CommRow (CR) certainly has the power to get emotions flying here at REreno, RRB, RGJ, DTM and any other place it comes up.  I’ve kept my opinions pretty much to myself thus far, and I have a few to tell.  I do not have any professional connection to CR, though I have followed the project from the outset (and even earlier if you count the boutique hotel concept).  I do have a certain expertise in architecture and adaptive reuse of structures.  Finally, I care about CR because I am downtown’s #3 booster – Nando just bumped me from #2.

–  What is CommRow? – This has been really poorly communicated to the public at large, and has created a lot of criticism and cynicism.  It is a collection of “revenue streams” that are meant to create a certain synergy and ultimately a downtown “community”.  It is not open 24 hours like other downtown businesses.  It adamantly does not follow a casino model (though I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Restricted Gaming License issued for 15 slots – the money is too easy).  They are not trying to appeal to everybody, but believe that they can get enough of a slice of the locals, university and climbing communities to be economically viable.  What you are seeing there is Phase 1 of Phase 1 and it is a work in progress.

–  Plug and Play – Nando has been quoted saying that he knows some of the “concepts” will fail, and that he has new concepts ready to plug in when that happens.  My sense is that he was talking about food concepts, and this has led to one of my primary criticisms of the project – the 3 main food outlets have no individual identity.  You could swap out the Greek outlet with the Mexican outlet and no one would notice.  One thing that I don’t think that has been considered is that the first “concept” to fail may be the climbing aspect of the project.

–  Horizontal / Vertical – Enter the first floor of CR, and you have no idea that the world’s tallest indoor or outdoor climbing wall is just outside.  All the view of the Wall end up being at Harrah’s.  You also can’t see that there is more upstairs, including the bouldering park.  Think of this as enclosed shopping mall with no visual ties between the several levels of shops – why would you explore unless you knew what was upstairs or even if there was an upstairs?  The escalators are tucked away in a corner.  There absolutely should have been a visual connection (hole) created between the first and second floors, and this may end up being an insolvable critical flaw.

–  Synergy  –  The nightclubs do seem to feed the FNB outlets, but the climbing facilities do not.  CR gets a huge bump when concerts let out at the Knit. Climbers want beer not wheat grass.

–  Interior Signage – Though it is getting better, it is still crap.  CR seems to believe that laser printed letter sized prints posted with masking tape works to communicate.  Well it just looks cheap and band-aid.  Signs reading “Escalators to Cargo Closed” could easily read “Cargo Open for Events Only”.  Where vertical circulation is so key, an aggressive signage program is needed.  CR just doesn’t understand how to communicate efficiently.

–  Party On – When I visited CR this weekend, there was a birthday party being staged along side of the bouldering park by the slack line.  It was ugly and awkwardly staged, but points to one of the surprising successes of CR.  I’ve heard that over 50 parties and special events have already been booked, catching everyone flat-footed – where do we do this?   The old coffee shop on the second floor (should have been screened off for the opening – looked tacky) is already under renovation as a party room.

–  Slack Line – An unqualified success.  People just can’t stay off it.

–  Staff – Each and every one I have interacted with have been happy, helpful, professional, and eager to promote the project.  The lead bartenders each have signature drinks you cannot duplicate anywhere else, and all that I have been “forced” to sample have been sapid.

–  Food – Everything that I have tasted here has been pretty good, and well priced.  Tar Tar rocks, in their dark little corner.

–  S & P – Figure that out on your own!  The largest, most overt improvement on the first floor is the restrooms.  This is the huge white wall in the bowels of CR.  I thought CR might take the restrooms over the top to support their clubber clientele.  Instead, the restrooms at CR make a Flying J truck stop feel luxurious in comparison.  Note to you aesthetes – stick to the second floor toilets that still have the Fitzgerald’s touch to them.

–  Ruh Roh – The pet friendly aspects of the project have gotten decidedly less friendly to Fido.  Did no one check with County Health about pets at food venues?  The planned doggie day care center for the hotel portion in the basement seems pretty questionable, also.

–  Ch-ch-ch changes –  If there are operational problems in a facility, a good manager fixes them decisively.  Nando has done that, starting at the top.  It will be a challenge to identify where changes are required, or when certain concepts just need to be “nurtured” to fit in with the overall CR concept.

–  Programming – If you follow Reno City Council, you probably noticed an item about awarding a Programming Contract for the Train Trench to CR.  It  mysteriously disappeared (until the garage issues were resolved?).  The contract would let CR program events on the trench, from farmers markets to craft fairs to whatever they think could generate traffic to the plaza, downtown, and ultimately into CR.  So when you judge CR, just remember that there is much more afoot than you see right now.

–  Phase 2 – Retail, BMX and Skate Park on the parking garage roof, maybe a rooftop FNB venue (Food and Beverage).  Not holding my breath on this one just yet.  Zip lines across Virginia Street?  To where?

–  Phase 2B – 100 room Hang Hotel, non-smoking, non-whining, pet (sorta) friendly, due to open April Fools Day.  A full-time hotel will change the dynamics a lot and bring more life to the “hangar” feeling of the main floor.  But where do the guests get breakfast?  And there is going to be a lot of dog poop on the trench cover!

–  Parking Garage History – CR is getting a lot of negative press as the city renegotiated their bond issue to sell the land under to garage to CR.  Yes CR stopped paying rent on the garage (slimy) but there is more to the story.  CR entered into a purchase agreement with the city 2 years ago prior to a long scheduled rent increase from $32,000 per month to $39,000 roughly.  Then the city had problems (surprise!) dealing with DEPFA on the bond, yet still upped the rent – though they were probably required to do this under the terms of the bond.  Nando had a lot of legal recourse on this one against the city, and could have probably renegotiated the $2.5M purchase price based on today’s values.  The city looking to buy the Cal Neva garage for $10,000 would not be a great comp!  So I actually have to side with Nando on this one.

–  Parking Garage Improvements – Whoever was responsible for getting the parking garage ready for the opening should be fired.   The garage should have been renovated and open for business by the press opening party.  Instead it was a public safety hazard with construction going on, wrong way traffic required with no warning or signage, sludge water pouring down on the media as they arrived for the opening.  It’s been a few weeks since I’ve been to the garage, but it doesn’t look like things have gotten much better.

–  Facebook Believer –  CR had no web site of its own until the week of the opening.  Instead, they relied on “new media” to communicate with the world.  The FB site was an embarrassing amalgamation of propaganda and toady sycophant job searchers.  I’m really not convinced that new media trumps old media when it comes to getting butts into chairs, but CR seems to think so.

CommRow’s launch has been awfully rough, given Nando’s control freak reputation.  First impressions have been pretty negative, though there is a lot more to come if CR keeps to their plan.  The architecture of the space fights against the “community” mission, and may be something that can’t be overcome.  A great graphics program is needed to mitigate this failing, and it just hasn’t happened.  If you want the locals to buy in, a much better outreach program is needed to explain just what the CR concept is really about.  If controlled chaos is a business model, CommRow has a shot.

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