Construction is definitely on the upswing in Reno, everywhere from the heart of downtown to the edges of city limits. And although some of those projects might take residents by surprise, most are allowed “by right,” requiring only review by city staff to ensure conformance with the existing land development code.
Other projects require some form of “discretionary review,” where the Planning Commission and/or City Council evaluates them with respect to certain findings before they can move forward. These are generally projects that hold the potential to significantly impact the area around them. Discretionary review provides the opportunity not just to vote such projects up or down, but to add conditions to lessen or eliminate any negative effects.
Most developers naturally oppose what they consider burdensome public review, hoping to avoid project delays and potentially costly plan revisions. And in recent years, the city has taken many steps to accommodate them, minimizing levels of review for certain categories of projects, often in the name of “streamlining” or “reducing red tape.”
For example, the Kimpton Hotel soon to commence construction on the south bank of the Truckee benefited from a 2019 Council decision to overturn a prohibition against constructing any building that could cast significant shade over downtown parks or plazas. An alternative presented but not chosen would have required such projects to undergo discretionary review to address their potential impact. Freed of those constraints, the 20-story project went straight to the permitting stage.
In September 2020, City Council overhauled Reno’s policy regarding development agreements, mandating their public review by the council alone, despite the Planning Commission’s request to review them first. Accordingly, in October 2021, the council singlehandedly reviewed and approved the development agreement with Jacobs Entertainment, with staff scheduling a public meeting only after the fact.
Substantive review by relevant public bodies enables more informed decision-making. In November 2021, City Council voted to change the name of North Center Street to University Way, after hearing only inaccurate historical justifications from the applicant, UNR. An updated policy for renaming city facilities and streets had been initiated by the City Manager’s Office in 2020, generating a draft that would require all such requests to be reviewed by the Historical Resources Commission (HRC). And yet although that policy was ready to adopt, and even referenced in public comment, the council approved the change without soliciting input from the HRC, any historians, or the public.
Finally, around 2018, the city dissolved the Redevelopment Agency Advisory Board (RAAB), which for decades reviewed matters concerning the city’s redevelopment areas and advised City Council in their capacity as the Board of the Reno Redevelopment Agency. Its absence has further reduced public oversight and discussion of Council actions.
It’s a troubling trend. Reducing public review of major development projects greatly diminishes the city’s ability to safeguard the public good. To support responsible levels of review isn’t to oppose development; it’s a critical step to ensure that what gets built in Reno truly benefits those who live here.
Alicia Barber is a professional historian, consultant, and the author of Reno’s Big Gamble: Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City. Her digital newsletter, The Barber Brief, analyzing urban development in Reno, can be viewed at thebarberbrief.substack.com.