Lofty idea |

Lofty idea

Pat Patera

Reno redevelopment officials point to the ReTRAC project, which dropped downtown train tracks into a trench, as a catalyst for further improvements.

Now a condo and casino developer wants to build on that promise with development of retail on top of a roofed ReTRAC. Fernando Leal, managing partner of L3 Development LLC, wants to work with the City of Reno to create a pedestrian mall where the open ReTRAC chasm gapes.

The city has met with Union Pacific, which owns air rights over its track, to determine adequate ventilation in case of fire, says Kristin Rossiter, economic development manager with the City of Reno. (But if the cap encloses the trench for more than a two-block area, it becomes a tunnel. And that requires a whole different level of engineering.)

City planners are seeking cost estimates on the project, she says, to cover just a two-block area flanking Virginia Street, east to Center Street and west to Sierra Street.

Putting air space to use isn’t a new idea. In Reno, a Walgreens store was developed on a span over Interstate 80.

And in Chicago, Millenium Park was built over a train station with 17 tracks, says Leal of his native city. It’s been done in European cities as well.

While property owners fronting the track support the plan, says Leal, meeting railroad requirements is a challenge. As is keeping the design in line with the city’s redevelopment vision.

“I think retail will be the driver of downtown Reno,” says Leal, who with partner Donald Wilson is developing the Montage, a condo project.

He envisions boutiques, eateries, and bookstores with late night coffee bars. He says extended hours are vital to success of the pedestrian mall because people will feel safe walking.

Players in the proposed project include Granite Construction, as experts in railroad requirements; Ed Yuler, consultant (he’d been appointed by Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daly for the Millenium Park project); and architectural firms Antunovich & Associates of Chicago and Hawkins Associates, Inc. of Reno.

If all things go as planned, the vision of retail over ReTRAC could happen within the next two years.

But Leal’s got more plans for downtown.

Fitzgerald’s Casino, having fallen out of escrow several times, finally found a buyer in Leal; escrow is expected to close Oct. 31.

Fitzgerald’s was purchased as an asset, not to get a casino license, says Leal. The purchase price was not disclosed.

“We’re real estate developers. We consider that project to be strategically located. Next to the Reno Arch, it’s at ground zero downtown.”

The company partnered with Rob Cashell of Cashell Enterprise, who will operate the gaming component.

The new owners have no interest in turning Fitzgerald’s into condos. Rather, they plan a mixed-use tourist draw, with boutiques, restaurants, gaming, and hotel.

“We plan to transform every square foot into a boutique hotel of 351 rooms, small and intimate,” says Leal. “With an expensive, expansive lobby to separate the hotel from the casino.”

He estimates the 36-month improvement process will take $30 million to $45 million in renovation investment. To start, he adds, the new landlords will replace the elevators, which he calls “the slowest in the state,” and remodel the parking garage into what he calls “the cleanest in the city.”

The challenge to closing on the Fitzgerald, he says, was lack of liquidity in credit markets. Bridgeview Bank in Chicago is financing the purchase; a lender has not yet been chosen for renovation work.

Interviews are underway to choose a designer and architect.

But Leal’s vision extends beyond the condos and the casino. He’s working to be a catalyst for change.

“I sincerely felt our company could make a difference here,” he says. “We could be part of a movement already in progress. The visceral passion of people who live here is contagious.”

After the developers’ $160 million investment in the Montage, visitors ask Leal why he put that much money into downtown Reno.

He tells them, “Volumes of opportunity exist.”

Pointing to the whitewater park on the Truckee River, Leal says, “Add up all projects public and private downtown, and it’s close to $1 billion of investment over the past five to seven years. In the next period, an equal amount will come from the private sector investment.”

He points to expansion of the Peppermill and says, “Major property owners are already making major investments, demonstrating a belief in this marketplace.”

But challenges remain.

“Property owners need to invest in their properties,” Leal says. “We need to give people a reason to come to Reno.”


See more