Don’t Permanently Alter Reno City Code to Exempt the UNR Skyway from Design Review

August 9, 2020UPDATE AND ALERT – On August 12, 2020 the Reno City Council is scheduled to cast the final vote that would permanently alter the city code regarding skyways, specifically to allow the plans and drawings for a skyway proposed by the University of Nevada, Reno to avoid being reviewed by a committee of design professionals and Reno citizens.

In the same meeting they are scheduled to vote on whether or not to approve the Special Use Permit for that skyway, which would extend from a new seven-story parking garage on Lake & Center Streets over two lanes of traffic on Ninth Street and then continue for another 200+ feet into the greenbelt separating Ninth Street from Morrill Hall.

On July 22, 2020, the Reno City Council voted 4-3 to approve the first reading of the text amendment, which was written specifically to apply to UNR’s skyway by exempting from the recommendations of a Design Review Committee any skyway with a maximum dimension of 12 feet wide by 15 feet high located outside of downtown and spanning no more than two public travel lanes.

The agenda and agenda packet for the August 12th meeting can be found here. The Special Use Permit for the UNR Skyway is item C.4 and the second reading for the Text Amendment to allow UNR to avoid having that skyway reviewed by a City-appointed Design Review Committee is item F.7.

[For reference, the agenda and agenda packet for the July 22nd meeting can be found here.]

This exemption was first introduced in the Council’s June 10th meeting and supported by four out of seven council members—Neoma Jardon, Bonnie Weber, Devon Reese, and Oscar Delgado. Those same four Councilmembers voted to approve that amendment in its first reading on July 22nd. Their contact info can be found here.

This slide appeared in the staff presentation for item E.2 at the June 10th Reno City Council meeting, suggesting an exemption to the DRC requirement for skyways meeting the specifications of UNR’s proposed skyway.

With its meticulously defined dimensions that conveniently apply to the UNR skyway, this exemption to city code would be not only inappropriate, but completely unnecessary. There is absolutely nothing in the current Skyway Ordinance or in the Design Review Committee’s guidelines that would prevent the construction of UNR’s proposed skyway, or any skyway like it.

So why would City Council vote to create an exemption from DRC review for skyways like UNR’s?

The answer appears to be because these council members, supported by Heidi Gansert, UNR’s Executive Director of External Relations, don’t think the UNR skyway should have to be reviewed by a Design Review Committee.

Why, you may ask? Could review by the DRC potentially prevent UNR from erecting its skyway over 9th Street? Nope. The Design Review Committee isn’t a regulatory body. It is composed of design review professionals appointed by the City who are to be convened to review each new skyway proposal. Their job is to provide constructive professional input on behalf of the City of Reno about a structure to be permanently erected above the public right-of-way. That’s it. (If you’d like more explanation of the function and intent of the DRC, see my previous post from when City Council was considering eliminating it altogether.)

Description of the Design Review Committee whose review of all proposed skywalks is mandated in Reno City Code, as presented by City staff in the June 10, 2020 City Council meeting.

UNR’s Heidi Gansert does not want UNR’s skyway to be subject to that particular requirement. In fact, she doesn’t even call UNR’s project a skyway, preferring the term “ADA-compliant pedestrian bridge.”

Well, you might say, maybe UNR’s “ADA-compliant pedestrian bridge” isn’t the kind of overpass that the City was worried about when it created the Skyways Ordinance and Design Review Committee in the first place. After all, weren’t those created after objections to the erection of the enormous downtown skyways like those at the Silver Legacy and Cal-Neva in the 1990s?

Yes, they were. But what those examples clearly demonstrated to City Council and the community was the need for the City to have more oversight over any structure being permanently erected above the public right-of-way.  Skyways like those constructed by casinos to house restaurants, shops, gaming, or other uses are just one type of skyway that the code governs. Those are called “skybuildings” and defined in the code as “an elevated, occupiable structure, located over a right of way, used for occupancies that are not considered hazardous” (Section 18.24.203.4660).  However, that’s not all the code is intended to govern. It also applies to sky trams, like that at Circus Circus, which are described as “an automated conveyance associated with an elevated structure, located over a right of way” (Section 18.24.203.4670).

