August 25, 2021 Reno City Council Preview & More
The Lear Theater, the UNR Skyway & another study of Virginia Street
As I write this, I want to send out my very best wishes for the health and safety of all those suffering from the horrible California wildfires and the dense smoke that’s choking our region, with particular gratitude for those firefighters on the front lines, concern for the unhoused and unsheltered, and empathy with my fellow parents wrestling with school cancellations.
Let’s take a quick look at some items on the Reno City Council’s agenda for tomorrow, August 25, along with a few other issues I’ve been keeping an eye on.
A Purchase Agreement for the Lear Theater
You may recall that on July 21, City Council agreed to accept the “donation” of the Lear Theater and its parking lot from Artown, with direction to staff to return on a future date with final terms. That final agreement will be in front of Council this Wednesday, for approval under Item D.6.
What’s changed this time is that the property is no longer being donated but purchased for a total of $875,000 to be paid to Artown from the City’s Room Tax Fund over a period of seven years—an amount that equates to a six-year extension of the $125,000 the City approved giving Artown this year during item B.6 on July 21, but through the mechanism of the property sale rather than direct sponsorship.
As Councilmember Jenny Brekhus suggested and others supported in July, the agreement apparently has also been “cleaned up” to remove some of the conditions Artown had proposed, including some exclusive rights to use the building and parking lot in the future, and the deal to split the net proceeds should the City sell or lease the building. Artown is, however, still keeping the adjacent house (528 West First Street), which came to them (for free) with the Lear Theater.
If the City agrees to buy the Lear, then what?
This agenda item is confined to approval of the Purchase Agreement without seeking direction for next steps, but in their discussion on July 21 (which you can watch here), the Mayor and several Councilmembers expressed some of their hopes for the building, such as that it honor the architect, Paul Revere Williams, and that it be preserved “as a theater, as a community center” (Devon Reese); that the City retain ownership of the building, make it accessible to the people, and perhaps contract with another entity to manage it (Naomi Duerr); and that it remain owned by the City in perpetuity, remain for the public benefit in every aspect, not be converted into private development or apartments or “things of that nature,” and remain dedicated to arts and culture (Mayor Schieve).
These were reassuring words, and it seems that an important next step will be to codify some of those basic parameters—if they represent a consensus—to govern discussions for the future of the building, which is already subject to some physical regulation through covenants with the State Historic Preservation Office and the City’s Historical Resources Commission, to protect its historic integrity.
In that effort, as several members of the public including Lily Baran and Dwight George asserted in July, transparent and inclusive community conversation will be key. There was some recent talk of quickly issuing a “Request for Interest” (RFI) for the building, as was recently conducted for the CitiCenter site downtown—view that one here—to solicit ideas for the Lear’s renovation and use. An RFI for the Lear was just one of the possible approaches mentioned in the staff report for the July 21 meeting (although it was not discussed at that time) and while that approach might be suitable for some types of development, I don’t believe it makes sense for a building of this level of architectural, cultural, and historical import, which to me warrants a much more deliberate and community-centered approach.
The Legacy of Paul Revere Williams
I’m hoping, too, that City ownership can kick off a more detailed and nuanced conversation about this building, its architecture, and its illustrious architect, Paul R. Williams, who I briefly profiled a few years ago in a piece for my public radio feature, "Time and Place". I’m currently researching and writing an overview of Williams’ work in Reno and throughout Northern Nevada for next year’s Paul Revere Williams exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art.
In addition, I have been deeply engaged in efforts to flesh out more details—and correct some longstanding misconceptions—about the construction of the Lear Theater building (originally the First Church of Christ Scientist) and Williams’ other Reno designs, which included not just the church and a few homes for affluent 1930s California transplants, but the affordable El Reno apartments. Williams’ dedication to designing affordable, public, and workforce housing is far less heralded than his reputation as an “Architect to the Stars,” but is a critical component of his legacy.
As this conversation continues, it’s important to recognize, too, that architecture is not just about exterior appearances, and that respect for Williams’ design also necessitates an appreciation of and respect for the building’s gorgeous interior (you can see KTVN’s Brian Hoffman walking around the inside on Facebook here). When it comes right down to it, this is not an especially large building, essentially consisting of one spacious and light-drenched room (the sanctuary) with a balcony, front lobby, a handful of small rooms to the side, bathrooms, and a utilitarian basement. That size may to some pose some limitations to its future use, but it’s also what makes it such a pristine architectural gem, and I’m looking forward to more opportunities to discuss its history and exquisite design in greater detail with our entire community.
Other August 25 Reno City Council Agenda Items
You can view the rest of the City Council’s August 25 agenda for development-related items, which include the following (click on the item number to link to the staff report and associated materials). Be sure to submit public comment by 4:00 p.m. today (8/24) to get them on the record and distributed to Council before the meeting, or you can always attend in person.
