Historic change on the horizon | SierraSun.com

Historic change on the horizon

David Bunker
Sierra Sun
Photo illustration Ryan Salm/Sierra SunA host of projects are on the table for historic downtown Truckee.
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After more than a century of little change, Truckee’s downtown is staring a transformation in the face.

First will come parking meters; then a series of developments that will add hundreds of residences, dozens of shops and possibly hotels and a movie theater.

And up and down Commercial Row, downtown business owners have different opinions on the plans for Truckee’s historic heart. Some see it as a boon that will boost business. Others say that the new development may compete with the strip of commercial buildings that has been Truckee’s main shopping district since the town was founded.

“I think the future of downtown is bright,” said Stefanie Olivieri, owner of several buildings downtown and president of the Truckee Downtown Merchants Association.

She said the new projects will add pedestrian traffic to Truckee’s downtown. Others, meanwhile, wonder if the new developments will become competitors for business.

“They’re going to suck all the business we have over there,” said Brian Smart, owner of the Wagon Train Coffee Shop.

Today, it’s hard to see the looming transformation coming. The impending projects are only advertised by a pile of renderings, architectural sketches and planning documents that lay out the road map for the area’s future.

But it’s difficult to overestimate the magnitude of change that is slated for Truckee’s downtown. Between the railyard development, Hilltop projects, the Truckee River Revitalization Plan and two townhome projects, Truckee’s downtown could see 500 new residences, as well as a commercial district that could rival the size of Commercial Row.

“Downtown has never seen anything like this,” Olivieri said.

Truckee Townhomes and Stoneridge Townhomes, will add just over 100 residential units on the north and south sides of East Jibboom Street. They have already been approved by the Town of Truckee.

The 21-acre railyard development could create another mini downtown ” adding up to 100 residential units, a hotel, a row of shops and office space.

The Hilltop development, proposed on the hill overlooking downtown, may add another 260 residential units and will bring its own shops, lodging and restaurants.

Olivieri, who has been downtown for nearly 50 years, believes the changes will mark an exciting rebirth of downtown. One of her only worries is that the new projects could bring stores that would change the distinctiveness of downtown.

“We worry about chain stores coming in and ruining the character of the mom-and-pop stores we have,” Olivieri said.

One of the challenges with new development will be blending it in with a downtown core that has been built over a span of nearly 150 years. Not only will the building designs have to work well in downtown, but the types of businesses the new development attracts is also important, Olivieri said.

The merchants association plans to meet with Rick Holliday, developer of the railyard, and urge that chain stores not be part of the shopping district planned for the development, she said.

No matter what happens with the other developments throughout downtown, Commercial Row shopping will always maintain its appeal, Olivieri said.

“The main street shopping experience will remain distinctive,” she said.

But for Brian, who has owned and the Wagon Train for 28 years, worrying about the character of town now is too little too late.

“Is it going to change the town’s character?” asked Smart. “Well, the town’s character has already changed.”

Whether Truckee has the market for a near doubling of commercial space downtown is still up for debate.

Truckee Town Planner Duane Hall said the principles laid out in the overall plan for downtown encourage uses that complement but don’t compete with existing business.

“The idea is the users will not compete with other uses, but they will generate their own business,” Hall said of the expansion plans for downtown. “The commercial areas will work together and the sum of the parts will be greater than the individual parts.”

Tom Watson, managing partner with Truckee River Associates, which handles leases for more than 70 percent of the buildings on Commercial Row, agrees that neither the new developments nor existing businesses will be hurting for customers in the long run.

“There’s going to be a tremendous growth of tourism here,” Watson said.

The increase in downtown businesses will reach a “critical mass” that will attract a broader group of patrons, he said.

“The people that come and visit here are going to keep increasing and increasing and increasing,” he said.

As for competition, Watson said that the Railyard will be integrated into the commercial core, and will become “part and parcel of downtown.”

And Hilltop will attract its own distinct customer base, he predicted.

“It’s so close but it’s so far away due to the topographic issues and the access,” Watson said. “It’s not much of a competition.”

Smart, meanwhile, said he’s not so sure. He says that the townhome developments will add traffic jams, and the new commercial development will have the potential to fragment the tourist base that makes up the majority of downtown’s customers.

If the volume of tourist traffic drops and rent prices continue to rise, the economics of the situation will only support stores that make a lot of money off of individual sales, he said.

“Now you’ve got to have a jewelry store or knick-knacks,” Smart said. “I think that it has changed a lot of [the businesses]. It’s changed downtown.”

Smart said development has already affected business, with customers going to West River Street and Brickelltown more than when Truckee’s commercial district consisted of “one strip.”

But Commercial Row is still the only place where businesses see a large amount of foot traffic, he said, and that has made space on the row a coveted commodity.

With numerous plans in various stages of completion, it is difficult to pinpoint what change will happen when. But it is clear that parking meters will be the first signal of new development.

Hall, the town planner, said that paid parking was a necessary prerequisite to new development in the area. The parking plan will help balance the attractiveness of the existing downtown businesses with new development that will have its own parking.

“I think that is why we are being so aggressive in our public parking now, is to create a balance to [new development] to make public parking easier to use in Commercial Row and Brickelltown,” he said.

The two approved townhome projects will likely be built next. But the large projects ” the Railyard, Hilltop and the Truckee River Revitalization Plan ” will probably take years, if not decades, to be built out.

Hilltop looks like it will be the first, with a tentative date to appear before the planning commission in August. The Railyard is still in fairly early planning stages, and the river plan will encourage redevelopment one parcel at a time.

It won’t be an overnight transformation. But when it is complete, Truckee’s downtown will be changed forever.