Lear legacy on the line

Critics slam plans for landmark, new apartment building

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: For a quarter century, Reno theater advocates have been trying to renovate and reopen the Lear Theater at 501 Riverside Dr.

Critics of the latest plan to renovate Reno’s Lear Theater say the developer’s ideas to save the beloved landmark don’t make sense, but they fear that the proposal, under discussion with city staff behind closed doors for six months, could be rammed  through anyhow.

The developer, Ken Krater, the president of Krater Consulting Group and a former Reno city employee, wants to build multi-level luxury apartments next to the theater to generate revenue for an estimated $6 million in renovations to the 81-year-old building, now owned by Artown, a non-profit group. Previous owners of the theater, however, said the amount needed is at least twice that estimate.

In addition, Krater wants to build an outdoor amphitheater in front of the Lear, two blocks from the city’s existing amphitheater in Wingfield Park. The proposal also calls for closing streets to vehicular traffic around the front and sides of the theater and alongside the Truckee River.

Theater advocates, historians and others who oppose the plan say such changes would mar the beauty of both the river drive and the landmark, reduce its historical value, limit access for disabled people and ultimately could remove the theater from community use. They worry the lack of transparency in the planning process is an indication that the proposal is on track for a quick approval by city officials.

Reagan Riot, a Reno performer who has produced traditional burlesque shows at Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City and other local venues for a decade, submitted a proposal for the Lear in 2018. As a performer and a producer, she has been following the twists and turns of the Lear’s most recent story and said the process has been mismanaged.

“The Lear isn’t a public building, but it is held in the public trust,” she said. “We who have been interested in saving it know it’s all about the money… (In 2018), Artown put out a cattle-call for presentation plans with an unrealistic deadline and had us all competing for the Lear, trying to save it, trying to do what was intended, and then blocking every move.”

She said she fears the property will be given over to developers who will “gut it to line their own pockets. Will any history be left in Reno?”

It began as a church

Paul Revere Williams, architect of the Lear Theater

The Lear Theater was designed in 1938 by renowned architect Paul Revere Williams, the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects, for the First Church of Christ, Scientist. The congregation moved to a new building in the 1990s. Moya Lear, widow of aviation pioneer Bill Lear, pledged more than $1 million that was matched by the community to turn the venue into a community theater.

The building was placed on the Nevada State Historic Register in 1982. In 1999, the theater was added to the City of Reno’s Historic Register and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In January, the Reno Historic Preservation Society devoted an issue of its newsletter to the history and proposals for the Lear Theater.

The Reno-Sparks Theater Community Coalition took over the Lear in 1993, and for a short time it operated as a theater. Renovation efforts stalled, and the property began falling into disrepair.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: The front entrance of the Lear Theater, formerly the First Church of Christ, Scientist.

Months of silence

Krater announced his proposition to save the run-down venue in June. At the time, he told reporters he was discussing the proposal with the city public works department. Artown, the non-profit group which puts on Reno’s annual arts festival and owns the Lear, has remained mum about the status of the plan since then.

Artown board members declined comment this month, citing a nondisclosure agreement in place while they are negotiating with another unidentified group about the future of the Lear. Krater did not return calls from the Reno News & Review this month requesting an interview.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: The rear of the Lear Theater faces West 1st Street. Artown’s offices are in the building next door.

 ‘Beautiful apartment complex’

In September, Krater, a former traffic engineer for the city of Reno, outlined his proposal in an interview on Reno’s KTVN Channel 2. He noted that after 25 years of efforts by several interested groups and millions of dollars in donations spent on structural improvements, the theater remains closed, fenced-off and decaying.

Somebody had to come up with a way to save it, he said, in a way that would be self-sustaining. The apartment complex would contain 45 to 50 units, with an additional eight units in the main building.

“The problem is, the theater (wouldn’t) generate enough revenue to finance the renovation of the building,” Krater said. “…I came up with the idea of building a beautiful apartment complex next to it, but not attached to the theater, because obviously apartments are in high demand. You’re going to have constant revenue…”

‘All of a sudden’

His vision for the venue also includes holding special events at the theater. The combination of rental income and events fees, he said, would maximize cash flow from the property “and between the two, all of a sudden you have enough revenue to finance the construction and the ongoing operations.”

The land around the theater is in a flood zone. City public works officials previously have suggested a flood wall is needed to hold back the river during large storms, like the deluge of 1997. Proponents of Krater’s vision for the property have since linked flood control to both the proposed amphitheater and abandoning Riverside Drive and Ralston Street, but a berm is the only mitigation measure called for in the city’s flood control plan.

If Ralston Street was closed to vehicles, Krater said, “all of a sudden the land to the east of the theater would be enough land to build an apartment building and furthermore to orient the building… so it would still let that morning sunlight come in (to the theater).”

