Mike Higdon / The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP
Monday, Jan. 23, 2017 | 2 a.m.
On Dec. 22, Roberta Ross sold a big piece of her life. For 31 years, Ross worked at and then later owned one of the oldest apartment buildings in downtown Reno, the iconic Ross Manor at West and First streets.
In that time, she transformed the 109-year-old building from a slum to a livable home while also influencing downtown's revival.
"Out of 17 public toilets, one of them flushed," said Ross, who turned 60 this year, about the condition of the building when her family took it over. "I took the Ross Manor from (that) to a place for students, relocating professionals, retirees and a multitude of mixed personalities."
The building violated 102 fire codes when Ross and her aunts took it over for a second time in 1985, she said. Ross remembers the toilet and shower water drained into the hallways and then disappeared somewhere into the building. The boiler didn't work in the winter, either, reported the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Val Zakarin moved into Ross Manor 41 years ago and said he remembers how bad it was in those days, too.
Roberta's aunts Anna and Ethel Ross spent more than $1 million (in today's money) to clean it up. Roberta was the engineer and spent 80 hours a week trying to keep up with repairs, she said.
"I came for three months and stayed for three years," she said. "It was a lot of work but it was fun and I loved it."
Ross worked in California for a few years, but still kept tabs on the apartment. In 1994, she returned to work there full time. By 2001, she owned it outright.
Ross sold the building to 22 people and family trusts for $7.3 million in a tenants in common agreement, according to Washoe County records. A tenants in common is a type of simultaneous ownership that gives each listed owner a percentage of the property and is often used to give investors partial shares. These owners can sell their share of the property but not the entire building.
None of the tenants in common are current residents.
Eduardo Cerna, one of the primary partial owners, could not be reached for comment on the sale. Cerna is senior vice president of investments at the Cerna Group of Marcus and Millichap in California. His group specializes in multifamily property transactions.
Ross said the buyers plan to return Ross Manor to its historical roots. It was originally named Colonial Apartments and had 48 one-bedroom apartments. The Rosses converted those into 162 studios.
Zakarin said he loved what Ross did to the apartment and will miss her.
When Ross realized she would be leaving behind her employees, 162 residents and two businesses — Derby Supply Co. and Crafted Palette — she started to cry. She said she was overwhelmed by the speed of the transition to the new owners since she would not be able to say proper goodbyes to her residents.
"I ran the building with love and a heavy hand because I'm pretty strict," she said. "And the residents are scared it might go back to people who might run it the way it used to be run."
Zakarin is the longest-residing tenant of the building and has seen it change owners several times. He said he is also concerned about the future.
"I have really bad memories of the (owners) from Berkeley," he said. "Everyone wants to see what these new owners will bring."
Stand in downtown Reno and you will see something of Ross's touch.
The landscaped median on West Street with shovel sculptures was her idea. She supported the construction of the downtown movie theater plaza, The Montage and the Riverwalk Towers. She supported the homeless shelter, the train trench cover and the Truckee River Whitewater Park in Wingfield Park.
"You can see her influence all over downtown," said former Mayor Bob Cashell. "She worked with a lot of crews and people to make things happen. Candy cane lights, getting rid of the pavers in downtown. She just did a lot of things very quietly and never looked for accolades."
While she managed the apartments, Ross also led the Reno Alliance for Downtown and the Redevelopment Agency Advisory Board. She helped gather support and momentum for the new Virginia Street Bridge almost 20 years ago. She said she is most proud of the bridge and pushing Washoe County to spend money on improving the Truckee River.
"It's not just years, it's been decades of her paying attention and being an active proponent to make downtown better," said Dick Bartholet, a former Redevelopment Advisory Board president and proponent for downtown development.
Ross helped push the Reno Police Department to pay attention to certain problems, too, Bartholet said.
"She would get in her car and drive around at two or three in the morning and either report to the mayor or the police department about what they should look out for because that's what she saw going on," he said.
When the Comstock Hotel and Casino first turned into a weekly motel, Bartholet said it was plagued with prostitution and drug trafficking. Ross worked with the neighborhood and RPD to address the issues and then supported the new developers who converted it into the current Riverwalk Tower condominiums.
Through tears, Ross said she was incredibly proud of the relationship she built with police and fire over the years, because they helped her return order to the neighborhood.
"She is really somebody you can depend on," Cashell said. "She'd go out and do the leg work and get a consensus."
She was best at building consensus in the community and presenting a solid plan to Reno City Council in order to prevent in-fighting, he said.
Though she prefers not to consider herself retiring, she said she will not be running a business in the foreseeable future. Instead, she'll start sailing on Lake Tahoe again, driving cattle across Nevada for the first time and traveling to Nepal to climb mountains.
Bartholet and Cashell don't believe she will stay retired very long though.
"She's a smart young lady," Cashell said. "I'm happy for her but she's too young for retirement."