Public Process Trampled
In a 4-3 vote July 22, the Reno City Council agreed to a code change benefiting the university during an online public hearing that shut out the public but allowed a campus official to speak.
We’ve asked the city council to repeat the public hearing and vote teleconferenced live to allow for live public comment. Scenic Nevada also filed a complaint with the Nevada Attorney General’s office July 29 for Open Meeting Law violations.
The public hearing was meant to be a discussion of the text amendment to change the city’s skyway ordinance. But an official from the University of Nevada was allowed into the zoom meeting to talk about its proposed skyway project instead, while all other live public comment was denied.
Reno’s city code requires the Design Review Committee to assess all skyways – pedestrian bridges over public streets. The text amendment was tailor made for UNR’s proposed skyway to skip a review by design professionals before the city council makes its ruling. And the text change would permanently alter code to avoid a hearing before the DRC for all smaller skyways like UNR’s proposed project.
UNR’s proposed skyway is necessary to meet ADA regulations, according to campus officials. The street exit of the seven-story parking garage proposed at Ninth and Center Streets would sit 30 feet below grade of the main campus, triggering the need for a skyway to satisfy ADA compliance.
We’re opposed to the text amendment to eliminate the Design Review Committee because there is no public purpose. The committee of landscape designers and architects could find a better way to satisfy ADA rules, if allowed to do their job. The text amendment is clearly meant to advance UNR’s project to meet the university’s construction start date in the fall by avoiding a DRC examination. We think the Skyway code should be left intact and UNR’s project should be scrutinized by design professionals like the DRC.
Councilmember Naomi Duerr, who opposed the text amendment, said her vote was not an anti-university, anti-parking garage nor anti-disabled vote. “I want our process to have integrity,” she said. “That is what I care about. I don’t like changing an ordinance to benefit one project.”
The DRC for larger projects is still in place along with design guidelines. But Councilmember Jenny Brekhus, also in opposition, said carving out an exemption for the university’s project left only a “shell” of the ordinance in place.
Vice mayor Devon Reese, who chaired the meeting, opened the public hearing, calling on Councilmember Naomi Jardon, who asked, “is there anyone from UNR available?” Heidi Gansert was announced, and then appeared on the zoom screen to answer Jardon’s question. Keep in mind that the public hearing topic was a text amendment, not UNR’s skyway project. And there was no chance for the public to respond.
“Can you tell me a little bit about the contractor, the architect, the need for the ADA compliance, who would benefit?” Jardon asked. Gansert said the skyway would serve over 600 disabled students and faculty. She added that delays caused by waiting for DRC recommendations allegedly would cost the university an additional $1.3 million to build the garage and skyway.
Councilmember Jardon hijacked the public process, violating city council rules to limit questions to project applicants. Although 47 people, some representing other groups, wrote to oppose the code change, no one including Scenic Nevada could make a live public comment on the text amendment, except Ms. Gansert.
According to the city clerk, public comment was closed because a speaker entered the zoom meeting early on in an unrelated agenda matter and used offensive language. But during the hearing, someone let Ms. Gansert into the zoom meeting, while the public was kept out. Neither Vice Mayor Reese nor the city attorney present at the hearing tried to correct the situation.
Meanwhile, the text amendment takes two council votes, with the first reading last week. We suspect the second reading and UNR’s proposed skyway project will be on the same agenda soon; perhaps August 12.
The text amendment process was initiated by Councilwomen Jardon last April to streamline approvals for UNR. But Duerr pointed out that changing the code has taken longer than convening the DRC would take, and getting a hearing would be a benefit to UNR’s proposed skyway project.
“I think the skyway needs to be reviewed,” Duerr said. “I think the Design Review Committee could have met long ago, if we just convened it,” she said. “It could have helped make the project better, which is what (the DRC) is meant to do.”
Mayor Schieve asked city staff whether another panel, the city’s Access Advisory Board, had been consulted. She said that in times past that the Access Advisory Board’s recommendations changed the outcome to benefit the disabled on city and Regional Transportation Commission projects.
“I would like to really stress that when it comes down to disabilities and how we design and plan infrastructure, that board is incredibly intelligent and they know what to look for,” Mayor Schieve said. “They can offer some incredibly invaluable feedback. They really understand the design and infrastructure that needs to happen.
Councilmember Brekhus also said ADA compliance was being used by campus officials to get their project off the ground.
“I’m just really sad the narrative has been that this is for ADA,” she said. “We know that the university did the ADA – not right – up at MacKay Stadium. And here they are using ADA as the important thing. I think that in some way this thing has been thrown up as a buzz word to explain what they want, which is a design that is going to change a landscape view of the university from downtown that has stood for 120 years.”
A 2018 headline from the online version of the Reno Gazette Journal said, “UNR will spend $2 million to fix ADA mistakes from its Mackay Stadium renovation.” The article says campus officials relied on its architect and the Nevada Department of Public Works, which approved a redesign of the stadium.