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Don’t confuse special interests with the public interest (opinion)


Submitted by Alicia Barber

In the face of yet another attack on Reno City Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus from a local real estate developer (Raydon, 10/27), I’d like to offer a bit of perspective as a person who has studied Reno’s urban development for 20 years. I don’t live in Ward One, which is Jenny Brekhus’s ward, but I appreciate her presence on the Council for a number of reasons, including our shared interest in transparency, deliberation and equity in urban development.

There is a powerful constituency in Reno—well-funded and employing a cadre of lobbyists and PR professionals—that is constantly urging City Council to “streamline” or “simplify” development by removing perceived “obstacles” to construction. This is the language employed by Jenny’s challenger and a likely reason why so many moneyed developers and their associates are backing his campaign.

These developers (who obviously don’t represent all developers) and their representatives consistently urge City Council to accomplish this “streamlining” by taking actions that will directly benefit them and their projects—things like abandoning (privatizing) public streets and spaces, letting developers purchase or option city-owned parcels without offering them to the general public first, or allowing developers to defer millions in dollars of fees that are needed to ensure the upkeep of critical city infrastructure (i.e. the sewer fund).

The Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Church on Island Avenue is opposed to a luxury high-rise proposed to be constructed next door that will impact the amount of shade in the area.
Image: Bob Conrad.

In terms of recent city policies, this has also translated into actions like removing from the City’s land ordinance the kinds of public processes, special use permits, and design review committees that ensure transparency, proper evaluation of resources, and excellence in design (the shade ordinance and skyway ordinance text amendments, for example), despite overwhelming opposition from the public.

It has meant relying on the word of developers, not preservation experts—or at least equally considering both—to determine when a building is capable of renovation, as with the demolition of mid-century motels, for instance, often with city assistance or blessing, leaving in their place vacant lots that benefit no one.

It has sometimes meant failing to consult the city’s own expertly-constituted Historical Resources Commission when considering changes in use, modifications, or leasing of historic properties either owned by the city or listed on the city’s historic register (like the historic Railroad Depot and the Lear Theater).

What some of these developers, builders, contractors, and their associates seem to consider “obstacles” are what others see as safeguards ensuring quality, equity, accountability and transparency. It isn’t anti-development, anti-housing or anti-progress to want to preserve these safeguards and processes—it’s keeping an eye on the bigger picture and ensuring that the public is both aware of, and consents to, actions that are supposedly being made on their behalf by their elected representatives.

Jenny Brekhus, who is an urban planner by profession, consistently votes to retain those safeguards and processes, which does often mean “pushing back” against those who want to remove them. Because these powerful entities often succeed in getting their agendas on the table, any opposition to them can be framed as “just being negative.”


But as in most things (especially politics) it’s critical to be informed about the larger power dynamics at play in order to understand precisely who—and what—our Council members (and their challengers) are fighting for.

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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