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Archives for January 10, 2016

Audubon says saving ecosystem starts at home

In a bid to educate suburban homeowners about the value of their back yards as vital habitat for migrating birds and struggling populations of butterflies, honeybees and other pollinators, the Bergen County Audubon Society has launched a program to certify local gardens filled with native plant species.

The idea is to turn back yards, school grounds and even landscaping around businesses into green threads to stitch the region’s nature preserves into an ecological quilt.

“This area is so built up, and in between our larger natural areas is suburbia, so there’s a disconnect,” said Don Torino, the society’s president. “Our goal is to help residents turn their yards into stepping stones or trails for wildlife.”

By planting native species of trees, shrubs and perennials, homeowners can provide birds and pollinators food, protective cover from predators, and safe places to rear their young, Torino said.

“If you plant non-native species, your yard might look green, but for a bird it might as well be plastic, because there’s nothing for them to eat,” Torino said.

Even small yards can have an impact. Torino said his yard in Moonachie measures 15 feet by 60 feet — and attracts more than 60 species of birds because of the native plant species he cultivated.

“If you live near, say, the Celery Farm in Allendale, and you want to see it become bigger, you can plant native species in your own yard to effectively make that happen,” Torino said.

Some species he suggests planting include milkweed, a host plant for the monarch butterfly’s caterpillar stage; and berry-producing plants, such as spicebush and serviceberry, which provide spring leaves for caterpillars and fall berries for migrating birds.

Bergen Audubon’s Marie Longo, who will review applications for garden certification, also suggested viburnum, elderberry, buttonbush (a native form of butterfly bush), pin oak, aster, purple coneflower, goldenrod and New York ironweed. “When using these native species, you can make your yard as wild or neat as you want,” Longo said.

The program will be free, and the society plans a series of lectures and seminars in coming months to teach interested residents what plants they should add to their gardens this spring.

The society has posted application forms and lists of useful native species of trees, shrubs and perennials on its website at It will eventually start mapping the certified sites on the website.

“The more our yards are made friendly to local wildlife, the more useful the suburbs can be as corridors to undeveloped areas,” said Steve Quinn, a Ridgefield Park resident who, with his wife Linda, bought the house next to their own several years ago, tore it down and planted the plot with a variety of native species, turning it into a 40-foot-by-100-foot pocket park. The plants have attracted more wildlife to their plot. They have seen birds and butterflies they hadn’t before, including a swamp sparrow, indigo bunting and rusty blackbirds.

By adding leaf litter to the soil around the edge of the plot, the Quinns simulated forest floor cover, and enriched the soil, supporting more bugs and invertebrates. That, in turn, may have attracted a new mammal to their plot — a short-tailed shrew.

They planted milkweed for monarch butterflies, but since these plants grow slowly, they also planted several rows of zinnias, a colorful annual that attracts butterflies. The Quinns had visits last year from three butterfly species they hadn’t seen on their property before — giant swallowtail, red spotted purple, and great spangled fritillary.

They have also planted herbs, including fennel, a host plant for the caterpillar of the black swallowtail, the state’s official butterfly.

“With pollinators like monarchs and honeybees in trouble, if we can make planting native species a common practice in the suburbs, we could conceivably help save them,” Quinn said.

Torino said the idea to start a garden certification program had been kicking around for years but support jelled after society volunteers started tagging monarch butterflies. One of the tagged butterflies was spotted in Palisades Park last summer, and then showed up a few days later in a Hackensack garden. “That brought the idea home and we decided we had to do this,” said Torino.

Other environmental organizations also have such programs in place. The National Wildlife Foundation’s “Certified Wildlife Habitat” program, for instance, started in 1973 and now includes more than 180,000 certified back yards across the nation. That program requires a water source in the yard — something Bergen Audubon’s won’t be as demanding about.

Bergen Audubon has already scheduled two seminars on how to install and maintain a certified garden. The first is Saturday at 10 a.m. at Wild Birds Unlimited in Paramus. The other is Feb. 11 at 7:30 p.m. at Flat Rock Brook Nature Center in Englewood. Torino said the society will conduct seminars in interested towns.

“This is empowering — it’s something we can all do,” Torino said. “It improves the environment and our own lives, and it’s something we can do without raising taxes or holding a picket sign or sending a letter to the governor.”

Email: Twitter: @JamesMONeill1

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England’s pastoral symphony – a celebration of the country garden

He was called “the Shakespeare of the gardening world”, a humble estate manager’s son from Northumberland who was feted by the great and good of Georgian society.

