Planning Commission Recommends Denial

Campus officials hit a roadblock to get their proposed skyway approved by the city when Reno  Commissioners June 17 recommended denial of the University of Nevada project that would span 245 feet to bisect a lush green belt and end near the front of historic Morrill Hall.

The public hearing at the Reno Planning Commission ended in a 3-3 tie, called a technical denial. That means commissioners are sending a recommendation to deny the project to the Reno City Council, which has the final say. It’s not certain when the council will review the proposed skyway.

Commissioners opposed said the project did not meet city code, the master plan and requirements to enhance scenic resources. Some were opposed to impending code changes exempting UNR from a review by design professionals – meant to short cut approvals and allow UNR to meet a fall construction start date.

The proposed skyway (left) is a pedestrian bridge which would connect UNR to a proposed campus parking garage at the corner of Lake and Ninth streets in the area known as the Gateway District. The skyway would start at the fourth floor of the garage, cross over Ninth Street and continue through a grassy area with old growth trees, terminating near the front of Morrill Hall, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Skyway Would Mar the Landscape and Views

Rendering of UNR’s 2014 Master Plan Gateway District.

UNR representative Heidi Gansert was on hand at the planning commission, saying the project was necessary for ADA compliance because UNR’s master planned Gateway District, which is meant to bring the campus closer to downtown, sits about 30 feet below grade of the main campus.

 

 

With a fall start date, the proposed garage and skyway is scheduled for completion in 2022. UNR’s 2014 master plan includes the Gateway District but not the skyway project. (right) According to Gansert, the need for the Gateway District to meet ADA compliance became apparent more recently. “We didn’t really contemplate the difference in elevation until we started designing buildings,” Gansert told commissioners. “In order to have ADA access, we have to have the pedestrian bridge,” she said.

Scenic Nevada opposed the skyway at the hearing last week because its location and design ruin a beautifully landscaped and historic entrance to the University campus, known alternately as “Ninth Street Hill”  (below) or the campus “front lawn.”

Top of Ninth Street Hill.

 

 

 

Too, the UNR campus is a designated arboretum and home to 3,000 trees, according to a published guidebook which highlights the Ninth Street Hill as responsible for creating the serenity of south campus. “Fortunately, this verdant slope is master-planned to remain a green natural area, providing habitat for birds as well as beauty and sense of well-being for people who approach the campus from the south,” the guidebook says.

Commissioner Marshall said the project conflicts with UNR’s plans to keep that area open. He added the skyway would impact scenic views. “Its difficult to make some of the findings, particularly scenic resources and to contribute to the enhancement of views,” Marshall said. And he questioned whether the skybridge was the only option, pointing out there was nothing similar on campus. “Creative planning and creative minds could come up with a different solution.”

During the hearing last week, UNR’s project architect said two smaller trees would be removed as the skyway cuts through the grassy area, but made no mention of its impact to the tree canopy.

Skyway Approval Defies Code

Also, we think approval would violate the city’s Skyway Ordinance, which requires a hearing by the city-appointed Design Review Committee (DRC) before the Planning Commission or City Council review it. And that review by independent design professionals hasn’t happened.

Instead, city staff proposed removing the DRC as unnecessary and redundant to accelerate approvals for UNR. Recent public outcry from design professionals, the public and the Planning Commission, however, scuttled that attempt.

Staff came up with a compromise that would keep the DRC, but carved out an exemption for the proposed UNR skyway project from a DRC hearing. Narrow skyways, like UNR’s would be exempt, but wider ones inside the downtown core would not. Length of the skyway was not addressed. That compromise legislation must first be reviewed by the city council and it takes two votes, a first and second reading, before it can be adopted.

City Planning Manager Angela Fuss said the council felt UNR’s project had value and wanted to “make sure that UNR moved forward,” without eliminating the DRC. The final adoption of the anticipated change to exempt UNR’s project in the skyway code won’t occur until August.

Even so, Marshall said there could have been a DRC review and that by reviewing UNR’s project before the rules change, the Planning Commission is “acting on a project that is contrary to code.”

Compromise to Exempt Skyway Causes Concern

Commissioners in favor of the project said it did not impact Morrill Hall, that the skyway is ascetically pleasing and although the proposed code change was “a bit messy” agreed that the DRC was an unnecessary layer of approval because skyways are reviewed by both the Planning Commission and City Council.

Morrill Hall built in 1886.

However, Commissioner Peter Gower, who opposed the project, called the process to exempt UNR’s project frustrating and a “complete disaster,” saying he didn’t understand why the city didn’t set up the DRC to have the proper review of the UNR project in the first place. “Planning project by project with text amendments to our code and to our master plan is in my opinion a terrible precedent,” Gower said.

He was concerned with other possibly long skyways that might span up to 300 feet and would also be exempt from the design review. “Because what happens is you make these quick decisions based on individual projects and you’re not thinking about the ramifications for other future projects…Making these quick decision text amendments is just not, in my opinion, good planning.”

Gower said his recommendation to city council is “don’t move forward with (the project) until you get either the text amendment squared away – a well thought out process – or you go send this project through the DRC.”

The importance of the DRC was to review complex guidelines, apply the criteria and render an opinion for the Planning Commission, Marshall added. The DRC review would give commissioners guidelines other than “our own biases of what we aesthetically like.” He also said, “A lot of powerful interests for some reason are wanting to avoid going to the DRC. I don’t think it’s anything nefarious. I think it’s just because it might otherwise cause more delay than people would like.”

Thanks to the Planning Commission and to those who sent in comment cards opposing the project. Next steps include asking the City Council to rethink the text change to exempt UNR, which is scheduled for the July 22 council meeting. Our hope is that UNR follows its own master plan for Ninth Street Hill and all skyway projects are reviewed by the DRC. Perhaps with professional designers weighing in, a new option can be found for ADA compliance.