UPDATE (December 12, 2019): The Reno City Council voted yesterday to approve the ordinance change. Councilmembers Jenny Brekus and Naomi Duerr opposed the motion, made by Councilmember Devon Reese, to change the shading ordinance.
Mayor Schieve called the decision incredibly difficult. She cited the need to remove red tape to increase development — housing in particular.
Critics, however, said that rationale translates to removing the public from the process.
More than 200 people wrote and spoke against the ordinance change.
A high-rise project on the Truckee River downtown is drawing opposition before plans for the development have been provided to the city. Critics say a change to a city ordinance regarding the shading at public parks and plazas would reduce opportunity for public input on a 20-story hotel and office building across from Wingfield Park.
The Reno City Council is taking up the matter at tomorrow’s council meeting. The change proposed by the city would remove language that requires “approval of a special use permit” for projects that may impact shade at city parks and plazas.
Currently the project would have to go through a special use permit process, which would have to be approved by the city’s planning commission. It could then be appealed to the Reno City Council.
The city’s proposed change would eliminate that process.
“This is going to be the first ground-up, non-gaming, non-smoking, upper upscale hotel ever built in Northern Nevada.”
City officials denied that there was a correlation between this ordinance and the proposed hotel project by Las Vegas developer CAI Investments. The ordinance change, in fact, would impact all downtown Reno properties.
“There is no specific project that has been submitted to the City of Reno,” said Angela Fuss, city planning manager. “One of the, kind of, the impetus for this, among other reasons, was the desire for more housing, the desire for more infill-type development and not sprawl.”
But the developer wants the ordinance changed now. The project hinges upon a deadline for Opportunity Zone benefits.
The project is listed as one of the city’s 1,000 homes in 120 days projects. Mayor Hillary Schieve is promoting the campaign to eliminate up-front development fees. The goal: to stimulate building new residential units in the city’s designated Opportunity Zones. Once built, developers would then pay the fees.
City documents show that the downtown parcel is included in the first list of projects submitted as part of that campaign. Though originally billed as a hotel, the city shows the project having an estimated 46 units.
The church’s opposition
The property is a vacant lot adjacent to the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Church on Island Avenue. A 20-story building, on a 1.3-acre lot, would be one of the tallest built in Reno since the 1990s.
Its height drew concerns for those opposed to the project in its currently discussed form.
“We hope that the special-use process stays in place,” said Lynne Charlat of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Church.
Shade from the development would impact the temperature of the church’s sidewalks, causing them to freeze in the winter, she explained. Parking problems would increase.
“We are not against the development; we are against the density of the development being proposed,” she added.
Charlat said that the hotel project would impact the church at a cost of up to $250,000. She said the church would need new heated sidewalks.
Others in opposition said the building’s size would negatively impact the river’s ecosystem.
CAI Investments revealed plans for the project in September. It closed on the property in late November.
“This is going to be the first ground-up non-gaming, non-smoking, upper upscale hotel ever built in Northern Nevada,” said CAI Investments CEO Chris Beavor.
Attorney Garrett Gordon argued to the City Council in favor of the project on behalf of the developer.
“We have to raise that capital, and deploy that capital, by the end of this year,” he said. “It’s a federal … IRS regulation.”
CAI applied for a variance to the city but removed the application after the “1,000 Homes” campaign was announced.
“[The ordinance] is for parks and plazas, it’s not for churches,” he explained. “Let’s do a narrow amendment to allow for the density of development in downtown.
“When council initiated the text amendment with changes from staff without the use permit, we withdrew our variance application, and we kind of sat back and watched this process play out when it met all your criteria.”
Gordon said that he met with the church to mitigate some of the project’s impacts. The developer committed $200,000 to help. He said the church then upped the amount they needed $350,000.
“We’ll be a good neighbor, and despite the opposition … we’ll still write a check for $200,000,” he said. “We’ll still give them 50 free parking spaces. Let’s do this project.”
Mixed reactions on council
Mayor Schieve expressed support for the high-rise.
“A lot of what we’ve talked about is that infill downtown and how do we make that happen,” she said, citing the need for “building up, not out. That was the intent of the initiative. It was all types of housing.”
Councilmember Jenny Brekhus opposed the ordinance change at the city’s Dec. 4, 2019 meeting.
“When this first came forward, it was explained as broad public policy setting,” she told This Is Reno. “As we got further in, it’s the changing of a longstanding ordinance for one massive development project.
“That always raises flags in terms priorities,” she added. “If this is not about one project, it sounds more and more that it is. The conversation started with this project’s representative about this ordinance change when we have a whole bunch more lined up to do.”
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Bob Conrad is publisher, editor, and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011, where he completed a dissertation on social media, journalism and crisis communications. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time research appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.