The designs of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, born 300 years ago this August, dramatically changed the face of England’s green and pleasant land and are still in evidence today.

Best known for the landscapes he created at some of England’s grandest stately homes, notably Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth House, Highclere Castle and Burghley House, Brown worked at more than 250 sites across the UK and his influence was pervasive. When he died in 1783, 4,000 gardens – including several in Russia, Australia and the US – had been designed according to his principles, which held that landscapes should be in harmony with the surrounding countryside.

This approach saw Brown dispense with heavy, regimented formality in favour of wide open expanses, a concept that permeates many of Britain’s civic spaces to this day.

“If you look at the Victorian public parks in our major cities, they are all based on the principle of wide open spaces with serpentine paths and drives and views across grazed or mown grassland and lakes to woodland,” said Sarah Rutherford, a garden historian and author of a forthcoming book, Capability Brown and his Landscape Gardens.

“Before Brown, English country estates and gardens were formal, French-ified, like Versailles in miniature,” she said. “A lot of people were doing similar things in similar style, but Brown had this wonderful combination of talents. He had the artistic talent, the eye and the genius to look at a fairly unpromising tract of land and work out what could be done with it using the palette of water, trees and grass.”

Brown earned his nickname because he would often tell his clients that he could see the capabilities for improvement in their estates.

“He had the technical skills – architecture, engineering and landscaping – and on top of all that he had a sound business sense,” added Rutherford. “He never went bankrupt and he was scrupulously honest. He got on with his clients, and they beat a path to his door.”

And yet Brown, who numbered Lord Pitt and Lord Coventry among his close friends, was never ennobled or knighted despite the footprint he left on Georgian England. Today, few outside the world of gardening are aware of his impact.

But he is set for a major rehabilitation when he becomes the star of a new tourism campaign promoting the Year of the English Garden. Celebrations marking the 300th anniversary of his birth will run through the year, with events exploring the special place the garden has in the nation’s heart and culture.

While events commemorating anniversaries involving Shakespeare, Beatrix Potter and Roald Dahl will also feature heavily, tourism bodies believe the first nationwide initiative promoting the attractions of the English garden will play a major part in attracting visitors to the UK in what is predicted to be a record year for visitors. Visit Britain is predicting that tourism revenues will increase to almost £23bn this year, a 4.2% increase on 2015, while the number of overseas visitors is expected to rise to 36.7 million, a 3.8% rise.

Tourism experts believe the “Bake Off” effect – the most recent series of the BBC cookery show was filmed in the gardens of Welford Park in Berkshire – is driving a renewed interest in England’s cultivated landscapes. In 2014, more than 35 million day trips in England included a visit to a garden. More than half of all holiday visits to the UK involve a visit to a park or garden.

“There is anecdotal evidence that people are going back to basics and getting back to nature – and the year of the English Garden is tapping into this,” said Laura Dewar, spokeswoman for Visit England.

Blenheim, where Brown worked for 11 years, will host an exhibition dedicated to the gardener and unveil a new trail introducing visitors to the stunning views he created across the grounds. Fans will also be able to trace Brown’s walk to school across the Wallington estate in Northumberland, which is said to have inspired his naturalistic designs. A new play to be staged at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, The History of Capability Brown, will chart his rise from a gardener in rural Stowe to the talk of London high society.

Other events promoting the English garden this year include the country’s first Snowdrop Festival in February, and the opening of 200 private gardens across 27 London boroughs in June.

Rutherford said the 2016 celebrations would help introduce Brown to a wider audience. “He’s been through a big trough,” she said. “He was very well- known and thought of in his time, but when he died things changed. People were critical of him, saying his landscapes were too bland and weren’t rugged enough, but essentially it didn’t matter because people who owned his landscapes carried on maintaining them, and other people carried on using those principles – notably all the 19th-century industrial magnates who were busy laying out our parks.”


Must-see English gardens for 2016:

chosen by Jim Gardiner, executive vice- president of the Royal Horticultural Society


This formal four-acre plot is one of the finest examples of an English garden. It consists of three north-south and three east-west vistas, divided into separate, distinctive gardens by hedges, walls and paths. It includes a yew walk framed by 10 tall yew spires, and a five-metre-deep herbaceous border. The range of plants is wide, with significant collections of clematis, salvias, phlox and roses.