But the default definition of a skyway in Reno city code is simply this: “a walkway, in an elevated structure, used exclusively for pedestrian traffic that passes over a right-of-way.” (Section 18.24.203.4680)

That describes UNR’s proposed skyway so perfectly that it’s as though the code was written to apply to something just like it. Because it was.

The UNR skyway is not a “unique” type of skyway, as Councilmember Jardon repeatedly argued in the June 10th meeting; it is in fact a textbook example of one. If any City Councilmembers did not realize that—which is, I think, what has happened here—I hope they will refer to the ordinance itself (Section 18.12, Article XX), where skyways like this one are expressly included.

So if the UNR skyway is actually not out of step with the existing code, but in fact meets its definition precisely, then what other reason could be given to change that code permanently in order to treat skyways like it differently? Perhaps there is some other unique aspect of the UNR skyway that should make it exempt from DRC review?

Heidi Gansert herself laid out the reasons that she considered the UNR skyway to be uniquely worthy of an exemption to the code requirements at the June 10th City Council meeting. That’s when City Council was set to consider whether or not to completely eliminate the Design Review Committee from the city’s Skyways Ordinance.

In her public comment (accompanied by a powerpoint presentation), Gansert focused not on the proposed text amendment, but solely on why the UNR skyway should be exempt from DRC review. In the process, however, all she ended up showing was that UNR’s proposed skyway is in fact completely typical of any other skyway to which the code applies.

Included in Heidi Gansert’s public comment about UNR’s proposed skyway was this image showing its extension from the future parking garage, across E. 9th Street, and over the greenbelt on the south end of the main UNR campus.

First, she said, UNR really needs its skyway to be approved by the City, in order to meet its construction schedule for its planned new parking garage. That’s certainly not unique. Every applicant for a special use or building permit wants to begin construction, which is a complicated process involving various levels of review and oversight. If every expression of urgency from an applicant warranted creating a permanent change to city code, we’d have no codes left.

Second, Gansert argued, the UNR skyway is “very well done,” citing its use of the traditional campus combination of brick and white stone. Again, such confidence is not unique. Every applicant undoubtedly believes the design of his or her project to be well done; the designers of the Silver Legacy’s massive skybuildings no doubt considered them to be well done. However, review by the DRC is intended to allow design professionals acting on the City’s behalf to evaluate that design with the interests of the City and the public, not just those of the applicant, in mind.

Third, as Gansert emphasized repeatedly, UNR needs this skyway in order to provide ADA access to the Gateway. That’s also not unique. All skyways have to be ADA accessible if they’re open to the public, and there is nothing in the Skyways Ordinance that would prevent UNR from constructing an ADA-accessible skyway connecting new Gateway construction to the main campus. It would in fact be more unusual if the UNR skyway did not require some degree of ADA accessibility.

Fourth, Gansert argued that images of UNR’s proposed skyway have been shown in four different public presentations since last November, implying that the amount of public awareness of this particular skyway, when including future presentations, surely provides enough opportunity for input from any design professionals interested in weighing in. That might be true under normal circumstances, but skyways were set aside in city code as requiring a level, quality, and structure of professional, collaborative review specifically because they are constructed above the public right of way.

So if these concerns and factors are all typical of any skyways that might come along, what argument is being made for why the City should forgo having a committee of design professionals provide it with input on skyways like this one? Is it because skyways outside of the downtown area don’t matter as much? Because they don’t need to be as sensitive to the surrounding environment? Because smaller skyways over fewer lanes are less likely to be poorly designed than larger and longer ones?

No. None of those things are true. In fact, the existing code deliberately makes no exemption from the DRC for skyways of any size or location (as long as they’re in permitted areas) because the need for design review by a City-appointed committee of professionals was rightfully and deliberately deemed to be mandatory and beneficial for all.

