A Reno developer cut down trees and bulldozed a block-long segment of Washington Street while four appeals against the project remain in progress.
The appellants and other opponents of the development were outraged April 27, when a contractor began cutting down the trees and later ripped up the roadway to make way for a multi-story, 34-unit apartment project at 700 Riverside Drive. The City of Reno in 2006 had transferred ownership of the public street to the previous property owner in order to increase parking spaces for an 11-unit condo development, but that project died in the Great Recession.
Although the block of Washington Street between Riverside Drive and Jones Street has remained a public thoroughfare for the last 15 years, the new developer intends to construct part of the apartment building atop the former roadway. Opponents said that public hearings should have been held to vet the changes in the project and have other objections about the way the city handled the issue.
The use of the formerly public street for a building that will extend to the edge of Lundsford Park allows the developer to more than double the size of the structure, compliments of what was public space. The tiered, four-story apartment building wouldn’t have been approved 15 years ago, critics said, and city officials admit it wouldn’t be allowed under the zoning changes that were passed just months after the project’s building permit was granted.
Paddy Egan, a principal in Urban Lion, the developer, said the apartment building is a good fit for the neighborhood and will compliment the historic district. Egan’s detailed responses to the Reno News & Review’s questions about the project are published, in full, in a companion piece to this story.
City says it’s all legal
Reno officials said the project is an “infill” development and changes were made without the project having to go through another public approval process.
“The new project did not require any City Council approvals and met all the zoning code requirements,” said Jon Humbert, city spokesman. “The zoning in place at the time of the building permit submission allowed for the site to be developed with a high-density development. The zoning code allowed for that without any City Council review and it was approved through the building permit process.”
Some opponents said the case underlines the cozy connections between the city’s decision makers and developers.
“The sad reality is that this project is indicative of the toxic relationships which exist between developers and City Hall,” said Brandon Deriso, one of the appellants. “…This particular approval process was unique, in that it spanned several councils and went leaps and bounds to exclude public input. The fact that what is being built isn’t what the neighborhood agreed to is enough for me to want to activate my voice as a member of the community.”
Public space reduced
Michelle Barthuly, one of the four Reno residents who filed appeals against the project, said the issue isn’t a traditional “not-in-my-backyard” situation. The plans for the site, she said, morphed from 11 condos with “a fair amount of public access space” into a 34-unit building “with virtually zero public space, given the building footprint.”
After the initial project was approved by the city in 2006, the original developer’s plans also changed during the following seven years, records show. When that project fizzled, the abandonment of Washington Street, that was supposed to be a public-access area, was absorbed into the parcel and was private property. “That should have been put up for a vote,” Barthuly said.
She noted that the city has been maintaining Washington Street and Lundsford Park, even after the area was supposedly abandoned by the city.
“I’ve asked repeatedly for maintenance records to find out just how much public money has been spent on the maintenance of ‘private’ land, but have been told that ‘the city doesn’t really keep those records,’” she said. “… When I first started speaking with city officials and employees, (they said) ‘we had no idea that wasn’t city land.’ This makes me feel like the whole project is shady.”
Plan to save trees scuttled
Under the current developer’s plan, a dozen century-old trees were slated to be cut down to make room for the apartment building. Reno Councilwoman Naomi Duerr made arrangements to save or relocate some of those trees, but on April 27 crews began cutting them down.
“I worked with Councilwoman Duerr to get a handshake promise that they would be saved (or moved),” Barthuly said. “… While it wasn’t a requirement to save them, this goes to show the developers’ general care for the area: zero.”
Egan said experts concluded that the two trees that were considered for removal would have had only a 30% chance of survival had they been replanted.
A litany of concerns
Other issues raised by opponents include: complaints that the project does not meet the current zoning restrictions of the Powning District, one of Reno’s three historic districts; concerns about adequate residential and commercial parking and increased traffic in the area; questions about the drainage system, which will require construction in Lundsford Park next to the building; and complaints that the 130-foot wide, four-story structure would destroy the area’s viewshed and be out of scale for the surrounding neighborhood.
