How should Reno balance new development with historical preservation? |

How should Reno balance new development with historical preservation?

Claire Cudahy |
After plans to relocate them fell through, the 10 Gateway District homes could be demolished to make way for new university buildings.
Claire Cudahy / NNBV

RENO, Nev. — Historical buildings have been making headlines recently in Reno.

As Reno continues to enjoy its post-recession renaissance, developers are purchasing properties with ideal locations in or near the Downtown and Midtown areas — but, they must also figure out how to handle the old buildings that hold historical significance to The Biggest Little City.


To start, there’s the ongoing saga over what to do with the 10 Gateway District homes — built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — along Lake and Center streets at the entrance of the University of Nevada, Reno. The university owns the land and has plans to build new business and life sciences buildings there, as well as a parking garage.

“While we have done a lot to preserve our heritage in our campus-size buildings, we could not keep the older houses and still expand the campus the way we need to to take care of our growth and the quality of the facilities,” said UNR President Marc Johnson, referring to the 11 buildings in the campus’s historic district.

Repurposing the houses would only allow for 29 offices, whereas moving or demolishing the homes would make room for two facilities with hundreds of labs, offices and classrooms, plus parking, said Johnson.

After attempts to work with all levels of government to move the homes fell short, in April UNR solicited proposals from the public to relocate the houses, giving applicants six weeks to prove they had enough money and land to relocate them.

Private parties were awarded two of the homes to be moved and restored elsewhere for personal use.

Common Grounds Urban Development, the company that manages property for Burning Man, was granted the contract for the remaining 10 homes. The organization had plans to move the homes to a 360-acre plot of desert north of Gerlach.

However, after further research, Common Ground withdrew their application at the end of October due to concern over re-zoning the land and moving the homes within the university’s timeframe.

“From the outset, Common Ground Urban Development’s proposal was an option of last resort, intended to prevent these historical buildings from being destroyed,” said Burning Man Project Director of Communication Megan Miller. “In addition to concerns about the timeline, Common Ground has not found the base of local support necessary for this project to be successful. These limitations, in addition to concerns about the timeline, prevent us from moving forward.”


Unless another individual or organization steps in to move the houses, they appear to be on the path to demolition.

“Until we have a secure site, we cannot move forward with the preliminary designs for the buildings,” said Johnson. “If we can’t get the houses moved, then as a last resort we will have to take them down in order to create building sites.”

Historian Alicia Barber hopes that it does not get to that point.

“What most people don’t realize is that all six of the houses on the west side of Center Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets were built in the 1890s,” said Barber. “It’s the last surviving row of 19th century Victorian houses in the entire city, which is truly astonishing considering how much of Reno’s historical fabric has been obliterated through the years.”

Barber hopes that Reno does not rush into too much redevelopment at the expense of the city’s past.

“Some of Reno’s most popular independently-owned restaurants, bars and businesses are located in repurposed historic buildings,” said Barber. “Just think of The Depot on East 4th Street or Brasserie St. James in Midtown. Some beautifully adapted historic houses include Sundance Books & Music, Homage, Süp, Death & Taxes, Pignic, Calafuria and the Reno Collective, to name just a few.”

Though preservation in place is always preferred, moving historic buildings is the next best option, says Emerson Marcus, a member of the city of Reno’s Historical Resource Commission.

In early October, the historic Borland-Clifford House, built in 1875, was moved from its Ralston Street location to the 1700 block of S. Arlington St. after the property was purchased by Jacobs Entertainment Inc.

Jacobs, which owns The Sands Regency and Gold Dust West Casino, has been buying up parcels, motels and buildings in an effort to turn west downtown Reno into the Fountain District, a mixed-use redevelopment.

“Our commission believes in historical preservation for many different reasons,” said Marcus. “It’s not just historical value. It’s for aesthetics. Keeping a connection to that old architecture from long ago lets people know what this place once looked like. To just tear it down would be a shame.”


But for some buildings in Reno, years of neglect have left developers with no choice.

In mid-October, Whitney Peak Hotel announced it would be developing the former Old Reno, Vino’s and Reno Mercantile/Masonic Lodge buildings into a 90- to 100-room extended-stay property.

The Mercantile/Masonic Lodge, built in 1872, is the oldest commercial building in Reno, but has been vacant since the mid-1970s.

“We evaluated every option and leveraged considerable resources on the owners’ part to find a solution that would allow us to preserve the Reno Mercantile, but we determined that the safest — and only — course of action is to raze the building,” said Paul Ferrari, the engineer who worked with the developers to assess the condition of the buildings. “However, the owners absolutely recognize the legacy of this building and its importance to the Reno community, so they will salvage and re-use as much existing material as possible, bringing historic integrity to the new building.”

The lobby of the building with have an “exhibit-like” presentation about the building’s past, according to a Whitney Peak Managing Director Niki Gross.

While the future of the 10 Gateway District homes is uncertain, Barber and other preservationist hope that going forward, the city strikes a balance between ushering in the new and preserving the past.

“Reno is experiencing an incredible moment of revitalization,” said Barber. “It’s easy to just get rid of everything old in the rush to reinvent, but the most forward-thinking cities are taking a more imaginative approach to development and integrating the best of their distinctive heritage with innovative new ideas.

“That combination is what makes a place truly special.”