Formerly the home of horticulturalist Christopher Lloyd, the Great Dixter estate was originally designed by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. It is one of the most dynamic and innovative gardens in the country, offering a wide variety of interest, from its topiary and wild flower meadows, to the long border and exotic plants.


Rosemoor is one of the UK’s best gardens for year-round interest, with several stunning features including the Hot, Foliage and Plantsman’s gardens. Its 65 acres are home to one of the country’s best collections of roses, with a display of more than 2,000 plants and nearly 200 cultivars in the Queen Mother’s Rose Garden as well as a Shrub Rose Garden. The Fruit and Vegetable Garden is a contrast to Lady Anne’s Garden with its eclectic collection of woody and exotic plants.


This magnificent 30-acre garden, which celebrated its 250th anniversary last year, is filled with rare plants from around the world, with the streamside walk overflowing with subtropical exuberance. It is famed for its camellia groves and magnolias, and noted for its rhododendrons and hydrangea, as well as a hillside walk with views of the Jurassic Coast.


This beautiful 400-acre park, complete with red deer that freely roam the estate, is accompanied by a classic parterre, a walled kitchen garden. and herbaceous borders. On the other side lies a herb garden, and behind this lies a rose garden of exquisite beauty.

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Tropical Gardening: 2016 — The year of the monkey and palms – Hawaii Tribune

This is the Year of the Monkey, according to the Chinese calendar. With that in mind, the International Palm Society scheduled its biennial meeting for June 12-19 in the land of our distant relatives in Borneo.

Sarawak, Borneo, is famous for its orangutans and some extremely rare palms. These simians and many palm species are threatened with extinction because of destruction of the island’s forests. There are many other primates there such as the proboscis monkey, but the orangutans — with 90 percent of the same DNA as humans — seem almost human in their behavior. Their bright orange hair, personality and expressive faces are more than cute. Some folks who work with the Borneo Orangutan Rescue Project say they feel like they are working with human children at times. The local people see them as the “old men of the forest.”

Although meeting the orangutans will be part of the biennial experience, most of the time will be spent studying palms. Perhaps new species will be discovered and brought into cultivation. Soon, they might be showing up in local botanical gardens, nurseries and home landscapes. We already have sealing wax palms and Licuala, Caryota and Pinanga species from the region here, but many more are yet to be introduced.

The IPS biennial will start in Borneo and finish in Singapore. If you are interested in a once-in-a-lifetime experience, consider exploring the jungles of Borneo with nature lovers from Hawaii and all around the world.

You can get details by checking out the IPS website. We have an active chapter of the society that meets on a regular basis on the Big Island. You can contact chapter president Mary Lock at 430-0401 for upcoming meetings, tours and program dates.

When it comes to species of palms in the world, there are thousands with more discovered each year. They come from the high mountains, such as the Andean wax palms that live at 13,000 feet above sea level, to equatorial rain forest species such as those from Borneo. Desert palms are another large group, but none is quite so close to our Hawaiian hearts as the coconut palm.

The coconut palm group is composed of scores of varieties including some dwarf types that should be used more in Hawaii. Not only are they shorter and easy to harvest, they are resistant to a devastating disease referred to as lethal yellowing.

Palms here have few serious diseases at present. Hawaii’s palms can be affected by bud rot or stem bleeding disease that often is caused by physical damage such as unsanitary pruning equipment or climbing spikes. Most palms showing yellow or stunted growth have been found to be suffering from lack of fertilizer or water. For example, a recent report came from concerned citizens calling about the sickly Fiji ivory palms (Veitchia joannis) on Henry Street mauka of Queen Kaahumanu Highway in Kailua-Kona. The trees simply need a balanced fertilizer plus minor elements, applied three to four times per year, and regular irrigation.

All these problems are correctable, but if lethal yellowing ever gets to Hawaii, there’s no practical way of stopping destruction of our island’s palms. Not only would the coconut palm be destroyed, but more than a hundred species of native and exotic palms also would die.

To realize the full potential threat of lethal yellowing, picture the streets of Waikiki and Kahala with tens of thousands of dying coconut palms in all stages of the disease, from the early brassy yellowing of the lower fronds through the collapsing of the crown and the final “telephone poling,” when there is nothing more than a naked trunk.

This disease, originally thought to be a disease exclusively of coconut palms, occurs in the West Indies, Florida, Texas, Mexico and Africa. A similar disease occurs in the Philippines.

Lethal yellowing hit Key West, Fla., in the middle 1950s. After a number of years and killing three-fourths of the coconut palms, it stopped. In the early 1970s, it was found in the Greater Miami area. Since the Jamaica tall coconut palm is planted almost exclusively in Florida, the disease ran rampant. By 1980, most coconut palms in South Florida were dead.

