Judge gives green light for demolition of historic hotel
RENO, Nev. – Preservationists suffered a serious legal setback in their battle to save the historic Mapes Hotel when a county judge rejected their lawsuit Tuesday and lifted a court order blocking demolition.
Reno Mayor Jeff Griffin said the ruling all but seals plans to blow up the vacant building Jan. 30, Super Bowl Sunday.
But the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, trying to avert a rare loss of a property targeted for protection, said his group would join local activists in appealing the ruling to the Nevada Supreme Court.
”The loss of this distinguished local and national landmark would represent an unnecessary shame and tragedy for the city of Reno and our country,” Richard Moe said in a statement from Washington.
”We intend to … explore whatever other options may exist that will lead to the preservation of the Mapes,” he said.
Washoe District Judge James Hardesty ruled the city is ”permitted to proceed with the work of demolishing the Mapes if that is their desire.”
Hardesty agreed with the portions of the suit accusing the Reno City Council of violating the state’s open meeting law by meeting in private to discuss plans to blow up the 52-year-old hotel-casino.
But the judge concluded that any violations of the law were ”clearly and completely cured” by a public meeting when the panel’s formal vote in favor of demolition was held on Sept. 13.
Griffin said he was optimistic Hardesty’s decision would be the final word on the lingering controversy.
”It would be, in my opinion, final at this point. It is the most final word to date,” Griffin said Tuesday afternoon.
”Whatever may or may not have gone on in the briefings with staff, clearly this decision was not made ahead of time. … If the council was really hell-bent on demolishing the Mapes, we could have done that three years ago and saved us all a lot of grief,” he said.
Built in 1947, the 12-story luxury hotel and casino with art deco architecture was the first in the nation constructed specifically to house a hotel, casino, restaurant and live entertainment under one roof.
During its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, entertainers such as Mae West, the Marx Brothers, Sammy Davis Jr. and Tony Bennett headlined in its famous Sky Room with top-floor views of the Sierra Nevada.
The Mapes was added to the National Register of Places in 1984 and two years ago was listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the 11 most endangered buildings in the country. The national trust has never before lost a fight to save a structure on its Top 11 since it started the list in 1988.
”When you take down a building like the Mapes – that is on the National Register, that the people of Washoe County and all over the United States want to save – it’s a black mark on the people of Reno,” said Nana Rassu, a member of the Truckee Meadows Heritage Trust and a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
While dealing a blow to efforts to save the hotel, Hardesty handed a victory to defenders of the Nevada Open Meeting Law and critics of the City Council’s routine practice of holding private meetings among a few members before formal decisions are reached in public.
He chided council members in his 17-page opinion and permanently barred them from conducting private meetings.
He took issue with the practice of two or three members gathering at a time so as to avoid the presence of a quorum of four, which is strictly prohibited in private.
On Aug. 31, members divided into groups of two or three met in back-to-back meetings to discuss the Mapes.
”There is no question the members who attended these meetings engaged in deliberations over the proposals for the rehabilitation of the Mapes,” Hardesty said.
He cited one case that referred to such meetings as ”legislative musical chairs” aimed at circumventing open meeting laws. He said they amount to ”serial communications” or ”walking quorums.”
But he said he concluded that during those meetings no decisions were made and no votes taken. He said the formal public meeting, which lasted until nearly midnight on Sept. 13, made up for any abuses of the law.
”There can be no question the agency’s meeting on Sept. 13 was a lengthy, exhaustive discussion of the merits of this issue conducted in full view of the public,” Hardesty said.
”To the extent this court has found a violation of the Open Meeting Law caused by the practice of conducting private meetings on Aug. 31, 1999, those violations were clearly and completely cured by the meeting held on Sept. 13, 1999.”