What is troubling is that four out of seven City Council members seem at this point to believe otherwise, even though creating this exemption would be against the City’s own best interests. (A quick thanks here to the three City Councilmembers who voted against the exemption: Jenny Brekhus, Naomi Duerr, and Mayor Hillary Schieve.)

UNR’s proposed skyway is not a “special case” that warrants less design scrutiny than others. It is, on the contrary, a typically problematic one from both a landscape and architectural perspective, warranting close examination from the very type of professional design team that the Design Review Committee would comprise.

If City staff had dedicated its efforts toward clarifying how to convene the Design Review Committee when UNR’s skyway was first submitted to the City in February—four months ago—that committee’s review could have been completed by now. As it is, City Council now has had to devote two meetings to formalizing the exemption of skyways like UNR’s from city code—the first on July 22nd, and the second on August 12th.

In doing so, these City Councilmembers have clearly succumbed to flawed interpretations of both the existing city code and of UNR’s proposed skyway. City Council should not add a permanent exemption to a code requirement in order to expedite a specific project—in this case, the UNR skyway—as both Jenny Brekhus and Naomi Duerr have pointed out, and any Councilmember’s refusal to support such an exemption should not imply any opposition to that specific project. It simply has nothing to do with it.

There is no objective reason to exempt any skyways over the public right of way from review by a Design Review Committee, which is an integral part of the code and of immense benefit to the City, regardless of a skyway’s size, location, or owner.

Rather than continue along its current path, City Council needs instead to take steps toward doing what it should have done in April: schedule an agenda item to approve the precise method of forming the DRC and convene it. The DRC can then review the UNR skyway and provide their recommendations to the Planning Commission so City Council can give it their approval (if they so desire) and get on with it.

For City Council to proceed with this exemption would be to reveal its willingness to needlessly and permanently alter a city ordinance in order to allow UNR to avoid what basically amounts to a single, but critical, non-regulatory meeting—a constructive, mutually beneficial professional review of its proposed skyway that would without question make it a better project for the university and the entire community.

Don’t Let Reno City Council Gut the Skyways Ordinance!

The Design Review Committee is a pivotal component of the Skyways Ordinance that is in place to help improve the design and appearance of skyways above the public right-of-way. It is a benefit to the City, not a hindrance, and should not be eliminated.

June 5, 2020ALERT: The Reno City Council has scheduled a vote that, if it passes, would make a drastic change to Reno’s Skyways Ordinance that would vastly reduce City, public, and professional oversight over and input into the design of skyways spanning city streets, specifically to expedite a University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) construction project and flouting the recommendation of their own Planning Commission. City Council has scheduled the first of two required votes on this for their June 10th meeting. Here’s a rundown of what has happened so far, why making this change is such a bad idea, and what you can do about it.

1. What is the Skyways Ordinance?

The Skyways Ordinance is a section of the Reno city code that governs structures that are built over the public right-of-way, including skywalks, skybuildings, and skytrams. All skyways are subject to the same requirements and procedures in Chapter 18.12, Article XX. Additionally, skyways constructed over a city street must adhere to specific Skyway Design Guidelines, that are described in Appendix B of that code.

2. Why is this coming up now?

City Council initiated this proposed ordinance change in conjunction with a request from UNR for a Special Use Permit to construct a skyway over E. 9th Street. This pedestrian skywalk would connect the main campus to the new six-story parking garage that UNR intends to build at the corner of Lake Street and E. 9th Street and would provide ADA access to any future campus buildings built in the “Gateway” district. This request prompted the City to examine the code governing approval of skyways.

An image of UNR’s future Gateway Parking Complex and proposed skyway across E. 9th Street submitted to the Reno Planning Commission for their meeting of May 20, 2020. The Planning Commission did not hear this item, determining that they could not review a skyway that had not been reviewed first by the Design Review Committee that city code currently mandates–a committee that they recommended NOT be eliminated.  Click on the image for more photos of that design, beginning on page 35 of the City Staff Report.