Research at the Coconut Industry Board in Kingston, Jamaica, showed that all varieties of coconuts are susceptible to lethal yellowing. The degree of susceptibility has been the point for developing varieties resistant to the disease. On the one end of the scale, the Jamaica tall coconut is about 100 percent susceptible. On the other end, the dwarf types are slightly susceptible. Crosses of the dwarf and tall are fairly resistant.

When lethal yellowing hit Florida, it was discovered many other palms also are susceptible to the disease in varying degrees. According to the University of Florida Lethal Yellowing Research Station in Fort Lauderdale, hundreds of other palms are susceptible, such as the Manila palm, fishtail palm, loulu palm, date palm, oil palm and many others.

Mycoplasma-like organisms, that occupy a niche between a virus and bacteria, are the cause of lethal yellowing. Mycoplasma-like cells were found in tissues of all diseased palms examined by the University of Florida scientists at the research station in Fort Lauderdale. They appeared to be transmitted by a leafhopper. Remember, neither the disease nor leafhopper have been found in Hawaii.

Florida embarked on a two-stage program to replant the stripped areas. More than half a million Malayan dwarf seed nuts from Jamaica were imported. The Malayan, while highly resistant to the disease, also has the added benefit of easily harvested nuts and does not require expensive nut and leaf removal as with the tall varieties. Florida researchers also started a hybridization project, crossing Malayan palms with Panama talls that have shown resistance to lethal yellowing in Jamaica. The resulting Maypan is highly resistant and also grows with more vigor similar to the Jamaica talls.

Today, a visitor to South Florida would not be aware of the devastation caused by lethal yellowing. Thanks to the efforts of the state and communities of Florida, International Palm Society, Florida Nursery and Growers Association and others, millions of disease-resistant palms have been planted.

Another approach for us in Hawaii is the addition to our landscapes of other palm species showing resistance to lethal yellowing. The International Palm Society and University of Florida cooperated on a project to use more palms not susceptible the disease. Resistant palms include royals, Ptychospermas, Arecastrum, Dypsis, Washingtonias, Sabals, Rhapis, Bismarkia and hundreds of others.

What is the threat of lethal yellowing to Hawaii? Transporting plants, especially palms from affected areas such as Florida, could introduce the disease.

Fortunately, seed has not been found to carry lethal yellowing. It still is essential to work with the Department of Agriculture and plant quarantine folks to have all imported plants and seed inspected. Above all, do not smuggle in plants or seed. This is how we got the spiraling whitefly, banana bunchy top disease and many other serious pests.

So, be sure to follow the rules and regulations developed to protect our islands. Also be aware that there are very stiff fines for bringing plants or animals into the Islands without the proper permits and inspection.

This information is supplied by the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. For further information about gardening and landscaping, contact one of our master gardeners at 322-4892 in Kona or 981-5199 in Hilo.

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GARDENING: Nine tips to help a waterlogged garden recover

Has your garden suffered waterlogging in the recent wet weather?

Here’s nine tips to help it recover:

1. Vegetable gardeners shouldn’t sow until the soil is dry enough – start off crops in modules.

2. Waterlogging and compaction can create ideal conditions for phytopthora (root rot) and other fungal attacks.

3. Remove any dead, diseased or dying shoots as soon as you see them so disease doesn’t spread.

4. When the soil has started to dry out, dig it over to help create an open structure. Work from boards to avoid compaction.

5. Fruit trees and bushes may suffer from root rots and be liable to wilting in hot, dry spells. Mulch, water and feed during the growing season to encourage new root growth.

6. In clay soil, use plenty of organic matter and horticultural grit before planting to improve soil structure and drainage. Nutrients will have been washed away in free­-draining soil, add compost to bulk up the soil and add nutrients.

7. Build a drainage system or soakaway. Dig ditches filled with gravel to drain water away, or talk to a builder about a pipe drainage system.

8. Replace losses with water­tolerant trees and shrubs, such as Cornus alba, C. stolonifera, Hydrangea macrophylla, H. paniculata, Kerria japonica, Leycesteria formosa, Weigela, Salix, Betula, Sambucus, Liquidambar, ash and amelanchier.

9. If things are really soggy, make a bog garden, which is an excellent habitat for wildlife. Suitable plants include Iris ensata, I. laevigata, I. pseudacorus, I. sibirica, primulas, Actaea, Astilbe and Carex, plus the magnificent leaves of Gunnera, hostas, Rheum and Rodgersia.