“Whether deliberate or not, The development plan demonstrates a fundamental and, frankly, stunning disregard for the intent of the 2006 street abandonment, for the surrounding neighbors, for the viewshed, for the Powning Conservation District, and for the new City Master Plan, which finally put into code the decades-long effort to protect the unique historic character of the district.”– Alicia Barber, historian and editor of the Barber Brief.
Humbert noted that Reno “is a rare city where third parties can appeal decisions like this.” The city has no requirement that construction must pause while the appeal process is pending, he said, although work is “at risk” for the developer if the permit approval is ultimately overturned.
Street abandonments ‘are forever’
The roadway abandonment was approved and recorded with the Washoe County Recorder’s Office as part of the previous project’s approval, he said, and that “once recorded, the abandonment is forever.”
The development plans weren’t as immutable, critics noted, and fly in the face of both the intent of previous city councils and current restrictions for the historic district.
— Carol Coleman, president of the Historic Reno Preservation Society.
“The apartment building proposed for 700 Riverside Drive is out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood and has the potential to irreversibly change the character of the area. The Historic Reno Preservation Society hopes that these plans can be modified to better suit the Powning Conservation District and adhere to the City’s recently-approved Master Plan. We urge the developers to amend their plans, designing a building that will complement the surrounding neighborhood rather than compete with it. “
A need for public comment
Barthuly said Reno residents deserve the chance to be well-informed about the development and to raise questions and concerns in a public forum. “And (the project) should come back for a City Council vote, given that 15 years have passed and what was originally approved is a far cry from what is being built,” she said. “The voice and concerns of Reno residents have been continually ignored or punted off to someone else by developers and city staff.”
Humbert said the project was submitted for a building permit in July of 2020 and was reviewed based on the zoning code in place at that time. Under those rules, the project complied with requirements concerning maximum building height, allowed uses and parking requirements. Six months later, the city adopted new zoning limitations on the Historic Powning District, but “those requirements do not apply to this project because it was submitted prior to that zoning being in effect.”
The city approved the building permit in March. Humbert said the developer has a right to proceed on the project and that building permit approvals do not require public hearings.
‘Minimal traffic impact’
Humbert said the development meets the requirements for parking and traffic impacts. The project includes 34 apartment units and 2,900 square feet of future commercial and retail use. “This will create minimal traffic and does not require any street improvements,” he said. “… They have parking provided on the ground floor parking garage and a few spaces on the west side of the building.”
In answer to residents’ concerns about tearing up Lundsford Park to provide drainage for the apartment building, Humbert noted that: “The project has been designed with an underground storm drain pipe located in Lunsford Park. The pipe will be public and maintained by the City of Reno.”
New trees planned
The developer had no obligation to preserve the trees at the site and there was no city requirement to do so, he said.
“The new project will remove 12 mature trees… The project proposes 16 new trees, including street trees along Jones Street and Riverside Drive. The City of Reno has no authority over what a private property owner chooses to do with any existing trees unless the trees are located either in the right-of-way or within the front setback. The trees here do not meet that requirement. – Jon Humbert, Reno spokesman.– Jon Humbert, Reno spokesman.
Critics argue that the city has an obligation to the community that transcends the developers’ ability to take advantage of the obsolete zoning requirements.
“Obviously the developer has benefitted hugely on more than one occasion to be able to increase the project’s size without any public comments,” said Lori Burke, who also filed an appeal contesting the building permit. She said the city continued to maintain what is now being called private property, and presumably shouldering any liabilities, for 14 years.
The city gave up prime riverfront property, she said, and then continued to maintain it at public expense, “that, to me, is egregious,” she said.
Hearing on May 4
A hearing on the appeals is scheduled May 4. The appeals process can take months. In the meantime the work at the site continues.
Burke said that other developers in the area took pains to make sure their projects complimented the neighborhood and worked to alleviate residents’ concerns. “People worked so hard to maintain this historic district and you can see the progress that was made,” she said. “…This development got a blank slate.”
In the case of 700 Riverside, she said, the city accommodated the developer’s plans while leaving the public out of the process and ignoring the intent of the initial street abandonment and recent zoning changes.
“On the original project (in 2006) there were 26 conditions attached to assuage the concerns of the neighborhood; with this project, the city says it’s just an administrative process and there are no conditions attached,” Burke said. “… They are taking something that really works and breaking it. ”