3. How does the City of Reno want to change the Skyways Ordinance?

The current requirements for approving skyways include a unique component: the required review of any skyway proposal by an appointed citizen Design Review Committee (DRC) comprised of planning and design professionals from the community. Like all construction projects requiring a Special Use Permit (SUP), skyways are subject to review by the Planning Commission and then the City Council. In the case of skyways, however, this appointed DRC must first review and discuss the skyway proposal and provide their recommendations on its design, appearance, and adherence to guidelines to the Planning Commission before its review. Applicants are also advised to meet with this DRC prior to that formal review to proactively discuss their designs. The City is proposing to eliminate that level of professional review and design assistance and input by removing the Design Review Committee entirely from city code.

4. Why does the City want to eliminate the Design Review Committee?

At least one City Councilmember and the Acting Community Development Director are arguing that eliminating the DRC will expedite approval of skyways, including UNR’s proposed skyway, since the DRC is not currently formed. During the discussion of this item at the April 8th City Council meeting, Acting Community Development Director Arlo Stockham repeatedly stated that convening a DRC would delay UNR’s project, which he said was scheduled to begin this summer (contradicting UNR’s own website, which says it is scheduled to begin construction this fall, to be completed in Spring 2022) and argued that such a committee is not necessary because the public, including design professionals, can provide input on skyway designs through public comment during the regular SUP process. Councilmember Neoma Jardon, who introduced the item (she represents Ward 5, where UNR is located), directed her comments solely toward UNR’s skyway, making clear her goal to specifically expedite that project. You can view their comments on the meeting video (Item H.2; Stockham speaks around 4:02). City staff provided Council with no arguments for why the DRC should be retained.

5. When was the Design Review Committee put into city code?

This section of city code was written in 2000 after years of intense public discussion and concern about the massive skyways being constructed in the 1990s. They included skyways connected to the Silver Legacy, Cal-Neva, and Atlantis. The city at the time had no detailed guidelines governing skyways, which were very unpopular, due not only to their size but their appearance. After years of inclusive and exhaustive discussion and input from casino and other business owners, design professionals, and citizens, the City created the current Skyway Design Guidelines in which the Design Review Committee is to play a pivotal role. It appears that only one skywalk has been constructed since then—the skywalk over Peckham Lane that connected the Atlantis Casino Resort to the Convention Center in 2008—and it is unclear whether this committee was convened for that project. There is obviously no reason for a committee to meet if there are no skyways to discuss.

The massive skybuildings constructed downtown for the Silver Legacy were among the projects that prompted the establishment of a Design Review Committee in the current Skyway Ordinance, to ensure that the City of Reno would receive citizen and professional design input on any future skyways. Alicia Barber photo.

6. Why does the city need a special Design Review Committee for skyways?

Review of skyways by a professional citizen Design Review Committee is for the benefit of the City and the public. It ensures that the City both solicits and receives careful and thorough professional input about the design and appearance of a permanent structure to be constructed in public space by a non-City entity. The code is very specific that the DRC is to consist of representatives recommended by five groups:

  • The Nevada chapter of the American Institute of Architects
  • The Nevada chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects
  • The Nevada chapter of the American Planning Association
  • The Reno Planning Commission
  • The Citizen Advisory Board to the Reno Redevelopment Agency

There are specific reasons for including these particular groups. The City’s design guidelines for skyways are extensive, technical, and architecturally complex and may exceed the capacity of City staff, the Planning Commission, and City Council to thoroughly and accurately apply to skyway proposals. The position of City Architect was eliminated in 2009. The position of City Landscape Architect has been unfilled since 2010. Convening a committee of citizen experts ensures that the City has the expertise to conduct a thorough review of any proposed skyway regardless of current staff capacity and experience.