* For more gardening news, tips and offers, visit

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Brush up on gardening skills this winter

The gardening catalogs are arriving — always a good sign that spring can’t be too far away. In the meantime, Tri County Tech released its schedule of community education for this semester and, lo and behold, there is a gardening series among them. What a great way to gain gardening tips before the season gets under way.

The series begins Jan. 20 and ends May 10. Visit or call 918-333-2422 for dates, times and costs. Classes meet for one session only except for the landscape class, which meets four times.

Here is a brief synopsis of each.

• How to Be a Frugal Gardener — Nikki Austin gives tips on how to grow vegetables, flowers, shrubs and trees without breaking the bank.

• Basic Landscape Design — Brooke Cox teaches how to lay out garden beds based on climate and site analysis.

• Raised Bed and Vertical Gardening — Nikki Austin touts the virtues of raised bed gardening, such as improved drainage, better control of soil composition and accessibility. She also gives tips on increasing production with vertical gardening.

• Start Your Own Edible Garden — Charlene Wells will guide the class through growing edibles, first starting small with salad ingredients, then moving up to cool weather, then warm weather edibles.

• Gardening 101 — Steve Forsythe covers the basics of vegetable gardening such as starting seeds, timing, choosing the right location, planting and fertilizing.

• Attracting Bees and Butterflies — Susan Albert shares simple tips to bring more pollinators to the yard. By providing plants that nourish bees and butterflies at all their life stages, their numbers will increase in your yard.

• Native Grasses and Shrubs — Susan Albert shows examples of native grasses and shrubs popular in the landscape. With weather getting more “extreme” every year, it pays to choose plants that are well adapted to this area.

• How to Grow Tomatoes — Nikki Austin offers research-based advice on how to successfully grow tomatoes. She covers different types, varieties, fertilizing, pest control, watering and more.

• Herbs 101 — Diane Leroux and Maureen Forsythe will offer tips on growing, harvesting, storing and using 10 of the most popular herbs — basil, lavender, parsley, rosemary, thyme, sage, cilantro, chives, oregano and mint.

Visit the master gardener website, and its Facebook page for answers to horticulture questions. To access the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension fact sheets, visit

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Free Classes Offer Winter Gardening Tips

Free Classes Offer Winter Gardening Tips

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Garden Tips: Tools that make gardening easier – Tri

Gray days, frigid temperatures, rain and snow have me longing for spring. I am anxious for the end of this nasty weather so I can get my yard and garden ready for growing. Pruning, cutting and digging tools are essential to my anticipated cleanup chores.

Oh to be young again. My back, hands and arms lack the strength of younger years, so I tend to favor tools that make gardening easier for me. When it comes to pruning, I depend on ratchet pruners. My trusty hand pruners are a pair of Florian 701 ratchet pruners. Florian touts that their ratchet mechanism multiplies your hand strength up to 700 percent.

I cut out the dead stems of flowering perennials left in the garden, pruning flowering shrubs and trimming flowers. Keep in mind that these light-weight pruners are not meant to tackle the bigger, woodier stems of trees and shrubs. They will only cut wood stems up to 3/4-inch in diameter. The blades have a nonstick coating, and the handles are made of fiberglass reinforced plastic.

I keep thinking about getting another pair, but these are still going strong after 10 years. Plus, the bright yellow handles make them easy to find wherever I lay them down in the garden. Order them at at

Of course, I occasionally need to cut large stems and branches. When you have small branches that are too big for hand pruners, loppers are the next step. I have a pair of heavy-duty bypass loppers, but they have become harder for me to use effectively. That is why I bought a pair of Ironwood Tools ratchet loppers two years ago at a trade show. This past fall, when I had to cut some tree branches, I could not believe how easy these ratchet loppers made the job for me.

The Ironwood Tools ratchet loppers have a gear action that allows you to cut through wood up to 1.5 inches in diameter. With handles that are made of strong aluminum, they weigh only two pounds. The blade is made of tempered steel, and all the parts are replaceable and have a lifetime replacement guarantee.

Ironwood also offers a telescoping ratchet lopper with extendable handles that go from 19 to 32 inches in length. These heavy-duty loppers can handle branches up to 2.5 inches and have the same guarantee. Ironwood Tools are available at

I have to admit that when it comes to digging in the garden, I have never been effective at the task. I always thought it was me, but now I am wondering if it was the shovels I was using. I am considering buying a HERShovel from Green Heron Tools.