Ken Krater, the developer and former city traffic engineer who is proposing the latest project to renovate the Lear Theater shown in a tweet from Reno City Councilwoman Naomi Duerr in 2017.

Moving ahead fast

Abandoning the portion of Riverside Drive also would make room for an amphitheater, he said, which would be built between the front porch of the Lear and the river bank. He envisions “an awesome outdoor theater area where you would have theater events on the stage, up the main entryway, and people sitting on the earthen berm protecting the Truckee River…”

In the Channel 2 interview, Krater said he was working with an unidentified “prominent Reno developer” and would also be applying for tax credits related to the renovation of historical buildings.

“My goal is to move this thing forward as quickly as possible,” he said. “…It’s time. The building needs to be saved. There’s very few buildings within our community that haven’t seen the eyes of the bulldozer, and so clearly the entire community wants to see this building saved. So I think we’ve figured out a way to make that happen, so now I’m going to make it happen.”

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: The peak of the Lear Theater’s roof showing signs of weathering.

Bryan enters the fray

Critics of Krater’s proposal worry that his plan would do more to enrich his company than it would to preserve a historic structure and create expanded opportunities for the city’s theater community. Opponents of the development found another ally Jan. 5, when former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, now chairman of the Preserve Nevada group, released a letter critical of the current plan.

Former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan

 “We are concerned about the plans being discussed,” Bryan wrote. “One (concern) involves a danger to another place of historic significance: Riverside Drive along the Truckee. Closing part of it in this way presents potentially serious issues.” He argued that the scenic lane is the only street that enables motorists to drive along the river, “and the street, the river, and the drive are historic in their own rights.”

Bryan noted that the theater is on Preserve Nevada’s list of the state’s 11 most-endangered places. He reminded readers that Bicentennial Park, next to the theater, was created in the 1970s to stop the construction of an office building on the site, which was “exactly the kind of building now proposed in the middle of Ralston Street.”

Disability access

He wrote that banning vehicles from that portion of Riverside Drive would deprive people with disabilities from enjoying the drive and the scenic views of the river and the Lear. In addition, he wrote, “the proposed outdoor amphitheater would duplicate what already exists in Wingfield Park, and would be difficult for some to access.”

Bryan’s objections echo those that have been heard since the new plan was made public. The controversy is the latest chapter in the history of a building that has been the focus of the best intentions and hard work of those who have loved the theater during the last quarter century. Starting in 1994, after the Church of Christ, Scientist congregation announced plans to relocate to a new church building, several groups have attempted to make it a sustainable theater venue.

Map indicates the existing Lear Theater (1), the approximate site of the proposed multi-story apartment building (2), the proposed location of a new amphitheater (3), which would extend from the Lear’s front porch to a river retaining wall, and the city’s existing Wingfield Park amphitheater, (4).

Making public streets private

Some of the critics of aspects of Krater’s plan don’t have a problem with the street closures proposal, but many others do.

Reno historian Alicia Barber noted that the creation of Bicentennial Park in 1973, on a triangle of land adjacent to the Lear, came about to settle a controversy about constructing an office building at the same spot. “The area that’s now the park was owned by John Cavanaugh, who announced his intent to construct an office building there, to great community dismay,” she said.

Alicia Barber, Reno historian

A nonprofit group was formed to oppose the development and to keep the entire frontage of the river in the public domain. The Fleischmann Foundation contributed $89,000 to buy the land and make the triangle a city park, keeping the space and the view between it and the Lear (then the Church of Christ, Scientist) free of new construction, in perpetuity.

“It would surely never have remotely occurred to them at the time that the city would ever consider abandoning the section of Ralston Street between the park and the Lear in order to allow for private construction,” Barber said. “It should not be considered now.”

Privatizing public streets is a way developers can expand the areas they can privately develop. Sometimes (abandonments) are perfectly reasonable, but sometimes they’re not. The city council can take such actions in a single vote and the findings that (the council) has to make to approve street abandonments don’t even consider the public benefit, only claims of material harm should those streets be closed.”

 — Alicia Barber, Reno historian.

Nothing to hide

Reno City Councilman Devon Reese was on theLear/Artown Board of Directors. In October, he said, the council decided it wasn’t appropriate to have its members on that panel or similar non-profit boards because they are not city functions or required by the Reno City Charter.

“Everyone in Reno interested in the arts really wants to see a good outcome for the Lear,” Reese said. “It’s a great building by an important architect and people have wanted it preserved as a community theater for time immemorial.”

Reno Councilman Devon Reese

He said over the years he has “looked for options and tried to figure out a way to find funding,” but was unable to get much traction. Artown, he noted, came close to a solution during a now-abandoned partnership with the Sierra School for the Performing Arts, but “that fell out over disagreements about how the building would be used and the financing. There were lawyers on both sides and they could not reach a deal.”

