Tactical Urbanism - Tackling the CitiCenter Property Downtown

by Mike Van Houten / Jan 29, 2016

You might have heard that the City of Reno is underwater with the CitiCenter Plaza property downtown wedged between Plaza, 4th Street and Center Street. It used to be our city bus transit center until a larger one was constructed on 4th and Evans that can accommodate more routes and RAPID transit.  The Reno Aces owners were supposed to purchase and develop it, saving the redevelopment agency from being in debt with the property. But alas, that never happened. 

So, the city's stuck with it for now. It was on the agenda in this week's City Council Meeting to possibly put an RFQ out for developers to do something with it, but Mayor Hillary Schieve first wanted to present the problem-property to an Institute of City Design panel for ideas before coming back and soliciting developers. 

I agree with that approach, because I think developing this property will take some real out-of-the-box-style thinking. 

It's a tough property to develop...with no on-site parking, a micro-lot surrounded by pawn shops, smoke shops, a bowling stadium the public can't use and a ballroom and events center that aren't in full-time use. So, what to do with the property? 

The property is half a block or so from most of the major hotel casinos, and is also on the walking route for pro bowlers using the bowling stadium, concert goers hitting up the Reno Events Center, and people attending special events at the ballroom. So it makes sense that be utilized for something that would entice foot traffic from visitors. 

In addition, the property borders the ReTRAC Master Plan, which encourages east-west pedestrian foot traffic along 3rd Street to Plaza Street. Lets first take a peek where the property lies downtown:


Combined with the ReTRAC covers, shown in the lower left of the above photo, it seems logical in long-range planning to make this one continuous pedestrian greenbelt, as shown in the ReTRAC Master Plan, and make the CitiCenter property a key part of that pedestrian green belt. 

It would be questionable if it could pencil as a residential project of any kind. It's an odd location, right in the middle of an entertainment district and there's no parking. Maybe a micro mixed-use project with retail on the bottom and very modern urban tiny housing of some kind on the upper floors? A micro-office building? The units would be very expensive to accommodate for the land cost and ground-up construction. Strictly retail? Maybe. But where would people park? Thousands and thousands of people swarmed down on this property like hungry wolves when Food Truck Fridays were a weekly thing here, so it could be argued that if a development was cool enough, people would find a way to get there.

If the city eventually does sell it, pleeeeaaase include stipulations that guarantee the land won't sit undeveloped for three decades. The City of Reno gave up First Street from Lake Street to 2nd Street, to a project that never happened.

I won't pretend to be an expert, and admit some of the ideas below may not be ideal, ha! I don't have an urban planning degree, but I know what makes sense to me as a resident of downtown and Midtown.

Here are some ideas. 

Keep It and Use It As Is

In many ways, this property is already developed. If I were a cash-strapped city, and no one immediately showed interest in buying AND developing this property, the first thing I'd look at is how to use this property in a way that wouldn't require much in the way of renovations or construction. The property contains two decent buildings, both with restrooms, presumably with HVAC that still functions as well. Between the buildings is a nice plaza.

UNR Extension

There's a lot of talk and effort to align downtown Reno and beyond with the University of Nevada Reno. UNR has great music and art programs. Turn this building into a performance/display plaza for the University of Nevada, Reno. The interior spaces could be used to display student art, architectural projects and other entities from UNR, while the exterior could be utilized for summer concerts and performances. Make it official with the appropriate use of University branding. 

Nevada Museum of Art Extension

Develop a partnership with the Nevada Museum of Art, and create an urban, perhaps slightly edgier extension of the Nevada Museum of Art that explores a specific genre of art, perhaps urbanism. With the proper branding, it could be a draw. The two interior spaces could be art galleries, and the ring of bus access roads would be a great space to install either a permanent or rotating sculpture garden. Light it up at night, and you have something that could impress bowling leagues to continue using the Bowling Stadium across the street for major tournaments. It would also be an amazing sight to behold for residents attending concerts downtown. 

Pop-up Center

A pop-up center. Develop a branding scheme that centers around 'pop-up' and turn the location into a hot spot that can host any number of pop-ups, including pop-up restaurants, pop-up art galleries, and more. Offer unique rental opportunities/streamlined process that makes it enticing to rent the location for a night, a week or a month. Train the public via social media, web site and partner advertising via Reno-Tahoe-USA that this is a hot-spot with ever-changing venues. Sometimes it could be a restaurant, sometimes it could be an art gallery, sometimes it could be a concert, or a spontaneous art class. How about a pop-up open-mic night?

Theater Groups

Check and see if our local theater groups would be interested in using it as an outdoor performance space in the summer. Watching Shakespeare plays at the Lear gave me this idea. With the step-down plaza in the center, it's almost perfect for 'Theater-In-The-Round' style performances. 


Ideas could include: Neon sign museum, exhibit hall for Nevada Historical, a permanent exhibit walking users through downtown's Architectural history. 

Interactive Public Square and Interactive Sculpture Garden

Share-It Square in Portland

Create natural formations that serve as checker and chess boards, a public miniature golf course, make it fun and whimsical, like the Share-It Square in Portland.  See if someone would be willing to donate a few old pianos that could be tuned up and placed down there. Install a Little Free Library. As part of that interactive public square, install interactive sculptures like this one. There's an awesome interactive sculpture in Midtown in front of Culture that was turned on during the last Midtown Art Walk. 

How about a swing set that lights up and plays musical sounds

Programming Ideas

- Outdoor movies in the summer.

- Outdoor concerts

- FOOD TRUCKS! Bring Food-Truck Fridays back to this property.

- Collaboration with the Holland Project? Would be cool to showcase youth art, talent, music here. 

New Development Ideas

If a developer did snatch it up, what kind of NEW development would work here? Here are the standard 'residential', 'office' and 'retail' that could work in a tight space. 


There wouldn't be parking, but then again, Ross Manor doesn't have parking and those apartments are amazing. You could, with some architectural ingenuity, build a mid-rise of micro-apartments here with the first floor being retail. There are some stunning micro-apartments in NYC. Just because they are small, doesn't mean they have to skimp on coolness. Micro-apartments have kitchens, baths etc, but range in size from 400-500 square feet. 

Micro-Office Tower

It is possible for this piece of land to be home to an office tower. It would be thin, and have to be architecturally unique, but it could work. Like this building. 

So, there's some food for thought. 

I'll conclude by summarizing it here:

1. The property is a key piece of creating an eventual east-west greenbelt from the hotels/casinos to the ballpark district, and should encourage walkability along this corridor by providing something enticing to pedestrians. 

2. If the City gets proposals from private developers, make it like a challenge, a contest to get developers to push themselves in the concepts/projects they submit. Get the public and local media to weigh in on proposed concepts. This property is situated in an area highly trafficked at times by event-goers and bowlers. 

3. Treat the property like the Virginia Street Bridge Project. The City Council should tell developers what they'd like to see here, not vice-versa, and it should come from public input. Put up a public-input system right on the property.

Post your comments
  • January 29, 2016 - 10:06:54 PM

    I love the idea of a rotating sculpture garden or bringing back food trucks to the space, I just hope that whatever they do, they'll do all they can to save those beautiful mature trees. Not very often do you see such healthy and strong trees in a downtown area. I'm still holding out for the city to shut down personal vehicle traffic on Virginia St from 4th to 2nd and making it a permanent green pedestrian area with a bike road. It would really make attending all the festivals they close Virgina off for in the summer much more enjoyable and cooler. If they ever did something like that, I'm sure this little piece of property could really add an interesting space to the festivals and such.