The HERShovel is a hybrid between a shovel and a spade that has been designed based on women’s bodies and digging styles. (Who knew women dig differently than men?) Green Heron notes that this shovel is designed specifically for women from the “shape and diameter of the handle, to the three shaft lengths (based on the individual woman’s height), to the angle and enlarged step on the blade. It is designed for “maximum comfort and ease of use.”

I think I would need the shortest one designed for women like me who are less than 5 feet, 2 inches tall. Green Heron also offers a HERSpadingfork. They are available at

Old or young, it makes sense to buy tools that make gardening easier.

Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.

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How can Reno revive downtown in 2016?

Even as Reno sees a resurgence of new business and economic growth, its most high-profile area remains moribund, with shuttered businesses and poverty. According to Reno residents, downtown detracts from everything else Reno has to offer, such as outdoor activities, arts and culture. Some even called it an embarrassment.

“Downtown is the weakest link,” said Mike Kazmierski, CEO and president of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada.

Kazmierski’s job is to bring new companies to Reno by marketing its best qualities but the current state of the city’s core can make that job harder.

In a project to rewrite the city’s master plan, called ReImagine Reno, 5,800 people online and in person were surveyed to gain insight into the community’s vision of the future. One recurring complaint in the more than 1,000 online comments is that downtown Reno is dirty, unsafe and doesn’t engender good feelings in locals or visitors.

“When I am downtown and I look around, I wonder, why do people come here?” wrote one ReImagine Reno survey respondent. All survey respondents’ names were omitted by the city when publishing the comments. “Downtown is awful. It is dirty and very outdated. It looks unsafe. We want people to come here and enjoy the many special events we have. Bring life back to the downtown and surrounding areas.”

I attended eight of the focus groups in ReImagine Reno and was invited to Mayor Hillary Schieve’s Operation Downtown committee with 32 nonprofit leaders, city leaders and private developers. In order to start the conversation about downtown’s future, I’ve combined comments from ReImagine Reno and Operation Downtown, then talked to experts to look for solutions to Reno’s toughest problems.

The following is an overview of some of the incredibly complex issues facing downtown Reno, and some of the steps being put in motion to address the core of the city.

There’s a sense across the country and in Reno that cities should re-urbanize, infill, grow denser and refocus on their downtown cores as they recover from the recession. Affordability, safety and blight removal all play a role in making that a reality. A Washington Post report in October 2015 showed that retired baby boomers are downsizing and moving back into urban cores away from the suburbs.

ReImagine Reno found that people wanted to live in single-family homes, but also in a medium or high-density downtown neighborhood.

“In terms of neighborhoods, the data indicate a shift towards both more walkable neighborhoods, with a 67 percent increase in desire to live near a local shopping street and a 74 percent increase in desire to live in a downtown urban environment,” according to the ReImagine Reno summary report.

“(Downtown Reno) dominated people’s minds,” said Maureen McKissick, assistant to the city manager’s office and co-organizer of ReImagine Reno. “It appeared in every single round table, with 29 focus groups and 94 round tables.”

Hundreds of written survey respondents said they felt unsafe walking downtown because of vacant buildings and aggressive panhandlers. Many respondents asked the city to consider the effect that feeling has on tourists.

“Clean up downtown first and foremost,” wrote a ReImagine Reno survey respondent. “Second, more help for the homeless and mentally ill. My daughters go to school downtown, my husband works downtown a block away and we don’t feel comfortable allowing him to walk to his job. Very sad! They should feel safe and as parents we should feel safe downtown.”

Operation Downtown discovered that fixing downtown involves addressing blight, homelessness, income inequality, crime and infrastructure while also encouraging redevelopment. Downtown represents a complex problem without easy solutions.

A real solution involves unprecedented participation and collaboration between the county, city, private business and nonprofits, Schieve said at the beginning of Operation Downtown in October.


“Abandoned motels litter the area between downtown and the university, which isn’t a good sight and could be a source of trouble,” wrote a ReImagine Reno respondent. “I don’t want the homeless and (those) struggling to be hurt by a new master plan, but for Reno to survive, that problem should be addressed and addressed with care.”

Downtown Reno’s median household income is $18,700 per year, according to the Center for Regional Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. The city’s overall median annual household income is more than double at $44,400.

