Carson City, Nevada, planners have great ideas for strengthening their downtown core. But their ability to implement their plans is largely on hold. The reason: the lengthy amount of time it's taking the Nevada Dept. of Transportation (N-DOT) to complete the long-planned bypass freeway.
But it's along Carson Street that the city is pinning its hopes for increasing pedestrian activity, promoting higher density housing & development, and creating more retail opportunities.
The Carson Street strategy appears to make sense. There are already a number of restaurants located on the main street -- though pedestrian safety railings border the roadway, protecting people walking along the fairly narrow sidewalks.
Also bordering Carson Street is the stately historic state capitol building; the more modern legislative chambers; the state museum; markers commemorating the site of the Pony Express stop; and some hotels and casinos.
[State Capitol below left; Pony Express site marker below right, next to restaurant. Both are on Carson Street.]
The area just west of Carson Street includes a large historic district, containing a mix of residences and offices (below left, the Orion Clemens house, where Mark Twain's brother lived; below right, the Bliss House bed & breakfast). Right now, however, there's relatively little retail in the downtown core.
Just east of Carson Street are many of the state agency offices. (Not surprisingly, government is by far and away the major employer in downtown Carson City -- 2004 employment data that city planner Lee Plemel showed me reported that 6,553 of the 9,593 downtown workers were government employees; the large majority of them work for the State). Photo shows one of the newer state office buildings, just a block east of Carson Street.
There seems to be a good base for developing an active pedestrian street, at least in terms of the number of people who work within just a block or two of Carson Street.
[The downtown map shown below indicates just how extensive the government section of downtown is; all the area in purple is in government use, mainly by the State of Nevada -- Carson Street runs north-south /top-to-bottom in this map between the dark red / commercial zones. The Carson Street narrowing will run from William Street, near the northern edge of the map, to 5th Street.]
Lee told me that the city has developed conceptual plans, and completed traffic studies, that support its idea of narrowing portions of Carson Street from four to two travel lanes. This will allow for on-street parking and landscaping that will allow for a more pedestrian oriented environment. With the freeway built, truck traffic will no longer rumble along the street.
So what's the hold up? I was told that completing the bypass freeway has been the city's number one priority for years. But only about one-third of the freeway has been completed, and that only occurred in January 2006.
[photo where the freeway now ends; view is looking south from U.S. 50]
You can now get on the freeway from U.S. 50 heading north towards Reno. But the more important section that will get through traffic out of downtown remains unbuilt. Current N-DOT plans offer a target date of about 2011-2012. But Lee and two Carson City planning commissioners I met over lunch (John Peery, who's the commission chairman, and Steve Reynolds) are concerned whether even that target will be met given the lengthy delays already encountered.
[photo, from left to right: Steve, John, and Lee]
While there's little current opposition to the freeway, the main hold up is money. There's a feeling that Las Vegas area roadway projects are given greater priority by the state, perhaps not surprising considering that the majority of the state's population (and political clout) is in that area.
Both Steve and John expressed some concerns about whether downtown -- even after the freeway is built -- will be able to attract pedestrians and higher density housing. As Steve succinctly put it, "people like to drive here." They also expressed uncertainty about whether mixed use developments would fly in Carson City. But participants in the city's master plan process (as well as planning commissioners and staff) supported the idea of stengthening downtown and getting more people to live, shop, and work there -- believing it important to the city's future.
But until the freeway is built, implementing the plan's goals remains largely on hold.