Almost an entire block that was once crowded with worn-out strip motels and tiny trinket shops, has fallen under the power of eminent domain.
The city of South Lake Tahoe exercised its legal muscle in January to acquire 13 parcels for the launch of its Park Avenue Redevelopment Project - a $350 million rejuvenation that calls for the construction of a new city square to replace the 1960s style strip along Lake Tahoe Boulevard and Park Avenue, near the Nevada state line.
Demolition is almost complete and the blank area will be turned over to developers for a $2 million fee likely in June, in time for this summer's building season.
American Skiing Company, parent company to Heavenly Ski Resort, will build the quarter-share ownership Grand Summit Hotel and a gondola leading up to Heavenly's ski slopes. A retail center with shops, restaurants and a six-screen cinema complex will be built by the Nevada-based Trans-Sierra Investments. The city will contribute park-like streetscape around the development, public art, a transit center, and an upgraded stormwater treatment system.
In addition to the urban beautification, the action of eminent domain requires that the outcome of the project provide a public benefit. In this case, it comes by way of $30 million worth of environmental improvements.
But, after eight years of planning and 39 business relocations, 13 property acquisitions, 34 acres of demolition and one case of litigation over which theater company will operate the new cinema, the project's environmental benefits may have taken a backseat to the hype.
"People tend to see the economic benefits of the project," said Rick Angelocci, of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the bistate planning authority in the Lake Tahoe Basin. "But there's going to be a substantial (environmental) improvement from this project."
Parking lots and pavement have threatened Lake Tahoe's famed clarity by sending runoff directly into the lake, carrying suspended sediments that cloud the lake's crystal clear waters.
Angelocci said the Park Avenue Project, one of the most paved and developed areas in the Lake Tahoe Basin, has never had a stormwater treatment system since it was developed in the 1960s. And it didn't have a chance for natural filtration either.
- "Ninety-six percent of the land in the Park Avenue Project is paved in some fashion," Angelocci said. "The new system will reduce coverage to about 66 percent and that's going to allow for some natural infiltration on the site."
What won't soak into the ground will be captured into a new drainage system that will flow into four retention ponds for settling.
The ponds, one at the corner of Pioneer Trail and Lake Tahoe Boulevard and three near Park Avenue and Pine Street will treat runoff from the project site and surrounding neighborhoods. The holding ponds will strain the sediment out of the water before it soaks into the ground and eventually into Lake Tahoe.
Installing the stormwater pipes and retention ponds is a condition of the project's construction permit issued by Lahontan Regional Quality Control Board, the area's authority on water quality issues.
Lauri Kemper, Lahontan's Chief of the Lake Tahoe Watershed Unit, said the long-awaited improvements will greatly improve water quality in the most urban area of the South Shore.
"That area has always been a concern for us - there's a vast amount of pavement and the rain runs on this pavement and goes straight into the lake," Kemper said. "This is going to be a huge improvement for water quality."
The five-story Grand Summit Hotel, to be built by American Skiing Company, is the largest and the first development planned for the Park Avenue Project.
Construction on the four-star quarter resort is scheduled to begin this summer.
When it opens in December 2001, there will be no surprises in the four-star hotel's design.
Nothing was overlooked in the building's exterior design scheme, according to TRPA's Angelocci, who sat on the design board for the Park Avenue Project.
He said the color of every trim, roof fascia, shingle, door and paving stone had to be approved by TRPA. Materials were inspected for their reflective abilities, paints were examined for their brightness and trims were matched with siding. Anything too bright was sent back to the architects.
The final design incorporates varying roof lines, wood and stucco siding and rock accents.
The same scrutiny went into the planning of the city's transit area and the retail space development.
"This is going to be a huge scenic improvement," Angelocci said. "It's a beautiful place, and it's one of (TRPA's) mandates to make sure that the experience is enjoyable for the people who live here and the people who travel here."
Angelocci said some of the roof lines had to be negotiated to maintain unobstructed views of the ridge line to the south of the project area.
In addition, the hotel will be set back 60 feet from the highway to allow for a pedestrian-friendly promenade with trees and benches.
The extra space also makes room for a monorail easement, Judith Von Klug, the city's redevelopment manger said.
"If we're as successful as I think we're going to be, 10 years from now that will be the topic of conversation," Von Klug said.
In the meantime, the project's planning has focused on making today's method of travel smoother.
Park Avenue's bends are being softened for increased traffic flow. Right turn lanes along Highway 50 will be added so cars won't sit idle at the stop light. Driveways are being reduced to eliminate unnecessary traffic junctions.
"There are 13 driveways on Highway 50 in the project area and that will be cut down to two," Von Klug said. "The idea is that there will be less conflict on the road, which will allow for a smoother flow of traffic."
Keeping cars moving is a start to reducing pollution from emissions but Angelocci said the TRPA's goal is to get people out of their cars entirely.
"We could spend all of our time and money on mitigation but we really need to get people using public transport," he said.
A transit hub that will coordinate all public transportation vehicles under one system is scheduled for completion by 2002.
Angelocci said Heavenly's gondola will be within walking distance of many hotels, which will deter people from driving while they are on vacation at the South Shore.
"That will cut traffic substantially if people don't have to leave their bed base to drive to the resort," he said.
Preparation work for the gondola began in April. The gondola is expected to be operational during the next ski season.