Midtown rises from the rubble

Reno’s oldest road is just about done with its makeover and a district is reborn

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Bartender Kaitlyn Troutman draws a pint at Brauhaus 701.

By Frank X. Mullen

After enduring nearly two years of operating within a construction zone, overlaid by months of an unexpected lockdown, the bars and eateries of Reno’s Midtown district are welcoming customers as the good times flow once again.

“It wasn’t ideal for anybody; (the construction) was not in any way,  shape or form good for business,” said Ivan Fontana, who with his wife, Bonnette, owns Death and Taxes, a cocktail bar, and Amari, a little Italian-style bar, on Cheney Street. Fontana noted that many of the businesses in Midtown are locally owned. “They aren’t backed up by big conglomerates, they don’t have huge reserves.”

Revenue cratered as the demolition of the old roadway and sidewalks of South Virginia Street marched north. Then roads were resurfaced and new concrete was poured. Access to businesses changed frequently and sometimes vanished periodically. Customers searched for parking spaces and then those who found them navigated wooden sidewalks. Some would-be diners saw the slalom-course of orange cones and barrels and just avoided the district altogether. Fontana, who is the former owner of Midtown Eats, scaled back staff and hours, eliminated lunches and waited for better times. They came. Then COVID hit and everything closed for two months. “That’s life,” he said.

The barrels and cones still decorate Virginia Street at the intersection of Cheney, and from Liberty Street south to Mary Street, awaiting some final work. But the cocktail crowd is returning to Death and Taxes and Amari. Diners are flocking to the other bars and restaurants in the district. Socially-distanced tables, indoors and out, were well occupied last week, but at the 50% capacity required by the Silver State’s COVID reopening plan. Fontana went to the south end of Virginia Street where landscaping has been planted and avenue construction is complete to see what the future looks like. “We saw all the trees,” he said. “It’s clean and open. All in all, it’s looking really good… We’re on the home stretch right now. I’m hoping that as much as (construction) hurt, the improvements will have the opposite effect and boost previous business.”

PHOTO/RTC OF WASHOE COUNTY: About $40 million of the $87 million project was funded by federal grants.

The Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) of Washoe County and Sierra Nevada Construction have been working on the $87 million Virginia Street Bus RAPID Transit Extension Project, starting with six-months of underground utility improvements in September 2018. The major road-widening work began in June of last year. The project to widen and modernize Reno’s oldest thoroughfare in Midtown and near University of Nevada, Reno also will enhance traffic safety, support economic development and “improve livability in the corridor,” said RTC spokesman Michael Moreno.

He said traffic remains limited to southbound lanes pending the completion of the new roundabout at Mary and Center streets, where concrete has been poured, but now is curing. Work was accelerated during the COVID shutdown, he said, and the street should be open to two-way travel by July 4. The planting of 253 trees is in progress and the finishing touches, including a second coat of road striping, should be complete by August.

“It already looks so great compared to what it was,” said Sandy Densmore of north Reno, who came to Midtown for lunch June 19. “We haven’t been here in a while; we haven’t been anywhere, actually. I’m glad to see all these places are still here.”

Fady Mehanna, who owns Brauhaus 701 at St. Lawrence and Virginia streets and the Whisky Lounge next-door, said he’s relived the renovation of the area is almost complete. He said the acceleration of the construction schedule during the CIOVID shutdown helped in the long run, but was a double-edged sword.  “When COVID hit, went to curbside service, but because of the construction, there was no curb,” he said. “In fact, there was no way to get to the business at all. Construction plus COVID, so we were hit by two rocks at once.  March, April, May was a nightmare; the business dropped by almost 95 percent. We were doing just nothing, nothing but dumping money every week.” But finally, things are looking up, he said.

“After that, everything is easier, we can handle whatever happens,” he said. “It’s all up from here once we got our head above water… People are coming back. We’re up to about 60 percent of what used to be before construction. We’re on an upward curve. When the weather gets better I think we’ll continue growing.”

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Tables are set widely apart as diners have lunch at Midtown Eats.

Christina Savage and her husband bought Midtown Eats in the beginning of the year after the worst of the construction had moved away from Cheney Street. Parking and pedestrian access were no longer a big problem. They opened their doors in February, watched the business build and braced for a great Saint Patrick’s Day “Pub Crawl” crowd. Then COVID hit, the celebration was scrapped, and non-essential businesses closed. “It’s been quite the wild ride,” she said. “But we survived. I’m incredibly thankful for that.” The restaurant pivoted to curbside service and the owners looked for ways to help the community during the crisis. They provided free children’s meals. They partnered with the Junior League of Reno to feed 250 first responders and 250 medical professionals. They teamed with Lexi’s Gifts to help feed 20 foster families.

“We kept ourselves busy,” Savage said. “The James Beard Foundation gave us a grant and that helped. Little by little we kind of scraped along. My husband, myself and our chef worked seven days a week, 10 hours a day just to make sure that everything was still standing for afterwards. It’s really a good feeling now that we’re still here.” Midtown Eats, as all restaurants now, is limited to seating at 50 percent capacity, but Savage has applied for a permit for some outdoor tables. Inside, tables are spaced far apart, servers wear masks and practice consistent hand washing. Business, she said, is steadily growing. “The community has been very good to us,” Savage said. “We’re new here and Reno has really embraced us.”

Savage and the other business owners had good things to say about the 12-to-19 foot sidewalks that took the place of the narrow walkways. They look past the cones that will be gone in a few weeks and imagine the oaks, maples, chestnuts, elms and lilacs that will soon spread their limbs above people strolling along Virginia Street. They see a clientele somewhat older than the college students who frequent the downtown clubs and campus keg parties, folks who want to walk down the avenue discovering original art, jewelry and clothing in the shops, and who enjoy stopping here and there to sample new foods and drink.

It’s been a long, bumpy road to the summer of 2020 and some businesses didn’t survive. The bar and restaurant entrepreneurs who remain said they are glad they placed their bets on the district. “Midtown should be the hub of Reno, not downtown,” Mehanna said. “This is the place to be, so I’m hoping the future’s going to be better.”

IMAGE/RTC OF WASHOE COUNTY: The Midtown section of the Virginia Street project, from Liberty Street south to Plumb Lane, is nearly completed. The section near the University of Nevada, Reno, to the north, remains under construction.

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