Reno reboot

Complex redevelopment of a blighted area prompts team to be creative across the board – design, personnel, technology, and funding.

While having a glass of wine with colleagues from New York, we reflected on the scale and complexity of the projects each of us has underway today. These are exciting times in the design professions, as many of the cities in which we are working were built out a long time ago, leading to redevelopment, often in severely blighted areas.

Many redevelopment agencies and districts around the country have exceeded their bonding capacity, making it impossible to bond against future tax revenues to fund needed infrastructure necessary to move beyond blight. We certainly have that problem in Reno.

The site we’re developing, West Second District, is seven large city blocks comprising 17 acres. Some parcels are vacant, and several properties hold run-down weekly motels filled with traditionally disenfranchised people, who are also burdened by, in some properties, a criminal element. There’s an old Greyhound bus station, the toilet rooms of which have become a haven for the homeless, and a former printing plant, currently owned and used by the University of Nevada for continuing education programs.

First, we’re securing enough investment capital to fund the purchase of the land and for working capital as we begin construction. Properties are being acquired, and we expect to start construction on our first building within weeks.

As an architect, funding was always the developer’s problem. The only way it affected me and my firm was that we frequently found ourselves being used for free financing for the developer through our unpaid invoices for service. Don and Susan Clark of the Don J Clark Group, the developer of the District, invited me to “play” with them about a year and a half ago. They have been incredibly responsible as developer/architects, seeking local investors to help us with cash flow to pay our bills until the major funding was in place.

Since we knew this would take a considerable amount of time, and as I came to know the Clarks’ ambitions for the project – to truly become an exemplar for how development could be done, to be environmentally and socially responsible, and to reduce the cost of ownership and occupancy for the people and companies for whom we’re building West 2nd District – it became apparent that we needed a world-class team to guide design, particularly in our infrastructure, a process that normally begins after the developer already has city approval and funding in place. Rarely is this process very creative.

I’m fortunate to have worked with some of the most innovative engineers and consultants in the world, so I came forth with my Rolodex to help. Before long, we had assembled a team that could successfully execute a project of this scale and complexity anywhere in the world. But we did it in a rather unique fashion. Those who were located in Reno but had offices elsewhere in the country or the world were required to bring their best and brightest, no matter where they resided, to work with us. If they had no office in Reno, they were asked to establish one, which would be located in our building, allowing all of us to work as a collaborative team under one roof. It also offered an opportunity for local engineers to learn from professionals who were leaders in their field, thus spreading the innovative approaches to infrastructure to local professionals.

This approach resulted in a level of complexity and challenge that has generated some fascinating creativity as we designed the approach to our infrastructure. Since we’re paying for it until the city is able to reimburse us many years from now, we’re determined to do it well. Here are some examples:

  • A central plant to provide heating and cooling water throughout the district. Instead of a boiler, a chiller, and a cooling tower on each building, we’re building a central utility plant that will save us and our residents 30 percent in utility costs compared to constructing one building at a time, through economies of scale and efficiency.
  • An on-site waste treatment plant. We’re in a desert climate. By treating all sewer waste through a biological filtering process, we’ll use only 50 percent of the water that a conventional, one-building-at-a-time approach would use. So, we reduce the cost and use of water for our tenants and owners. We’ll use all of the treated water for toilets, irrigation, and our cooling towers during the summer and most of it in winter months. By diverting water back into the Truckee River in the winter and by not using the city’s sewer system except in emergencies, we’ll further reduce the costs for our residents.
  • Parking structure design to accommodate future use. We’ll be over-parked during the early phases of West 2nd because Reno today is heavily auto-dependent. But by building flat floors in our centralized parking structures, we’ll be able to take floors off line as autonomous vehicles become the norm a few years out, converting them to hydroponic gardens. Since we’ll have many restaurants in the district, we will have the shortest possible “farm-to-table” distance to traverse.
  • Resilient structural systems. Since we’re located in a highly seismically active area, we’ve worked with a renowned seismic structural engineer, using their “performance-based-design” technology. We have a wonderful seismic department at the university and, together, we’ve worked closely with the head of the building department to gain approval of this non-codified approach to structural design.

Many other innovative programs are emerging, simply because the design and engineering teams have had the opportunity to work together as a collaborative body as we’ve planned and financed the project. We’ve been able to explore economic tradeoffs during this period, resulting in a much stronger financial performance for the project. The response from our investors to our thoroughness, creativity, and working process has been extremely positive. I’ve been in this business for a long, long time and I’ve never seen such a remarkable response. Talking about this with my colleagues from New York confirms they’re having similar experiences.

My advice is to embrace projects of grand scale and enormous complexity. Do this with a collaborative team of complementary professionals – architects, engineers, and contractors. Get them on board before all is set in stone with the city so you can draw city staff into the creative process. See if it doesn’t bring out your own creativity and that of each of the team members.

Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with Zweig Group and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at efriedrichs@zweiggroup.com.