The Barber Brief is an independent, free e-newsletter and blog written by Dr. Alicia Barber on the Substack platform. It is reposted by This Is Reno with her permission.
By Alicia Barber
In my past few posts, I’ve been writing about the City’s proposed Development Agreement (DA) with Jacobs Entertainment, which was hastily scheduled for an October 13 City Council meeting, despite the lack of a promised public workshop to discuss its terms in advance, less than a week provided for the public to review it, missing “Exhibits” that were made available only a day prior to the meeting, and—most importantly—the absence of any clear benefit to the City.
The need for a delay to discuss these and other aspects of the agreement was obvious, as I urged in my October 12 Brief and as overwhelming public comment to City Council requested. And yet, despite those issues and concerns—and the Council’s failure to even mention some of the deal’s key components—Mayor Hillary Schieve and Council members Oscar Delgado, Neoma Jardon, Devon Reese and Bonnie Weber voted to approve the draft with minimal changes, sending it to City Manager Doug Thornley to finalize. The basic parameters were covered by the press, and I encourage you to read takes by This is Reno, the Reno Gazette-Journal, News4 and others.
The approval of the agreement was, frankly, shocking. And many of you were shocked, too; I’ve never received so many calls and emails wondering what is going on and what we can do about it. So to begin with, let me say this:
It’s not over yet.
Development Agreements require approval via City ordinance, and Council has scheduled a second reading of this one for their next City Council meeting on Wednesday, October 27 (it’s item F.3 and the staff report is here). If you think the City can do better than this highly disappointing deal, please reach out to City Manager Doug Thornley and our City Council members as soon as possible. Public comment is the easiest way to register your concerns, so please do that (details at the end) and if you can do even more—call your Council member, write something on social media—this would be the time. And just to be perfectly clear: opposing this item would not mean opposing any Development Agreement with Jacobs, or general development of the area where their properties lie; it just registers opposition to this version of a Development Agreement, with the hope that a better one can be negotiated.
Why so urgent? Because in my 20+ years of studying Reno’s development I have never seen such a blatant giveaway of incentives, credits, fee deferrals, regulatory allowances, branding and other rights by the City of Reno to a private entity while in return guaranteeing the City literally nothing that the City isn’t already getting or doesn’t already have, or, moreover, with any clear plan or project for the area in question.
We have repeatedly heard assertions that this agreement will provide the City with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to remake a huge portion of downtown. And yet this agreement contains no descriptions of what kind of development the City wants to see in this massive infill area, what percentage should consist of housing (and what kind and in which area), whether any of it should feature pedestrian-level interest and activity in order to create safe and walkable neighborhoods, what height, size, density and intensity the developments should be, what uses to prioritize along the busy thoroughfare of West 4th Street or near existing residences, how to treat specific historic structures in the delineated area—this agreement contains none of that.
These are all things that Development Agreements can do. And don’t take my word for it; here’s the slide City staff showed Council last summer making that all clear.
None of those measures would prevent Jacobs from selling their parcels to other parties. What they would do is hold Jacobs and others to a set of expectations laid out by the City, in order to qualify for the incentives, fee deferrals and credits they would be receiving. In return, the City would be assured that those benefiting from these valuable incentives would be delivering what the City wants to see in this key area.
Jacobs might not want to agree to any of that, but that arrangement is what makes Development Agreements such a unique “tool in the toolbox”; they’re supposed to reflect a give and take, hammered out through negotiation until both sides come to a final agreement. The City ultimately holds all the cards here, but without putting any of those or similar provisions into place, this DA doesn’t do anything to leverage that power. It literally could not legally have been written to give Jacobs Entertainment much more flexibility in what they will actually do with the 70+ parcels under their control, and the City less of a say in the course and form of that development.