Commission to Review Controversial Skyway
What: Planning Commission Meeting, Agenda Item 5.1
Where: Online Meeting Link
When: Starting at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 17
A proposed skyway on the University of Nevada campus that would mar scenic views of historic Morrill Hall is back on the Reno Planning Commission agenda for Wednesday, even though a decision on a specially selected board of skyway experts hasn’t been finalized.
Scenic Nevada is opposed to the skyway because its location and design ruin a beautifully landscaped and historic entrance to the University campus. Also, we think it would violate the city’s Skyway Ordinance, which requires a hearing by the Design Review Committee (DRC) before either the Planning Commission or City Council review it. And that review hasn’t happened.
The proposed skyway is a pedestrian bridge meant to connect the campus to a proposed parking garage. It would start at the fourth floor of the garage, cross over Ninth Street and then snake up and through a green belt, terminating at Morrill Hall, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Eliminating the DRC
Last month, Reno staff and UNR wanted the planning commission to ensure the university’s proposed construction start date in September by eliminating the DRC, which under existing law would have to be consulted for a recommendation before the Planning Commission could make a decision on UNR’s skyway.
Eliminating the DRC would short cut approvals for UNR’s project but also, would abolish the DRC for all future skyways. The DRC, established in code 20 years ago, is meant to review skyways – pedestrian bridges over city streets – and is part of the Skyway Ordinance which includes technical regulations.
At its May 20 meeting, the Planning Commission agreed in a 5-2 vote to recommend denial of the text amendment to remove the DRC from city code. And the commission voted unanimously to continue the public hearing on UNR’s skyway project until the DRC issue is settled by the Reno City Council, which has the final say.
The Planning Commission majority said proposed elimination of the DRC was a rush job that was meant to remove a barrier to a single application, that it needed more discussion before being tossed, that it was a danger to make policy on the back of one project, that it was bad planning and a disservice to the community, and that to say the city doesn’t need expert advice is the wrong way to go.
Compromise Proposed to Move UNR’s Skyway Forward
Meanwhile, the City Council last week – instead of saying yes or no to eliminate the DRC – in a 4-3 vote agreed to a staff proposed compromise to keep the DRC in code but carve out an exception for UNR’s proposed skyway project. As proposed, going forward, larger skyways would need a DRC recommendation and smaller ones, like the UNR project, would not.
According to the UNR plans, the skyway would be 14 feet high, 10 feet wide and about 245 feet long. The compromise says exempt skyways are to be no more than 15 feet high and 12 feet wide and cross no more than two travel lanes. It does not address the length. UNR needs this long pedestrian skyway because the proposed parking structure and campus buildings south of Ninth Street wouldn’t be ADA compliant otherwise, according to campus officials.
Council Member Neoma Jardon, who voted for the compromise, said the UNR project was not a traditional skyway and she agreed with “carving out” the UNR skyway from DRC review. “It’s a unique situation that in my estimation required a unique response to it, allowing us to move forward with retaining the Design Review Committee,” she said.
Council Members Jenny Brekhus, Naomi Duerr and Mayor Hillary Schieve voted against the compromise. Duerr said she was uncomfortable with changing the code for one project and that she was concerned with the historic setting of the UNR skyway. She added that a DRC could be put together quickly, that it serves a useful function and that she supported the Planning Commission’s decision.
Brekhus agreed, adding that over time the council has delegated authority to the university which has changed community character, citing the demolition of “the most intact historic 19th century architecture” recently near Morrill Hall. She said the compromise was another step conceding community character.
“The carve out is a feel good way to make people think that they can have it both ways of supporting the concepts that were put in a generation ago of rule making, while going forward, and not supporting this process of a design review,” she said.
Cart Before the Horse
The Reno City Attorney’s office told us the carve out compromise would return in July as an ordinance introduction. If approved, the final vote to exempt the 9th Street Skyway from DRC review could occur two weeks later.
Therefore, the Skyway Ordinance, including the review of all skyways by the DRC, is still intact at least until July. That means a Planning Commission discussion Wednesday on the proposed UNR skyway is premature because the code requires a DRC recommendation before reviews by the Planning Commission and the City Council.
We don’t think the Planning Commission should be reviewing the skyway project until the DRC issue is fully resolved. Making a recommendation Wednesday puts the cart before the horse and would be a code violation.
The DRC will include experts and essential stakeholders that would ensure that any skyway throughout the city is appropriately sited and designed, while still being respectful of balancing the community’s needs, historical preservation and scenic requirements.
UNR Skyway Doesn’t Fit with Morrill Hall
Meanwhile, approving the proposed UNR Skyway would be a travesty. The proposed structure is an unnecessary intrusion on this historic side of the university that provides a park-like setting befitting the importance of Morrill Hall, which welcomed the first 35 students to the university back in 1886.
The proposed skyway does not just cross a street, depositing pedestrians safely on the other side, but continues up a hillside and through a green belt ending in front of an architectural treasure.
If approved, at the very least, there should be some accommodations for this scenic and historic area of the campus. We know the skyway project is part of a larger effort to bring the university further south into the city. We think this can be accomplished without ruining the scenic and historic entrance to the campus that has been in place for more than 100 years.
Join us in telling the Planning Commission to reject this bad design or at least stand firm and continue the public hearing again until the DRC issue is resolved. Email RenoPlanningCommission@reno.gov or click here to fill out a comment card.