Nature's Redevelopment

Within minutes of arriving at the National League of Cities conference in Reno last week, I was out the door on a bus tour of ...
by | December 11, 2006

Sparks1_1 Within minutes of arriving at the National League of Cities conference in Reno last week, I was out the door on a bus tour of the most unusual redevelopment project I've ever seen.

The project is in the neighboring city of Sparks. What they've done is taken a deep gravel mining pit, and filled it with water. The resulting lake is not only a nice recreation spot, with beaches, boat slips and a jogging trail that bustles on warm days; it's also the amenity around which Sparks is developing hundreds of units of housing, restaurants, shopping, a casino and a AAA baseball stadium.

And here's the kicker: it all started with a natural disaster. For years, the gravel pit was nothing more than a 100-foot hole in the ground; active mining had stopped in the late 1980s and the city took control of it in a bankruptcy proceeding in 1992. Then in 1997 a flood of Biblical proportions came. In an effort to save homes from rising waters, city officials diverted water into the hole, filling it halfway to the brim with a half a billion gallons of water.

Another photo after the jump.

Sparks2 As City Manager Shaun Carey told the story, the new Sparks was forged out of a freakish series of weather events. First, a winter storm dumped eight feet of heavy wet snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which loom high over the metro area to the west. Then came warm heavy rains, a "Pineapple Express" from Hawaii, sending snowmelt and runoff down the overflowing Truckee River into Reno and Sparks.

The floods did $240 billion worth of damage. Inadvertantly, the city's decision to channel water into the gravel pit caused a small piece of that. With the water rushing in over loose soil, the walls of the hole caved in, widening the pit substantially and taking out a piece of nearby Interstate 80. "We saved some homes," Carey said. "We think we did the right thing, but we know we created a bigger hole."

Rather than pump the water out, Sparks decided to fill up the pit all the way and turn the surrounding area into a park. Even on a brisk weekday like yesterday, there were people out walking and rollerblading on the 2 mile trail that goes around the lake. Carey said that on summer days, the beaches are slammed. "In the desert," he said, "when you get an opportunity to create a lake, that's a pretty special thing."

Now Sparks is creating more. Living next to the gravel pit-turned lake has become a hot thing. Some 240 apartment units are already built, and more condos are on the way. In a reception at The Jib, a lakeside cafe, Deputy City Manager Randy Mellinger showed off plans for Legends at Sparks Marina, the massive retail/entertainment complex he's working on bringing to the lakeside.

All in all, it's one of the most unusual and interesting economic development stories I've ever heard. As Carey noted, much of the concrete and mortar that built the bridges, roads and buildings of the Reno area originated in the old Sparks gravel pit. Now, the pit is providing a very different kind of economic boost to the area.