What's Up Downtown: Placemaking and art create community (Voices)

Alex Stettinski is executive director for the Downtown Reno Partnership.

Alex Stettinski is executive director for the Downtown Reno Partnership.

In the last couple of weeks, the Locomotion Plaza in Downtown Reno has been the talk of the town. It is the art and landscaping that changed the unsightly ReTRAC lid into a vibrant plaza. But it’s more than that — Locomotion Plaza is a true community project, with the Downtown Reno Partnership and the City of Reno at the helm.

It took almost two years to get the project realized. Over 250 volunteers donated their time and sweat to paint the 18,000-square-foot mural and plant 1,600 flowers along the north and south of the mural.

All of this is part of our larger goal of placemaking in Downtown Reno. This is just the beginning. There’s so much more to come.

“Placemaking is a people-centered approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces,” according to Placemaking Chicago. “Put simply, it involves looking at, listening to, and asking questions of the people who live, work and play in a particular space, to discover needs and aspirations.

“This information is then used to create a common vision for that place. The vision can evolve quickly into an implementation strategy, beginning with small-scale, doable improvements that can immediately bring benefits to public spaces and the people who use them.”

Art and placemaking, essential components of every successful downtown, are often neglected and forgotten by a mindset that economic and community development mainly consists of well-paved roads, sidewalks and big developments. They are important, but they are worth little without the soul art and placemaking bring to an area.

Projects like this can be catalysts in the revitalization process of a neighborhood. They can set a trend, making an area vibrant and exciting and encouraging more development and visitors to come. But more importantly, these projects create spaces for the community to interact, engage, share, work and play.

The entire project required regional partnerships among a Main Street Grant, a Bloomberg Grant, a gift from the Downtown Reno Partnership, contributions from the City of Reno, part pro-bono, part paid services from Stantec and Omega Landscape Solutions, and countless meetings and renderings.

A very detailed search for the mural artist was conducted by the City’s Public Arts Committee, and Brad Carney, a master muralist and community engager from Philadelphia, got the assignment.

He worked on the art piece for almost six months. In the end he created a piece designed specifically for the space. Instead of treating the concrete like a blank canvas and creating abstract art, he treated it like a piece of the larger area.

He incorporated Reno and Nevada native features, such as the Truckee River, the Sierra, the Reno flag, sagebrush and our infamous sunset. He spent two weeks instructing and guiding an army of volunteers, who took pride in being part of the art project.

After the mural was done, another set of volunteers came to help plant over 1,600 plants and spread the mulch on top of the landscaped areas.

In hindsight, the process was so worth it — public art and landscaping are an expression of how we value the places we live in. And if done with this kind of community involvement, it creates a sense of belonging and ownership.

It awakens an energy that will continue to feed the evolution of downtown Reno for years to come.

Every morning when I pass by the Locomotion Plaza on my way to the office, I see groups of people standing along Virginia Street taking a long look at the mural, the trees and the many plants. The change this project ignited is already noticeable, and the project isn’t even fully completed yet.

A second phase is underway. The Downtown Reno Partnership once again will team up with the City of Reno to add artistic lighting to the plaza. Another Main Street grant, another gift from the Downtown Reno Partnership and a matching City of Reno contribution will take care of the funding.

Each of the 20 newly planted trees will be lit, and features of the mural will be highlighted at night. If all goes smoothly, we should have a beautifully lit plaza just in time for the holidays, when Councilmember Neoma Jardon is again launching a holiday lighting program for downtown Reno.

The next step will be the activation of the plaza through community events such as yoga classes, and perhaps a Locomotion Reading Lounge weekend. We have so many options to use the space and share it with the community.

When I looked onto the plaza on a Saturday evening, I saw two roller skaters dance along the train track lines of the mural. It was awesome to watch, and I noticed a different spirit is moving into the area — this is just the beginning.

“What’s Up Downtown” is a monthly Voices column in the NNBW authored by Alex Stettinski, executive director of the Downtown Reno Partnership. Reach him for comment at astettinski@downtownreno.org.


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