If 30 percent of a person’s income should go toward rent, then about 60 percent of the people living downtown can afford $500 a month or less for housing. For that reason, weekly motels create a type of long-term, low-income housing in the absence of adequate government-subsidized affordable housing.

Participants in the ReImagine Reno survey call the motels blight or eyesores and want to see them razed. Many respondents suggested the weekly motels are full of drug addicts, criminals and “scumbags.”

In reality, almost 3,200 seniors, veterans, families and children live in weekly motels, according to a city count conducted in January 2015 that is set to be repeated Jan. 28.

While some weekly hotels generate the most police activity, eliminating them without an alternative would put thousands of people on the street, said Pat Cashell, Northern Nevada’s regional director of Volunteers of America. No shelter or city services could take on one motel’s population, let alone all of them at once.

It’s also not cost-effective for local governments to buy weekly motels and convert them to government affordable housing, said Tony Ramirez, acting field office director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Most of them would need significant renovation to be brought up to modern building codes.

“We’re kind of in a rental crisis right now in Washoe County, where there are effectively zero units available that are affordable to seniors and some families,” CJ Manthe, Nevada Housing Division administrator, said in a Dec. 10 RGJ story about hybrid housing.


One example of success from Operation Downtown is the Reno Housing Authority working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help low-income families. But both RHA and HUD need help from private developers and landlords to build or find more than 100 new units to create permanent supportive housing, Ramirez said at the Dec. 17 Operation Downtown meeting.

This works in a few ways: Providing individual rent vouchers, subsidizing landlords or building affordable housing complexes, to name a few. Some cities, such as Salt Lake City, have had success with “housing first” projects where homeless people receive an apartment, no questions asked.

Helping people move into standard private apartments throughout the city is preferred by HUD because it avoids creating slums and blight, a risk of housing first. This is called 80/20 housing.

The 80/20 concept, proponents say, helps eliminate stigmas toward low-income families. Reno Police Department community action Officer James Phoenix said people will assimilate with the behavior around them. Crime begets crime, bringing a neighborhood down. However, good behavior helps eliminate criminal behavior in others, raising a neighborhood up.

Other solutions include improving the motels by pushing them to comply with city codes. Apartment owners Roberta Ross and Joey Jennings both said in separate interviews that they could make more money running weekly motels than permanent apartments. The problem, from Ross’ perspective, is not that the motels exist but that some landlords don’t keep up maintenance and improvements.

Landlords can make a difference if they do background checks and actively invest in their apartments. Jennings, for example, converted a block of apartments into off-campus student housing and started screening tenants when he took over other nearby properties over the last three years.

By making these changes, Jennings changed one block on High Street near the Reno Police Department from a high-crime street to a low crime street, according to a special report created by the Reno Police Department for the RGJ.

“The low calls for (police) service are attributed to ‘revitalizing’ the area with new ownership,” according to the RPD. “Historically the area was run down and owned and operated by individuals. Now that the area has been restored, the calls for service are down.”


“(There are) too many empty lots throughout the city,” wrote one ReImagine Reno respondent. “Need more of an urban environment with mixed development and walking areas. More retail shopping in downtown and Midtown that is easy to walk around in. Where is all the retail space for new businesses in downtown or Midtown? There is no place to shop.”

Another response followed up:

“When everybody is waiting to cash in on the increase in property value from nearby development, but nobody is ever developing, there’s a problem,” wrote the respondent.

These comments speak to large swaths of vacant land and buildings: the stores next to the Riverside movie theater, the nearby Riverwalk Towers condominium’s first floor, many shops on Virginia Street, most of the east side of Sierra Street from Commercial Row to First Street.

These are only a few of the vacancies that reduce daytime foot traffic that would bolster downtown’s economy. No real estate companies track vacancy rates in downtown Reno specifically, especially since not all vacant properties are available for lease.

Kelly Bland, a retail expert and senior vice president NAI Alliance Retail Properties Group, a commercial real estate service, said the casinos also do a good job holding people’s attention, providing no compelling reason for them go outside and window shop.

On the other hand, Bland and others note the recent development of the Main U.S. Post Office, 3rd Street Flats, purchase of the ground floor of The Montage and soon-to-be demolished motels as positive steps forward.


Downtown retail needs to come in stages in order to improve density, increase foot traffic and rebuild downtown, Bland said. While residents clamor for a grocery store, many small and medium retail stores need to build confidence and demand first. A grocery store’s small profit margins will not be supported by the current residents, lack of parking and retail landscape.