Reese said Krater has experience with both historic preservation and development. “I think (Krater) is going through due diligence now and let’s see what (the plan) will look like.” Non-disclosure agreements, he said, are “pretty standard in development projects… I make an assumption that no one is trying to hide anything. I assume (Artown) feels some obligation to allow the inquiry from Mr. Krater to run its course.”

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: The front of the Lear Theater faces the Truckee River. The proposed amphitheater would extend from the building’s porch to a berm at the river bank.

Flood control

The abandonment of the streets and the proposed amphitheater also are connected to flood control, Reese said. “(They) relate to flood mitigation strategy in that stretch of the river,” he said. The amphitheater also would serve as a “retention basin” in the event of a flood. “It’s long been thought that might be an appropriate place to put some flood mitigation strategies.” It’s a way to reduce stress on the bridges, he said, which sustained significant damage in 1997 when debris became trapped under bridge arches.

Those critical of Krater’s plan note that the new Virginia Street bridge is higher than its predecessor and is a “clean span” structure, without arches. The city plans to rebuild the Arlington Street bridge in the same way. Although Krater has touted flood control as a benefit of his proposal, the city’s flood mitigation plan calls for a higher floodwall in the area, but doesn’t mention street closures or a retention pond.

“These street closures are not in the stakeholder-approved plan and should not be understood as such,” Barber said.

A tale of 2 amphitheaters

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: The Reno city amphitheater stage in Wingfield Park two blocks from the Lear Theater.

Several critics questioned the need for a new amphitheater when the Wingfield Park Amphitheater is just two blocks away, but Reese said creating another one along the river isn’t a bad idea.

“The Wingfield amphitheater has had some (structural) problems and is likely to have them in the future,” Reese said. “It has not been renovated, has not been upgraded, (and) has not been getting a lot of love.” He said aside from flood mitigation, building “a new, robust amphitheater” also would benefit the city. “But that’s a vision,” he said. “The whole plan is. It’s not necessarily what is going to come to pass.”

Critics of the plan said that the city government’s neglect of a community resource should not be used as an excuse to promote an already controversial idea. Instead, they said, the city should invest in improvements for the one it already owns.

Creating a revenue stream

Krater said rents from the proposed apartment complex would create enough income to renovate the Lear and cover ongoing maintence costs.

“The apartment’s idea is just wacky,” said Randi Thompson, a Reno a political and public relations consultant who worked on the Sierra School for the Performing Arts proposal to save the Lear in 2018-2019. “His idea is to build expensive apartments and then once he gets enough money he’ll start to renovate the Lear.”

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: A view of the Lear Theater from Centennial Park. The proposed multi-story apartment building would be built between the park and the theater. Ralston Street, seen with parked cars in the background, would be abandoned to make way for the development.

Thompson said the apartments may make money for the developer, but won’t work as a revenue stream for the theater. Based on her experience with the past efforts to save the Lear, Thompson said Artown doesn’t have the expertise to understand financing mechanisms needed for such a project. “We walked away from the table very frustrated,” she said.

“I love Artown,” said Thompson, who noted her development team spent about $12,000 in their effort to make a deal. “But they aren’t experts in renovating historic properties or setting up financing. They put a festival and a calendar together and they do a great job, but this isn’t in their area.” She said the lack of transparency about the Krater plan is troubling and the process needs to be part of a public discussion.

Everybody loves the Lear

“I want the Lear renovated and reopened as much as anyone, but not at the cost of privatizing irreplaceable and accessible public rights-of-way,” Barber said. “… I respectfully encourage the Artown staff and board to reconsider their apparent support for this proposal. You, we, all of us can do better, and I know a lot of us would like to help you in that ongoing effort.”

“The Lear should be restored fully, appropriately, and it should honor the architect. It should be a place for us to enjoy for the next 80, the next 100 years… I believe we will find a way forward. If it’s Mr. Krater and his group, great. If it’s with others, fine. As long as the outcome is a restored theater and a way is found to sustain it, we’ll all be fine with that.”

– Reno Councilman Devon Reese.

Nettie Oliverio, a founder and board member of the Reno-Sparks Community Theater Coalition and Lear Theater Inc. for 11 years, noted that apartments and other developments have sprouted up in the area around the Lear. She said that area of downtown has become a community gathering spot with a lot to do and experience along the river.

“There’s so much in that area; the time is so ripe to have the Lear become a useful venue in our community that so desperately needs it,” Oliverio said. “I just hope that Artown allows the right people to do (the renovation) for the right reasons.”

Newspaper clipping from the Reno Evening Gazette in 1938.

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