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City Council should not eliminate expert review of proposed UNR Skyway (opinion)


Submitted by Alicia Barber

When it comes to evaluating the wide array of issues that concern Reno’s residents, the Reno City Council has a major asset: the expertise and experience of the hundreds of citizens who serve on its advisory commissions, boards, and committees.

These volunteers perform an invaluable service, offering free of charge expertise that generally is not held by the Council members or, often, by anyone on City of Reno staff. Their advice almost always comes in the form of recommendations, on matters where Council has the final word. The close and thorough review of policies and actions by these citizens serves a dual function: it involves the public in the work of the City; and it helps to ensure that City Council is making the most informed decisions possible.

So, when members of City Council go out of their way to permanently alter a city law in order to avoid receiving recommendations from one of its expert committees, we should all take notice.

That’s exactly what the Reno City Council is slated to do on Aug. 12 when it will not only vote on whether to permanently alter a section of city code to eliminate expert review, but also vote on whether to approve a specific project that would have required that very review.

The project in question is already highly problematic: a pedestrian skyway that would connect the University of Nevada, Reno main campus to the newly cleared area downhill from the main campus known as the Gateway. Much longer than a typical pedestrian overpass, the skyway would attach to a new seven-story parking garage to be built on the south side of East Ninth Street, cross two lanes of traffic, and then continue north and northeast for more than 200 feet over the hill leading up to Morrill Hall.

The pristine greenbelt this skyway would bisect is part of the University’s designated State Arboretum, and an area that the UNR Campus Master Plan, which was approved in 2014, indicated would be left untouched.

A rendering of UNR's proposed skyway from the planned Gateway Parking Structure, as viewed from Center Street.
A rendering of UNR’s proposed skyway from the planned Gateway Parking Structure, as viewed from Center Street.

The skyway requires Reno City Council approval because it would be constructed over a city street—essentially, in public space. Fortunately, under current city code, all such skyways require review by a unique five-person Design Review Committee to be formed of individuals recommended by local chapters of the professional associations for architecture, landscape architecture, and planning; the Reno Planning Commission; and the Redevelopment Agency’s Citizens Advisory Committee.  

In the words of the city code, “The design review committee (D.R.C.) will review skyway plans to ensure a public perspective is provided related to conformance with the intent of the skyway design guidelines.” Those guidelines are technically complex, and the intent is for the D.R.C. to examine the plans and drawings for any skyway far in advance of any vote by the Planning Commission or City Council, discuss them with the applicant, and recommend any changes or alterations. The D.R.C. has no power to approve or deny a project, only to evaluate it and make suggestions for how it might be improved.

UNR applied for the special use permit this skyway needs to obtain from the City of Reno back in February of 2020. Soon after that, City staff discovered the requirement of D.R.C. review and, it appears, briefly considered how they might take steps to convene that committee.

Then, out of the blue, Ward 5 Councilmember Neoma Jardon introduced an agenda item not to convene the Design Review Committee, but to eliminate it.

That suggestion received significant community pushback from concerned residents and organizations including the Reno Planning Commission and the very professional design organizations mentioned in the city code. So in a subsequent meeting, a slim 4-3 City Council majority voted to scrap that plan in favor of a code amendment that carved out an exemption from D.R.C. evaluation for skyways conveniently meeting the exact specifications of the one proposed by UNR.

And that’s what City Council is scheduled to consider on Aug. 12 in two separate votes: to remove the requirement to convene the D.R.C. for skyways like UNRs (item F.7); and to approve the UNR skyway, without the benefit of those expert recommendations (item C.4).

This would be a huge mistake, not just because this particular skyway is one that the City of Reno needs to devote all available resources to evaluating responsibly, but because that change to city code wouldn’t apply only to the UNR skyway but to any skyway of a similar size outside of the downtown area.

The professional associations of architects and landscape architects and the Reno Planning Commission have said they are willing and ready to send representatives to serve on this committee, which could quickly be convened and set to work. Without all of the City Council’s extraordinary efforts to change a city law in order to prevent it from assembling, the committee’s discussions and evaluation would likely have been completed by now, and UNR’s proposed skyway would have received the public and professional vetting such a consequential project demands.

And yet, so far, four City Council members—Neoma Jardon, Devon Reese, Bonnie Weber and Oscar Delgado—seem to think they don’t need those expert recommendations, and don’t want them.

Subjecting the proposed UNR skyway to the evaluation of a professional Design Review Committee would not make the City of Reno a bad university partner, but a better one, demonstrating a desire to work together to achieve the best possible outcome. It would also demonstrate to the people of Reno that their City Council values the expertise its community can provide, respects the efforts of previous City Councils and stakeholders to set responsible procedures in place, and believes that welcoming formal public and professional input into its decision-making process is not an onerous burden but one of its most valuable, most essential obligations.

Alicia Barber, PhD, is a professional historian and consultant and the author of “Reno’s Big Gamble: Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City.

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