By Wally Auerbach, Judy Friedman, Roger Kahn, Walt Kass, Douglas Dale, Greg Mickiewicz, and Ron Parson

North Lake Tahoe is in trouble. Look around. Over the past 40 years, very little redevelopment has taken place in the Tahoe City and Kings Beach town centers (or anywhere else) except for sidewalks, roads, and public spaces. These have developed around commercial properties that look the same as they did 40 years ago. The buildings that define our community character are falling apart. Are boarded-up buildings and vacant, weed-filled lots the look of a healthy community?

Yet, there is a loud and angry subset of our population that feels, despite the evidence, that there is too much development in North Tahoe. The end is near, they say, because developers want to redevelop their blighted properties. They argue for more restrictions to clamp down on “overdevelopment.” Successful projects will bring tourists and traffic, which is bad, and must be stopped.

Our community thrived in the three decades after the 1960 Winter Olympics. It was vibrant. We had nightlife, young families, robust service organizations, growing school enrollment, and most other elements of a functioning community.

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Where did the locals and visitors play and stay back then? Smiths North Shore Club and the Nevada Lodge were two casino hotels with restaurants and music venues. It’s now the site of the Boulder Bay project that the “too much development” folks would have you believe will create all kinds of new environmental impacts, which is only a palatable position if you ignore what was there for generations. The Cal-Neva is another project that is set for a makeover. It’s been closed for 10 years, but the hyperbolic opposition says redeveloping it into a thriving business again is a new, unmitigated impact that will destroy the lake. What about Ferrari’s Crown Motel and the boarded-up Falcon Lodge? Remember the families that came there for generations to stay and enjoy the beach? Gone. There is a project planned to redevelop it, but that is also just too much.

Kings Beach had a movie theater. Tahoe City had a steakhouse that was popular across the country. Tahoma’s Norfolk Woods Inn sits derelict along with a half dozen other properties held by a single owner. Black Bear Tavern near Sunnyside — gone. Almost 500 hotel rooms in the region have been shuttered since 1980, according to the North Tahoe Community Alliance.

During those heydays, tourists fed the economy and kept residents employed. Slower tourism in winter was replaced by full-time residents who gladly showed up to support local business. Was traffic bad then? No. It was worse. The traffic coming into Tahoe City after a weekend ski day was the same as the traffic going out to Truckee now. Backups from the wye in Tahoe City regularly ran up to Dollar Hill and down to Sunnyside. The horrible traffic jams that plaster the Nextdoor and Facebook feeds of those who are shocked at how we have allowed the tourists to spoil our lake are just a different version of what used to be. Don’t believe it? Tahoe City had six gas stations to serve those air-polluting Buick Electras and Vista Cruisers.

So what happened? In the early ’80s, the total development potential in the Tahoe Basin was cut significantly by regulations imposed by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. Government buyouts eliminated development on hundreds of lots. There has not been a new subdivision in Tahoe since the ’70s. There hasn’t been a new hotel built on the North Shore in over 40 years. You see, TRPA regulations say almost nothing new can be created unless something else is demolished. That, combined with the normal risks of real estate investing, was so expensive that nothing happened at all.

Once those regulations came along, everything slowed down. Contractors left, service providers and professionals left, retailers left, all moving to where they could earn a living. Some went to Truckee, which grew and thrived as a town. Combine that with the generation who came here after the Olympics, bought homes, started businesses, retired, then moved off the hill. Our resident population peaked around 2002 and has been in decline since. School enrollment is well below peak levels. Service organizations shrank. Young families disappeared. In 1990, 30% of Tahoe residents were over 55. Today it’s over 50%. Restaurateurs will tell you that these days, they have to kill it in the summer to survive the winter. The locals aren’t there to support them any longer.

In 2017, realizing that private redevelopment was necessary to achieve environmental goals, TRPA partnered with the League to Save Lake Tahoe, local governments, and community members to write the Tahoe Basin Area Plans. These plans were intended to create incentives to improve our built environment. But despite millions invested in public parks, trails, road and drainage projects, nothing significant has happened on the private side. If investments don’t pencil, property owners won’t do it without lots of free cash. That’s why the only changes we see are mega mansions replacing older homes, and the only commercial that consistently thrives is real estate offices. Otherwise, nobody invests unreasonable sums into business property without expectation of a reasonable return. So, our built environment is slowly falling apart.

