No stopping freight train that's Reno renaissance

"We have reached critical mass in downtown Reno, says Peter Gillon, redevelopment administrator at the City of Reno Redevelop-ment Agency. "It's a freight train there's no stopping it."

But Gillon won't be the one driving that train. He's resigned, effective this week. He says he want to "take advantage of opportunities in the public sector."

It's a good break point, he says, because there's $2 billion worth of projects in the pipeline, just now at the planning stages.

Since taking the position in September 2003, Gillon has presided over a remarkable remake of a dilapidated downtown. He walks away from a phoenix reborn and says, "Reno will become one of the trendiest, most desirable places to do business in the entire West."

Not to mention a tourist destination known worldwide.

And, it will happen in the next five years.

Already, he says, major East Coast papers are calling for interviews.

A project worthy of worldwide coverage, says Gillon, is the 37-story Waterfront Towers by architect Carlos Zapata set on just over three acres east of Lake at Second Street.

Gillon calls it "A $150 million art project that will rebrand downtown Reno forever. It will make a statement. It will be interesting to people from Miami to San Francisco. It wouldn't happen without Peter Stremmel's commitment to his own hometown."

"All great cities are defined by their architecture," says Stremmel, a partner in Vero Development LLC.

But is Reno ready for such a statement of sophistication?

"I'm not sure Reno is ready for it," Stremmel says. "But every time the bar has been raised in Reno, the community has responded."And, he expects locals to reside in about half of the 190 planned units. The rest would come from out of state because, "There's a national trend of empty nesters and baby boomers moving back to urban areas."

More national press is sure to spotlight the Waterfront Towers.

But, when the tourists come in the wake of the press coverage, says Gillon, "You have to have a desireable downtown. You begin by repopulating it with people who have a disposable income."

The ultimate goal is to have a walkable urbanity, like New York, Chicago or San Francisco.

Toward that end, he says, "Market rate rental has been a real focus of this agency." That's where the casino-to-condo conversions come in.

And, when the tourists come, they need places to go.

"The No. 1 thing people do on vacation is shop," says Gillon. "We won't be a world class destination without retail."

But retail is reactive, he adds. "You must have a workforce population to support retail."

And, Reno needs to improve its visitor profile. When a different class of tourist arrives with more disposable income, retail will react to that.

While Gillon expects resident services to occupy the street-level retail planned for the condo projects, tourists will want more than shoe shops and hair salons. They'll want what Gillon calls a multi-block retail, commercial and entertainment complex.

But will the casinos want their customers leaving the gambling halls to go cavorting about a shopping complex?

"The downtown casinos will have to reorient to the street," says Gillon. "Then, tourists will come to enjoy a total multi- day, week or month experience, something they won't get at California's Thunder Valley casino."

After shopping, tourists like to eat, and Gillon says the downtown renaissance addresses that demand.

The Palladio will house three restaurants and 10 North Virginia will house three restaurants overlooking the river, each taking an entire floor.

"There's enormous opportunity downtown," he adds:

* Because 80 percent of residential construction is happening north of Interstate 80 while trend retail is located 10 miles south of I-80.

* Because UNR is the only college in the country without a retail center to serve the students.

* Because studies show a $1.7 billion spending potential from nearby workers at two hospitals and a university.

* Because some big tenants are expected to boost employment in the downtown office core.

* And because 5,000 new condo residents are expected within three years.

His key accomplishment, says Gillon, and a transformative project, was The Palladio. Not a conversion, it's the first new construction downtown since Arlington Towers.

There were challenges along the way to renaissance.

"We had minimal resources," says Gillon. Because of the declining valuations of hotel casinos, the agency's budget got slashed in half. And until last year, in fact, it was insufficient to pay even debt service. There were no funds for low-interest loans or tenant-improvement loans.

But things are turning around. Now that riverfront development is underway, Gillon looks toward that downtown retail-commercial-entertainment complex.

"That's the next critical component," he says. It will be the catalytic project to drive spin-off development."

Who will do the work?

"Peter helped turn redevelopment around to a faster pace," says Jim Hunting, president of the Downtown Improvement Association. "He put together a great staff and worked well with everyone."

But now he needs to be replaced.

"It's one of the most critical personnel choices that needs to be made in northern Nevada at this time," says Hunting.

"Reno will look for the best and brightest development director in the market. It's important to Reno that we have the absolute best. The train has left the station and is gaining momentum."


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