Exterior patio of Libery Food and Winte. There are red umbrellas and a black fence.

Reno’s Goal to Become A University Town is Bolstering Downtown Growth

By Nora Heston Tarte

In 2015, a series of studies were completed to identify the best ways for Reno’s downtown to improve. A couple of prominent studies reported the same results; investment in the Truckee River Walk and reframing Reno as a university town would have the biggest impact.

Eight years later and those goals are coming to fruition. “These things don’t happen overnight but we are seeing some great fruits of it,” said Troy Miller, associate vice president of the Office of Community and Real Estate management at University of Nevada, Reno and a Downtown Reno Partnership board member.

In fact, it’s the integration of students into downtown that convinced Par Tolles, CEO and founder of Tolles Development Company (and another DRP board member), to invest into this area. He cited both the expansion of the University and the additional residential housing as his reasons.
“As a citizen, I really want downtown to be a place where locals want to go because there’s great opportunity for entertainment,” Tolles said, noting he’s lived in Reno for 50 years. “The only way that is going to happen is for people to live downtown.”

Tolles Development is not very active in residential projects, but they have built or rebuilt several commercial buildings throughout the city. Perhaps most notably, the Village at Racharrah is a Tolles development. They’ve also re-built office buildings downtown and in midtown and are currently working on a 75,000-square-foot retail center next to the Circus Circus parking garage.

Dominated by the gaming industry, Tolles said where Reno was lagging was in a quality downtown. But in 2016, he saw a shift in how people started viewing the area, prompted by both the ballpark and Midtown’s transformation. As downtown began to feel investable, Tolles jumped at the opportunity to offer diversified businesses and retail options.

In order to connect the university to downtown, Tolles announced University Crossing, a commercial retail area with businesses like Jimmy John’s and Wing Zone. The food offerings help to bring students and staff to the south side of the freeway. The fully leased project shows Tolles that business owners see the area’s potential, too.“There’s more development happening downtown right now than there has been in the last 20 years or so,” Tolles said.

The formation of DRP has also had a large impact on growth. In order to have a safe, clean canvas, the homeless population needed to be handled, and that’s a large part of DRP’s mission. The homeless shelter, liquor stores selling small bottles and a bus station within a few city blocks was a recipe for disaster.

“When DRP was formed and when the homeless shelter was moved farther east, now you’re starting to see a real commitment of money and resources to mainly dealing with the unhoused,” Tolles said. Moving the homeless shelter to the new CARES Campus was a large part of that change.

For Tolles, his projects may not bring people to live in downtown, but they do make the area more attractive, in his opinion. According to Tolles, food and beverage options as well as other retail offering outside of casinos will not only draw students across the freeway, but hospital employees and tourists, as well.

Blake Smith Sr. (and his son Blake Smith Jr.) of S3 Development is, however, at the forefront of residential development. Keystone Commons, a 42,000-square-foot mixed use project on the freeway at Interstate 80 and Keystone Avenue, will include 295 apartments as well as retail shops over a 10-acre parcel. The retail is already 90% leased.

Blake Smith Sr. is no stranger to Reno or its downtown as his family has been in Nevada for 100 years and Smith himself has developed residential, commercial and retail throughout downtown Reno and other areas through S3. “The Keystone area was getting run down,” Smith said. “We actually saw the [Keystone Commons] site and thought if we worked with it really well, we could rejuvenate that quadrant there.”

In addition to this project, which is four years in the making, S3 has also acquired and updated the US Bank building on South Virginia and Liberty streets, owns a South Virginia Street 22,000-square-foot mixed-use space made up of contemporary town homes and retail business, rebuilt office buildings on Ryland Street and worked on projects on both Wells and Holcomb avenues. “I think we’ve taken the old and made them new,” Smith said.

Modernizing is a big part of S3’s work, and the team is dedicated to being part of Reno’s growth. “It’s an exciting time for the city,” he said. “The town is growing up and we want to be part of it.” Smith too sees downtown Reno changing from a gaming-dominated area to a more livable one. He notes the area is more pedestrian oriented and overall is more vibrant with more activities. “The more residential that you put downtown I think the better for opportunities. It becomes the urban core of the city and I think that should be the direction of it,” said Smith.

While S3 has other development projects throughout the city, the Keystone area is their main focus at this time. Responsible for bringing In n Out to the area, 70% of the project is open and 90% is leased, including Cracker Barrel and Panera Bread, which are slated to open later this year. While residential is the driving force, having positive activities downtown is a big piece of the puzzle. People will want to move where there is fun activities and good food.

Mark Estee is no stranger to Reno’s downtown; the Truckee native who has since relocated to Reno has long brought his quality restaurants to the area. “I’ve been a business owner in downtown Reno since 2010,” Estee shared. “The last 13 years I’ve both worked and lived in Downtown Reno.” Estee’s first venture was Campo on the Truckee River Walk. Coming out of a bad recession, he said people thought he was crazy for opening a restaurant in downtown in 2010. Estee, however, trusted his gut, feeling Reno was on the upswing before the opinion had become a popular one. “We had a great co-op and people really cared where their food came from,” he said. Estee was able to capitalize on the food culture in Northern Nevada.

Estee might have been on to something. Campo was nominated for a “Best New Restaurant” James Beard Award in 2011, and he said the restaurant helped open people’s eyes to Reno as a food destination. While Campo has since closed, Estee’s other downtown businesses are thriving. Under the Liberty Food & Wine Exchange umbrella, Estee operates four individual businesses with a total of 322 employees.

He has also, in the past, owned Chez Louie at the Nevada Museum of Art, Pizzeria Lupo (which is currently looking for a new downtown location) and Heritage. When asked if he would continue to invest in downtown Estee didn’t hesitate to say, “One thousand percent… We have 10,000 square feet in downtown Reno and we’re not going anywhere.”

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