Student housing plan eyed for Reno’s oldest cemetery
June 2, 2003
RENO — A businessman wants to build student housing for the University of Nevada, Reno on a portion of the city’s oldest cemetery.
John Lawton said he would relocate affected remains if he proceeds with the plan at Hillside Cemetery, which overlooks the downtown casino area.
Lawton bought the long-neglected cemetery for $10 from the university system in 1996, and later won a state law designed to allow him to exhume the remains.
“If you were in my position, what would you do? It’s a beautiful site,” Lawton, who also owns Sierra Memorial Gardens, told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Since appearing before a legislative panel to push for the state law in 2001, Lawton has maintained the best use of the property is for student housing.
He would like to work with developers to build a high-rise structure for 800 students. Under the plan, the building would be turned over to the university in 30 years.
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“The way the university is growing, UNR needs additional housing,” Lawton said. “Students wouldn’t have to worry about parking, they could walk to and from the university. It would be an ideal location for student housing.”
The plan would require all remains on the cemetery’s southern five acres to be moved to the north end.
Many of Reno’s pioneers are among the 1,434 people buried at the cemetery, which officially opened in 1879.
University officials say they can supply student housing on their own and are not interested in the proposal.
“We are approached by many developers all the time,” said Shannon Ellis, UNR’s vice president for student services.
Lawton said he still wants another meeting with UNR President John Lilley. Lawton presented the housing proposal shortly after Lilley took office in September 2001.
“It was a golden opportunity,” Lawton said. “I don’t think he recognized the value.”
If there’s no support for the plan, Lawton said, there might be a way to restore the cemetery. Several investors are interested in beautifying it and adding a crematorium, he said.
Since the last grave was dug in 1959, the cemetery has been repeatedly vandalized. Dozens of monuments were toppled one night alone in 1961.
Former Assemblywoman Vivian Freeman of Reno said the cemetery is a disgrace and at least Lawton is trying to address the problem.
At Lawton’s request, she sponsored the bill allowing the relocation of human remains when there’s no perpetual fund or descendants to take care of graves.
“If people really cared about that cemetery and the pioneers of Nevada, they would have done something a long time ago,” Freeman said.
“I don’t know if John can fix it. He may do the same thing as the university — wash his hands of the whole thing,” she added.