Jessica Schneider, owner of Junkee Clothing Exchange and new chairman of Artown, said the lease prices of smaller spaces are too high for business owners like her to move into downtown.

“The landlords have gotta care about what business goes in there,” she said.

Schneider wanted to open a new souvenir shop since most others closed, but the landlord wanted more per month than she could afford. She would like to see more landlords taking an interest in rebuilding downtown by negotiating lower rents instead of holding out for big buyers. She also wants them to look at the business owners’ level of experience and success while also making sure the idea fits into what downtown needs instead of who will pay the highest rent.

Developers like Bernie Carter and Basin Street Properties specifically said they want to revitalize downtown and have invested millions of dollars into places like the Post Office and 3rd Street Flats. Jim Bauserman and Stacie Mathewson also recently purchased the ground floor of The Montage because they want to be part of revitalizing downtown.

“We want to do our part to take a space that’s been empty for a long time and bring some economic impact downtown,” Bauserman said in a Jan. 1 interview.

Bland agreed that downtown is not the “Field of Dreams” cliche: “If you build it, they will come.” It’s quite the opposite: “If they want it, you must build it and hopefully they will come.”

“If there’s a high demand from consumers, there will be businesses and restaurants filling that demand and property owners who accommodate that demand,” Bland said.


“Downtown Reno, and the surrounding areas (especially east of downtown) need a lot of attention in regards to the homeless population,” a ReImagine Reno respondent wrote. “The location of the new shelter and services geared towards them completely contradicts the improvements that are planned, and have already been made.”

Many ReImagine Reno participants who mentioned downtown also mentioned homelessness. Many, like the above, wrote that the proximity of the homeless shelter to downtown is a problem. They suggested moving it away, out of sight. Pat Cashell, regional director of Northern Nevada Volunteers of America, said the shelter isn’t going anywhere, so other solutions need to be found.

Cashell believes the majority of the people at the Reno shelter also suffer from mental illness and cites lack of adequate mental health facilities as a large part of Reno’s homeless problem. The U.S. Department of Urban Development places mental illness at 25 percent of the nation’s homeless population.

“It’s more than a bunch of lazy people on the street holding a sign,” Cashell said. “It’s a lot of mental illness.”

In fact, the majority of Reno’s homeless are considered transitional, meaning they are homeless for a short time before returning to work or finding housing. Many of those people are families with children, who live in the shelter and still attend school. In fact, the Washoe County School District estimates about 2,000 students are homeless at some point during each school year.

Reno Area Alliance for the Homeless places the number of homeless children at closer to 3,380.

About 38 other people are considered chronically homeless for more than a year, according to RAAH numbers from January 2015. Those are the people who move in and out of the shelter but primarily live on the street.

Despite these numbers, Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission feeds 400 people, three times a day, Cashell said. It’s unclear if all of them are homeless.


Homelessness is an issue throughout the country and many solutions have been attempted but each one runs into obstacles.

In Madison, Wis., the city created tiny houses for homeless people in 2013. Other cities, such as Eugene, Ore. and Nashville, have followed suit. These are part of the “housing first” concept, which the National Interagency Council on Homelessness considers “the most effective approach to ending chronic homelessness.”

It is based on the idea that the roots of homelessness can be addressed when people have homes instead of living on the street. Homes help people find jobs and receive regular treatment for mental and physical illness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Housing first saves cities money in shelters and jail time, but they also fight over where the houses should go, if they are legal and whether they create new problems.

In Reno, Cashell worked with the city to create the Reno Works program that allows people in the shelter to apply for jobs with Volunteers of America. The first group of six graduated, but Cashell worries the second group will not fare as well. He said only eight people applied for 10 positions and has already seen more issues facing the second group.

Albuquerque, N.M., tried something similar to Reno Works. The city sends a van out twice a week to collect homeless people willing to work cleaning up parks then bring them back to the shelter for food and services.

Both Reno Works and Albuquerque’s initiative pay higher than the states’ minimum wages.

For Cashell, addressing homelessness comes down to wraparound services: case management, therapy, medical assistance, affordable housing assistance, job training and consistent follow through of all these as a person learns to integrate back into work life. He said the shelter is seen more as an emergency space and he wonders if that needs to change to more of a support system while HUD and the Reno Housing Authority address the need for housing.

“I’m afraid the homeless population is going to grow if we don’t tackle affordable housing,” he said.

Mike Higdon is the city life reporter at the RGJ and can be found on Instagram @MillennialMike and on Facebook at Mike Higdon, Reno Life.

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