Despite a pending Open Meeting Law complaint and community opposition, the Reno City Council August 12 approved – by a slim majority – the university’s skyway project and the code change that made it possible for officials to skip a professional design review.

Council gave final approval to a code change exempting the University of Nevada’s skyway project from scrutiny by a citizen panel of design experts in a 4- 2 vote with Council Member Jenny Brekhus abstaining. Then came the 4-3 vote approving the 245-foot long skyway (left) on the south end of campus which will take out three tall trees and ruin forever an undisturbed greenbelt that fronts majestic Morrill Hall, built in 1886; a scenic view that has stood for more than a century.

Open Meeting Law Complaint
Councilmember Brekhus said she was abstaining because she believes there was a problem at the last hearing and the Open Meeting Laws were violated. Scenic Nevada filed the complaint with the Attorney General’s office after the council let a UNR official speak live at the last hearing July 22, but the public was shut out. “It gets to the complaint,” she said. “No one got to talk except one person.”

She urged the council to re-do the last hearing or if not, she would have to abstain.

“I’m not willing to take a vote on (the code change) and I will abstain. A no vote would mean the ordinance is in effect when I believe the ordinance is defective in that due process was not implemented in the first reading,” she said.

City Attorney Jonathan Shipman said that based on his review of Scenic Nevada’s complaint there was no violation. The city’s response is due to the Attorney General’s office by August 21, he said. The AG’s office told us in a recorded message that it could take up to 12 weeks to get a ruling. If it is determined that an Open Meeting Violation took place, it would void the code change and the city council would have to vote again two more times to enact the ordinance, Shipman said. Meanwhile, UNR officials said construction would start in November. And Councilmember Brekhus was concerned building would commence without the proper city approvals.

“We’ll have to see what the facts are and how the timing works out,” Shipman said.

Mayor Hillary Schieve and Councilmember Naomi Duerr also voted no, with the latter saying the code change for one project was a slippery slope as other developers may ask for exemptions for their projects too. Mayor Schieve said there were many talented people in Reno that could serve on the advisory panel. She voted against the code change and the skyway because she didn’t agree with the process, not necessarily UNR’s project.

Councilman Devon Reese who voted for both the code change and the skyway said the Open Meeting Violation filed by Scenic Nevada was a “red herring,” meant to stall the process. “Allowing that in the toolbox to void legitimate government action of this body should not be countenanced in any way,” he said. Mr. Reese didn’t indicate when, if ever, an Open Meeting Law complaint by a member of the public concerning public business should be tolerated.

UNR’s Flawed Presentation

During the Council’s Zoom meeting, University of Nevada president Marc Johnson spoke on behalf of the skyway project. He said the City of Reno and the Regional Transportation Commission worked with the university to produce an updated campus master plan. He noted that plan included the university’s southern expansion, called the Gateway District, which was adopted in 2016 by the city in its master plan for the university.

“So, we appreciated very much working arm in arm with the city of Reno and the RTC,” he said. “So, what we’re doing today now is implementing a part of that design of the Gateway area. And we need to get from a lower area to the level of the campus to allow those disabled citizens to move back and forth across the campus.”

However, Councilmember Duerr pointed out that neither the proposed Gateway parking structure nor the skyway was included in the master plans between the university and the city. “I’m a little confused by that reference,” she said. The campus project manager said three “smaller” trees with up to 20-inch trunks would have to be removed from the green belt (right) which is part of a state Arboretum.  Duerr said in wetter climates they may be considered small, but they are “pretty big trees in Reno land.”

Another problem she said was the continuous fencing along the north side of Ninth Street which will block pedestrian access at Lake Street from the south to the iconic stone staircase (below) that leads to Morrill Hall; the original entrance to campus that’s been open for the past 100 years.

“It’s almost like you’re putting Morrill Hall and the stairway in a museum that you can’t get to very easily,” she said. “You have to walk way around. I don’t think that makes any kind of sense from an historic point of view.”

City staff said opening the fencing at Lake and Ninth Streets would create a “can of worms,” causing people to jaywalk. Interestingly, however, staff is allowing a street level pedestrian crossing one block west at Center and Ninth Streets.

 

UNR’s ADA Compliance Problems
Councilmember Reese brought up UNR’s problems solving ADA compliance issues that occurred after the redesign of MacKay Stadium was completed about two years ago. News stories in the Reno Gazette Journal show UNR’s hired architect allegedly bungled the ADA requirements, costing the university almost $4 million to fix. The university is suing the architectural firm that did the work. The article says campus officials relied on its architect and the Nevada Department of Public Works, which approved the redesign of the stadium.
Mr. Reese asked President Johnson for assurances that those problems would not be repeated. President Johnson said they would be relying again on its current architect and the Nevada Department of Public Works.
“We get assurances from the architectural firm that their architects have training and are up to date with the latest code rules,” he said, adding that the project plans have been submitted to the state Public Works Department and they are in compliance with ADA requirements.
Scenic Nevada May Get Requested Landscape Mitigation
Scenic Nevada made a last-minute request in an email to the city council before the public hearing to remove the parking lot directly in front of Morrill Hall and replace it with landscaping. Our thinking was that UNR should be required to give something back to the community after what they are taking away. Plus, there’s no need for that parking lot (below) once the seven-story garage is completed. Both Councilmembers Reese and Neoma Jardon agreed, asking President Johnson to consider it.
President Johnson said he would commit to having his designers look at that possibility. “We also have some regulations to attend to and the like and accessibility right at the building,” he said. “So, I will commit to looking at that to all of you.”
Before approving the permit, Councilmember Jardon added a condition that President Johnson would “actively pursue” removing the parking lot and replacing it with landscaping. That condition passed 4-3 with Mayor Schieve and Councilmembers Brekhus and Duerr opposed.

Councilmember Brekhus said the council should wait for a resolution of the Open Meeting Law complaint or re-do the first reading before moving forward with permit approval. Councilmember Duerr said she didn’t have the confidence that all the boxes had been checked and she couldn’t make the findings to approve. Mayor Schieve said the things had “spun out of control,” and that she didn’t like the process.

Thanks to all who emailed comment forms objecting to the code change and UNR’s skyway. Unfortunately, city planning staff and the council majority, both of whom wanted to shortcut approvals to get UNR’s permit approved, never understood what the original entrance of campus meant to the community. The entire episode is an example of bad planning and bad governing combined to degrade a treasured landscape, ruining an example of what makes Reno unique.