects things will be fine with his business.

“Our customers would skateboard down here, if they had to,” he said.

However, just a few doors south at Crystal Cove—a shop that sells crystals, stones and minerals—manager Zack Burnside said it’s a different story.

“This is the epitome of who’s going to go under—a fucking crystal shop,” Burnside said.

He’s been with the company since it opened two-and-a-half years ago but worries it’s not established enough to survive.

“Objectively, you can get around it and find a parking space, but people don’t have that kind of time,” he said. “I feel like we’re getting fucked. If this is how it’s going to be for a while … say goodbye to midtown. I’ve been staying positive about it, but today’s kind of a breaking point.”

Business has also been slower a few blocks south at the Chocolate Walrus—an adult store and costume shop. But owner Tammy Borde said it’s not a problem that can be blamed entirely on construction.

“People are not aware that there is more parking than normal,” she said, referring to temporary diagonal parking spots painted near her business and additional parking behind it on Holcomb Avenue.

Borde said one of her concerns is that the media will only tell “negative” construction stories which will scare customers away.

“Hopefully they’ll still come,” she said. “If you print the good stuff and let people know, they’ll still come.”

Süp co-owner Kasey Christensen echoed Borde’s concerns.

“The most impactful thing, I think, for most of our businesses is that we don’t want people to think it’s so difficult for people to get down here or that construction is so horrible,” she said. “We’ve really been trying to get the media on our side, to share it in a positive way. … We need a new hashtag—’It’s not that bad.’”