Airspace and Easements for the UNR Skyway
This item (B.8) seeks approval from the City to grant airspace, footings and fence easements to enable the construction of the UNR skyway over East Ninth Street that will connect the seven-story parking garage currently under construction to the main campus and allow UNR to construct a fence along the north side of Ninth Street.
My concerns about the visual impact of this skyway are well-documented, and because UNR managed to avoid having it reviewed by a City-appointed Design Review Committee, there are still no public renderings of how it would actually appear from Ninth Street, only from the east and west (as seen here). Here’s a short video that I filmed of the Lake Street entrance last August. To the left of the staircase is the Ninth Street Hill, the section of UNR’s state arboretum that the skyway will bisect.
The absence of any public renderings of the skyway from this angle means there’s also no rendering of the proposed fence, and it’s not clear whether UNR is planning to construct a solid fence all the way from Center Street to Evans Avenue (there’s already a wall from Lake to Evans), or if they’re planning to retain an opening at Lake Street that would enable pedestrians to continue to cross Ninth Street at the crosswalk and enter campus via the historic Lake Street staircase (seen above). I’m hoping the intent is to retain that pedestrian crosswalk and the entrance to the staircase from the south, but none of the provided materials make that clear, so I hope that can be discussed and clarified during discussion of this item.
C.1. Moya Industrial Complex Rezoning (Case No. LDC21-00051)
C.2. 3690 Warren Way Zoning Map Amendment (Case No. LDC21-00056)
F.1. Logisticenter I-80 West Phase 2 Zoning Map Amendment (Case No. LDC21-00031)
Appeals of Planning Commission Decisions
I.1. Military 8 (Case No. LDC21-00065)
I. 2. Ventana Ridge (Case No. LDC21-00060)
Redevelopment Agency Board Public Hearing
L. 5. Public Hearing to discuss, consider, and possibly recommend that Council: (1) amend the Redevelopment Plan for the Downtown Redevelopment Area plan an additional 15 years to 2043 to facilitate payment of existing debt; and (2) amend the Redevelopment Plan of Redevelopment Project Area 2 to authorize the use of tax increment generated in Project Area No. 2 to make an interfund loan pursuant to NRS 354.6118 to the Downtown Project Area to facilitate payment of existing debt.
I’m eager to hear the discussion of this one, because I can’t tell whether these amendments are being proposed purely for financial reasons, to help Reno pay off its existing debt, or if there’s something more to it.
Virginia Street “Urban Placemaking” Study
There’s not a lot of information about this yet, but in their August 20 meeting, the RTC Board approved setting aside funding to partner with the City of Reno on a projected six-month “Urban Placemaking Study” of Virginia Street through the downtown area. The item will apparently be coming to the City Council for approval in the near future.
Here’s a brief overview of the intent of that study from the RTC Washoe newsletter, and you can view the entire proposed scope here.
The study would cover the stretch of Virginia from Ninth Street south to Liberty Street, which as many know is a rather problematic corridor, for a variety of reasons involving aesthetics, design, and usage (problems exacerbated by the unbroken block-long facades of the largest hotel-casinos). Some attending the meeting seemed concerned that this study could result in the cancellation of plans for the Center Street Cycle Track, which was itself the subject of another update from RTC staff that can be viewed in its entirety here with the Powerpoint here.
I’ve been writing and talking about how to re-energize Virginia Street for a long time (here’s a short overview of my 2013 TedX talk about it), so I look forward to this conversation and am eager to see how this study will ensure participation beyond the usual crowd of “downtown stakeholders” in order to reach a “unified vision.”
BRIEF TIP: Support the Reno News & Review
Like many of you, I’m a huge fan of the independent Reno News & Review and the mighty efforts of veteran newsman Frank Mullen over the past year to keep the RN&R going as a digital-only publication. I want to encourage everyone to support an upcoming fundraiser on September 23 that would enable the hiring of a full-time reporter to complement Frank’s important investigative and deeply-researched community-oriented work (you can read his most recent articles here).
You can purchase tickets for the fundraiser on EventBrite here, and support the RN&R anytime by vising their donation page here.
Speaking of support, thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who has lent their support after my last post. As I mentioned, I’ve opened a Venmo account at @Dr-Alicia-Barber to try to make The Barber Brief a bit more of a sustainable enterprise for me. As always, you can view my previous e-newsletters, with more context, analysis, and tips, on my Substack site. Thanks for reading and have a great week!
UNR already broke ground last week on the skyway foundation in between the big cottonwoods. Doesn't look like they intend to mess with the Lake Street stairs, crosswalk, or sight line.