By John Seelmeyer
Reno City Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus thinks it’s time for opponents of plans to raze 10 old homes at the south edge of the University of Nevada, Reno campus to take their battle to state officials.
University President Marc Johnson, meanwhile, wonders where the opponents have been for more than three years while the university worked with state and city officials, as well as advocates of historic preservation and other nonprofits, to develop its plans for the area.
In a nutshell, here’s how the controversy unfolded in the past couple of weeks:
- Johnson announced in the first days of November that the university will move forward with demolition of 10 historic homes in the “Gateway District.” That’s an area between campus and Interstate 80 that’s targeted for expansion of UNR.
- The key part of Johnson’s announcement: A deal struck by the university with Common Ground Urban Development and Burning Man to move the houses to other locations had fallen through, apparently because the nonprofits couldn’t come up with the money and needed more time to get their plans in place. (Plans with other groups to relocate another two of the homes are moving ahead.)
- Brekhus hustled up to campus and strongly voiced her opposition to the demolition during a meeting with Johnson and Heidi Gansert, UNR’s executive director of external relations. She argued preservation of the buildings helps create good urban design and called for the university to put more muscle into bringing new life into Reno’s downtown.
Then, just to make sure her message didn’t get lost, Brekhus detailed her thoughts in a 1,200-word Facebook post.
The council member, who previously worked as a land-use planner, said demolition of the houses represents bad urban design.
“The UNR quad area will be an artifact within a sprawling campus lacking in context,” she said. “Additionally, the buildings to be razed have architectural value that can never be replicated or should be.”
A few days after her Facebook post, Brekhus pointed to the Berkeley campus of the University of California, which has successfully integrated numerous historic homes around the campus and put them to new uses.
Johnson said the university already has made a strong commitment to preservation of the historic south side of the campus.
“The university has invested $26 million for the renovation of several historic campus buildings; $8.5 million alone was allocated for Lincoln Hall,” he noted in a statement to ThisisReno. “The Quad, Manzanita Lake and 13 buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.”
Brekhus also contended in her Facebook post that the university needs to play a larger role in jump-starting the redevelopment of Reno’s downtown.
“The city has made sizable infrastructure investments in the UNR area since I have been on the Council, but UNR has not stepped up to helping us with our struggles,” she wrote.
That complaint drew a raised eyebrow from Johnson.
The entire plan for the Gateway District, he said, was developed as the result of requests by the city government for the campus to grow south toward downtown, rather than to the east.
The university has been working closely with the city government since 2014 to develop its plans for the area, Johnson said, and UNR has been careful to involve a wide range of interested residents and nonprofits — including historic preservation organizations.
“The university has worked in good faith as a community partner during its planning process and has invested millions of dollars to acquire properties in the Gateway area to accommodate expansion of university missions while creating a better and stronger connection to downtown Reno,” Jonson explained.
The plans were approved by the City Council in April 2016 in a unanimous vote that included Brekhus. Even at that meeting, however, preservation groups expressed concern about loss of the historic homes.
Now, Johnson said, the university finds itself balancing the demands of a fast-growing campus, the need to act wisely with taxpayers’ money and the desire to protect the area’s historic heritage.
“(The university) concluded the cost to relocate and renovate the houses far surpassed the public resources available,” he said. “ As stewards of taxpayer money, the university cannot justify funding their relocation and renovation.”
Brekhus, meanwhile, hopes that community advocates will take the issue to the next session of the Nevada Legislature as well as the Board of Regents of the Nevada System of Higher Education, which oversee UNR.
John Seelmeyer is a business writer and editor in Reno. In his 40-year career, he has edited publications in Nevada, Colorado and California and written several thousand published articles about business and finance.