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.

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