The recent area plan amendments proposed by Placer County and TRPA are such a subtle tweak to the already oppressive rules that it’s hard to see how they make redevelopment more affordable or feasible. This virtually guarantees that very little will happen, again. And any meaningful project that makes it to the application phase will be stuck for years in environmental review, and then years in litigation before anything is built. By then, it will be too expensive to build, anyway.

It took TRPA and the league 40 years to acknowledge that their rules were killing the communities that protect the lake, and that protecting the lake cannot mean doing nothing. We need new housing across the income spectrum that people can rent or purchase so they can grow their families and support the local economy. We need redevelopment to restore the vitality of our commercial cores. We need visitors who come here to enjoy the same values that brought us all here, and to help protect Lake Tahoe, not trash it. We can do all these things if we embrace change instead of fighting it.

We aren’t advocating for a return to the ’70s, or even growth in the sense that may have inspired the headline of this column. What we do need is change. Because after 40 years without it? Just look around.

~ Roger Kahn is a 63-year resident of Tahoe City. His family owned Porter’s Ski & Sport for over 40 years; Judy Friedman is a 50-year Tahoe City resident, Tahoe City Public Utility District board member, and community volunteer. She owns the Paper Clip in Tahoe City; Douglas Dale, chef/owner of Wolfdale’s Restaurant, has lived in Tahoe City since 1978; Walt Kass has had a family home in Olympic Valley since 1958, and has been a business owner in Tahoe City since 1973; Greg Mickiewicz is a 20-year resident and business owner, raising a family in Tahoe City; Ron Parson is a lifelong resident and owner/operator of Granlibakken Management Company. Wally Auerbach is a 45-year resident of the North Shore and owner of Auerbach Engineering.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. “When You Stop Growing, You Start Dying” by Wally Auerbach, et. al, makes accusations and statements which many of us feel are not accurate or supported with enough information.

    As one of the “loud and angry subset”, I feel that we have been misrepresented in this rather aggressive piece which provides no substantial evidence that higher and denser construction with reduced setbacks and no parking requirements will fix Tahoe’s woes.

    As a concerned individual, I and others feel that the approach is lacking any consideration for existing residents’ health, safety and welfare. It would seem that allowing smaller lots with greater coverage and reduced setbacks will only result in a higher number of larger homes on smaller lots with no room to park. Reducing allowed coverage would put physical constraints on what can be built resulting in smaller homes with room for parking; a win:win. By passing the baton to developers with no controls set in place to ensure that affordable and workforce housing is even built, you can be assured that profits, not community, come first.

    There have been no upgrades to roadways entering and exiting Tahoe to achieve safer fire evacuation plans. No discussions of increased taxes to pay for ladder trucks to accommodate the new 65ft heights. No discussion of costs to upgrade sewer and water. No explanation of how residents already dealing with horrific traffic and no parking will benefit.

    If Tahoe is indeed 50%+ over 55, exactly how will building mega hotels provide for the needed staff for food service, hospitality and other low wage jobs? This seems to be a field of dreams approach, “Build it and they will come”!

    Exactly to what will they come? Understaffed hotels, restaurants and stores, no where to park and a lake that is slowly filling with trash.

    It would seem far more prudent to declare a moratorium on building until plans are in place to jointly work with the county in redeveloping some of the mentioned eyesores into achievable condos and apartments. Use State funding or portions of the county revenues to subsidize demolition so as to offset the costs, consider mixed use development with commercial below and 2 stories of living above. Move into the 21st century and build smarter not just higher and denser.

    Accusations have been repeatedly made that “we don’t understand”. So, please show us in a manner easily understood by our “loud and angry subset”, how young families will be able to buy homes and low wage earners will be able to live by building bigger and taller hotels.

    Tahoe is a treasure, please keep it that way.

    Sometimes less is more.

    Larissa Berry
    A community Advocate

  2. I’m not so sure about the accuracy of this statement and would love for it to be clarified. My son is a sophomore at North Tahoe High and we were told it’s the largest class to ever come through.

    “Our resident population peaked around 2002 and has been in decline since. School enrollment is well below peak levels.”