I’ve been in Reno many times over the past 45 years, for fun (as a child, young adult, and middle-aged adult), and for work when I was with Amtrak or AAA. Reno’s downtown area has been on a largely downhill slide since the late 70s but there are signs of progress mixed with the stubborn presence of blight.
LOOKING WEST FROM THE CENTER STREET BRIDGE ON THE TRUCKEE RIVER
I’ll begin with a brief childhood memory, followed by a look at the more promising parts of the present, and close out with an eulogy for a lost hotel.
Like a good many of my readers, I grew up in the Bay Area in the 1960s and early 70s. Nevada for me wasn’t Las Vegas, it was Reno and, to a lesser extent, Lake Tahoe.
Nevada meant gambling and big name entertainment. It was a place where our parents went to have naughty fun they couldn’t have in California because, except for horse racing and poker, gambling was not legally allowed anywhere in our state.
It required a four hour drive to cross a line where the sign said “Welcome to Nevada” and everything changed and you knew it because even the grocery stores had slot machines.
The biggest hotel-casino in downtown Reno by then was Harrah’s but plenty of other big casinos lined Virginia Street in downtown Reno, mostly on the north side of the Truckee River.
Fast forward to the present day.
Downtown Reno is not exactly a ghost town but the energy of even 30 years ago is gone.
Harrah’s is still a big presence downtown, along with the interconnected properties of Circus Circus, Silver Legacy, and Eldorado. Club Cal-Neva (across from Harrah’s) and Siena (south side of the river) pretty much complete downtown’s hotel-casino inventory that once numbered far more.
– the phenomenal rise of Las Vegas
– the building of stand-alone casinos outside of the downtown core (Peppermill, Atlantis, and the Grand Sierra – originally opened in 1978 as the MGM Grand Reno)
– Indian gaming in northern California.
Where are things going?
The most positive development in the city’s downtown renewal is the revitalization of the area along the Truckee River.
WINGFIELD PARK ON THE TRUCKEE RIVER
Wingfield Park, start of the Reno-Tahoe Odyssey, is an island in the middle of the Truckee River that is adjacent to a man-made rapids for kayakers and tubers.
For several blocks east of Wingfield Park, paths on both the north and south sides of the river offer an attractive walk through the downtown.
Another nice feature is the new downtown ballpark. Just east of Harrah’s is the stadium for the Reno Aces, a AAA ballclub (like the Rivercats) for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
A surprising development has been the building of three large condominium projects in downtown Reno. I say surprising because downtown Reno does not appear to have the level of amenities – specifically shopping – to support downtown living that San Francisco or Portland, or even Sacramento and Oakland have.
But maybe if you build condos the businesses will come. I hope so. The lavish Safeway at 19th and R in Sacramento didn’t arrive until the mid-town area was well established as an up-and-coming area.
Two of the three condos are recycled hotel-casinos. One of those, The Montage, is spectacular. On its website is the assertion that it’s “the largest building conversion adaptive re-use project in America.” Formerly the Golden Phoenix Hotel & Casino, the building was reduced to its steel shell then rebuilt from the ground up.
Will these projects succeed? Time will tell. No doubt with real estate prices in the cellar you could probably buy a unit for peanuts.
And what about the future of gambling in Reno? Here’s a look at its future from a recent article in the Reno Gazette-Journal.
I’ll close by paying homage to the saddest casualty along downtown Reno’s rocky road: the Mapes Hotel.
The Mapes Hotel opened in December 1947, first of the lavish hotel-casinos anywhere in Nevada. Rather than rehash a story better told elsewhere, here’s a link to a good account of the hotel’s rise and fall.
But the abridged history is that this grand property closed in 1982, never to reopen, and was demolished in 2000. The site on the east side of Virginia Street at the Truckee River is now a flat, uninviting plaza. It’s a tragedy that the hotel wasn’t saved as a hotel or for another use. A hotel chain like Kimpton could have turned this property into a destination.
The only small consolation is that the not-nearly-as-grand Riverside Hotel survives. It sits diagonally opposite from the where the Mapes stood, and so is found on the south side of the river. No longer a hotel, it houses artists’ apartments as well as some businesses on the ground floor. When the Mapes and Riverside anchored the two sides of the Truckee River at Virginia Street it was an exceptionally handsome spot.
The Riverside Hotel is attractive and I’m glad it’s there but I miss the Mapes.
As a touristic footnote, across Virginia Street from the Riverside is the 1934 U.S. Post Office building, which was designed by Frederic DeLongchamps, architect of the Riverside Hotel. If you like Art Deco design, the post office building and lobby are outstanding examples.