Infill development in the city's Midtown District aims to offer residents sustainability and community.
By Ben Schulman
Architect Jack Hawkins, AIA, first arrived in Reno, Nev., more than 30 years ago. Despite the city’s seedy reputation at the time, Hawkins was drawn to its relative low cost of living and myriad outdoor opportunities, given the proximity to Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Hawkins set up his firm, Hawkins & Associates, Inc., in the Midtown District, a short jaunt—but a world away—from Downtown Reno’s urbanist fever dream of Modernist kitsch, faded Old West grandeur, surface parking lots, and superblock casinos.
The Midtown District is home to an eclectic, diverse group of retailers and restaurants. Virginia Street serves as the main commercial artery, flanked by residential neighborhoods of humble, but handsome bungalows. The commercial corridor was nearly abandoned and the residential neighborhoods were struggling when Hawkins arrived, but now, the area is a healthy commercial and residential destination. It benefited from a revisioning of Virginia Street to make it more pedestrian-friendly and accessible, and larger economic forces that have sent headwinds in Reno’s direction since the financial crisis of 2008-2010.
“Reno has experienced exponential growth after the crash,” says Hawkins. “The shattering of the Bay Area’s housing prices has been driving people to places like Boise and to Reno, and that hasn’t stopped.”
Even before the financial crisis hit, Hawkins—whose architectural style deftly blends a contemporary and clean modernist approach with a hint of rusticated lodge—foresaw the opportunity for infill development in Midtown. Newcomers were already starting to arrive in the area, and Hawkins believed that appropriately scaled infill development could become a draw for neighborhood stabilization, retention, and attraction. He believed it was also a challenge to model sustainable practices through various approaches.
"Sustainability is, at its core, an economic issue,” he says. “It is not just a material issue.”
Hawkins set out to develop a project that could establish a principle of economic sustainability from a land-use perspective, as well as material sustainability, embedded within the architecture of the project itself.
In 2008, he developed Modern on Cheney, four contemporary infill residences on Cheney Street in The Wells Avenue District. Hawkins and his wife have lived in one of the units since their development. Their roughly 1000 square feet of living space is made more expansive by the airiness that pervades throughout, with a long span of clerestory windows and glass doors, clever use of recessed spaces, and a meshing of indoor/outdoor spaces offering exquisite views of the nearby mountains.
The success of Modern on Cheney established a precedent for density in an area of predominantly single-family housing. Coupled with Reno’s increasing population and economic growth, Hawkins reasoned that similar style developments would take root in the area. Roughly 15 years after his first development, Hawkins is teaming up—as an architect and designer—with a local couple to develop Midtown Garden Homes, an extension of his original idea at a different scale.
“We are looking holistically at incorporating all of the great things about the area and geography,” Hawkins says.
This will manifest in a program that mixes a single-family home and a duplex that both meet the street, plus three additional duplexes in back offering units of 400 and 700 square feet, respectively. All of the units will be connected through interior courtyard garden spaces that are intended to create an intentional community. Sustainability is baked into the program, calling for passive solar, minimal duct work, landscaping that acts as a block-level mitigation technique to minimize climate effects, and potentially, low-cost, vernacular cooling systems—also known as “swamp coolers”—that are common in dry climates like Reno’s.
Hawkins’ clients for the project are Piper Stremmel and Chris Reilly, who most recently developed The Jesse, a meticulously designed six-room boutique hotel and high-end taqueria and bar on the outskirts of downtown. Stremmel is a Reno native, an artist and entrepreneur who moved away from Reno and traveled the world before returning. Reilly works for Tesla by day. Together, they are carving out a development niche within the city.
“It was not our intention to be developers,” Reilly says. “But we loved the neighborhood—it’s our neighborhood—and we wanted to invest in it too.”
Stremmel sees the different perspectives that each partner brings to the project—she as the boomeranger back to Reno; Hawkins as the neighborhood visionary; and Reilly as the new blood excited by its prospects as a determinant of their combined focus for an equitable, sustained effect.
In turn, Hawkins sees Stremmel and Reilly’s equity approach as more than just a labor of love, but as a mechanism to make the economics behind Midtown Garden Homes work.
“The only reason that Midtown Garden Homes pencils is that the developers can hang onto it for the long term,” Hawkins says. Noting the frontloaded soft costs associated with rezoning concerns, among other development hurdles, Hawkins was strategic in advising the developers to separate the individual parcels that compose the entirety of the project. In the event of liquidity needs, one part of the project could potentially be sold while the other components are maintained.
It’s another way in which sustainability from an economic perspective is built into the design model.
“We all want to make money, but how do we do so responsibly?” Hawkins asks. “How can you increase density with an urban infill project and create a better overall environment at the same time?”
Midtown Garden Homes aims to find out.