Appeal Staff Writer
Carson City knows what its downtown problem is and it knows what it looks like.
“Our main street is a four-lane monster,” a city briefing says, “a congested noise-polluting highway that makes interacting with both sides of the street dangerous and economically debilitating.”
But once Highway 395 traffic is rerouted around downtown, redevelopment officials say, the area will be transformed.
And, for the first time, the city will have its plans for a new downtown critiqued by an outside committee. It will lay out its dreams for expert planners at a national conference in Las Vegas this week.
While it could be an intimidating session before the international Urban Land Institute, said Robin Williamson, head of the city’s redevelopment authority, the city is ready to act.
“We created this excitement,” she said.
When officials sit down with planners, they will show them their plans to cut downtown Carson Street to two lanes, add housing, widen sidewalks and expand the arts. Stylish retail stores, apartments and townhouses, new library at the old post office and a conference center with a hotel are some of the city’s first projects.
It’s a plan the city put together after talking with residents in 2005 and 2006. A plan, the city’s economic development manager Joe McCarthy said, that the city will be able to start work on sooner than people might think.
For sure, “we take over the street when the freeway hits Spooner Summit,” he said, but the city is also working on widening other streets while it waits to redirect the traffic coming from Reno through to Lake Tahoe.
The city has done other things in the meantime, too, like spending $2.5 million in downtown property taxes to help businesses improve buildings and adopting new codes that regulate less what goes in buildings and more how accessible and attractive they are.
It wants to mix housing in with businesses, attract young professionals and keep people who work in the city living in the city.
Right now, however, Carson City has “skewed demographics that lean to empty nesters and retirees,” its briefing for the institute says, and half of the people who work in the city don’t live there.
Setting the tone
A city can have big ideas, said Bill Hudnut, former Indianapolis mayor and a fellow at the institute, but it has to have the support of residents and be complemented by existing attractions.
Sometimes, cities get “big project-itis,” he said, or stick their developments in places without strong businesses.
Hudnut, who is head of the panel reviewing Carson City’s plans, said one of the most important things about downtown redevelopment is affordable housing.
Waiters, teachers, firefighters and other employees he called “the worker bees,” need to feel a part of downtown, he said, because a city can’t simply assume people will go downtown because it exists.
James Cloar, another member on the panel, said one of the first things a city has to do is listen to what people want, rather than “planning for planning’s sake.”
Once the plans are done, though, people have to keep telling the city what they want and keep helping the city do that.
A downtown needs to be done right, he said, because it “sets the tone for how people feel about the city as a whole.”
Relating to the people
With 60,000 residents and a white-collar workforce, Loveland, Colo., is a great example of a place similar to Carson City that successfully redeveloped its downtown, city officials said.
Also like Carson, it is in a quickly growing area that has a population spreading east from the city.
Randy Cruz, president of the Downtown Loveland Association, said the city decided to encourage development by turning a vacant area into a spot with retail, parking and 200 apartments.
This has helped other downtown businesses and encouraged people to come when the city has events downtown, such as its annual sculpture festival.
Cloar, who is head of a downtown St. Louis organization, said a downtown is “the part of the city that everyone relates to.”
Cities shouldn’t forget about small things in their big plans, though, such as trees and benches, said Sandi Bloem, mayor of Coeur d’Alene, which Carson City officials said was another example of a place with a great downtown.
Coeur d’Alene, a 35,000-person city in northern Idaho, has parks, restaurants, art galleries and bike trails in its lakefront downtown.
Still, Bloem said, no one is going to dine on an outside patio without trees overhead and no one is going spend time downtown without benches around.
“You’re not going to sit on the hot pavement,” she said.
To develop its downtown, the city first improved infrastructure – such as widening sidewalks and carving out one-way streets – before it improved buildings and added housing.
Bloem said development had to be in this order because the city needed a foundation to attract businesses.
And, without downtown businesses, a city really doesn’t have a downtown, Bill Hudnut said.
“If there’s anything I find offensive,” he added, “it’s walking along the street and finding empty glass windows.”
• Contact reporter Dave Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1212.
If you go
What: Carson City getting downtown plan critique
When: 3-5 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Venetian in Las Vegas
On the Net
Downtown Carson City
Carson City master plan and other downtown recourses
Urban Land Institute
Downtown Coeur d’Alene
Questions Carson City will ask the Urban Land Institute panel:
• How does Downtown Carson City implement a long-range, best-practices development strategy in conjunction with the private sector to encourage mixed-income housing for our workforce and our business
• Since Carson City is seeking a market demand analysis to assess its market potential, what else does Carson City need to do immediately to not miss its opportunity to ensure its promise?
• We will be engaging professional services to help with the public-private partnership process,
but would the panel speak to the financial products and methodologies that other communities have used to ensure success?
How would you respond to the city’s questions?