But their role is not a regulatory or punitive one. The professionals and citizens appointed to this community have expertise in design and planning that they can share with applicants, for the benefit of all parties. Their role is not to simply vote a skyway design up or down but to apply their cumulative experience to help improve its appearance, its connection to the surrounding natural and/or built environment, and its relationship with other projects, both existing and proposed.

Additionally, the DRC gives the public a formal role in the oversight of skyways, which are constructed above the public right-of-way. This is explicitly stated in the design guidelines:

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. It is recommended that an applicant hold a “pre-application” hearing with the D.R.C., prior to formal submittal of a “major” special use permit application. Prior to appearing before the planning commission, the skyway plans and drawings will be presented to the D.R.C. for their formal review. (Reno Land Development Code, Title 18, Appendix B, 18)

The thorough deliberations of a committee of professionals and formulation of a recommendation to the Planning Commission far exceed any voluntary input that may or may not be provided through the regular public comment process. Convening a committee comprised of qualified citizens ensures that the City need not depend upon arbitrary public comment or the current composition of City staff at any given time and allows members of this committee to discuss and deliberate together and with the applicant prior to the request for a Special Use Permit. Public comment allows for no such discussion. The goal is to make skyways better by paying particular attention to discussion of their design.

7. Would forming the Design Review Committee take a long time?

The City Council has the ability to appoint members of an ad hoc advisory board, as they did most recently for advice on their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Council could place an item on their next available agenda to clarify that they would be selecting the members of the DRC through direct appointment, solicit the required representatives from the designated organizations and entities, and begin the review process immediately. The City seems to be deliberately exaggerating the difficulty of convening this committee in order to move UNR’s construction project along.

8. Would implementing this committee delay UNR’s construction project?

It is difficult to imagine it taking more than a few months to convene this committee and allow them to review UNR’s proposed design and provide their suggestions to the Planning Commission. But any potential delays to the construction of UNR’s proposed skyway are not relevant here. City code should not be permanently changed in order to expedite a specific construction project, public or private, particularly when the change would significantly reduce public and professional input and oversight and–in this case—greatly reduce the quality of skyways designed in public space.

Keep in mind that City staff received the initial application from UNR for a Special Use Permit for their proposed skyway in February of 2020 and the City could have begun the process of forming this committee months ago. Instead, one or more City Councilmembers directed City staff to work toward eliminating the DRC, which as a text amendment to a City ordinance needs to be considered at one Planning Commission meeting (which occurred on May 20th) and then two different City Council meetings, currently scheduled for June 10th and July 22nd. City Council could cancel those readings, agendize a clarification of the committee selection instead, and be on their way.

Construction delays are unfortunate, but they happen all the time. UNR officials obviously want to start building their new parking garage this fall, to open in Spring 2022, but any delay would be minimal and in any case, fully warranted considering the need for the City to subject the proposed UNR skyway—and every future skyway project—to the thorough professional citizen review that the code requires. Why should the City handicap its own ability to improve a design for something in the public right-of-way?

9. What do others think of eliminating the Design Review Committee?

The Planning Commission voted 5-2 against eliminating the Design Review Committee after deliberating for more than an hour at their May 20th meeting. Multiple members expressed how much they value the expertise and input that such a committee could provide. They also received public comment from professional members of the architecture, landscape architecture, and planning communities and the general public, who opposed eliminating the Design Review Committee. You can read submitted written public comment in the Agenda packet for the June 10th City Council meeting here (it is a large file; see p. 519). Despite those objections, the City Council has placed on its June 10th agenda (Item E.2) the first reading of two required votes to eliminate the Design Review Committee from city code.

10. What can I do?

Let City Council know that you care! Your opinion matters whether you are in the professional design community or simply care about thoughtful design and thorough review of what is being constructed in public space. There are links to an online public comment form as well as registration information to provide live comment at the virtual meetings on the June 10th agenda. But you should also engage Councilmembers directly in advance, if you can. You can find their contact information here. Most Councilmembers have social media accounts and you can engage them there, too.