Update: RTC Board Comes Through

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Hopefully, a green light for improvements to Virginia Street.

I’m so pleased to update Tuesday’s post with the news that the RTC Board voted unanimously to deny the proposed design modification recommended by two RTC directors last week.

To recap, the modification would have had significant impacts on the wide sidewalks, street trees and outdoor seating that were central to the community’s acceptance of the agreed-upon design. More important, the modification would decrease pedestrian safety on the street (relative to the accepted plan) by the RTC directors’ own admission. The community raised a stink about the last-minute proposed change, and many local residents, business owners and property developers spoke out against it at today’s meeting. The property owners who had pushed for the design modification were also present and made their case, but ultimately the RTC Board chose to listen to the majority of constituents and reject the change. Hooray!

Credit where credit is due:

  • Ward 1 Councilmember Jenny Brekhus sent this letter to the RTC Executive Director highlighting the increased costs and decreased safety associated with the proposed modification and demanding an explanation. I don’t pretend to understand the ins and outs of city politics, but as a 3-year resident of Ward 1 I’ve consistently felt that Brekhus truly listens to her constituents and does what’s in her power to advocate for them. This is yet another example.
  • RTC Board Members Paul McKenzie and Neoma Jardon, both representing Reno, moved to deny the proposed modification, and the rest of the RTC Board unanimously agreed. Thank you for listening to your constituents.
  • RGJ City Life reporter Mike Higdon reported the story in the RGJ and live-tweeted Thursday’s meeting, which was helpful for those of us who couldn’t attend. He does his job well and I’m glad he’s on this beat.
  • Many individuals took time out of their day to attend the meeting, or if they couldn’t attend, to email or call their representatives. I don’t know how this vote would have gone without those actions, but I can’t imagine that they didn’t play a role in the outcome. If you attended or spoke out about this, thank you! (Even if you voiced an opinion that’s opposite to mine, thank you for doing it where the public can hear you.)

Until the trees are planted and the concrete is poured, I will be wary of the solidity of the plans for Virginia Street. However, weeks like this demonstrate that the community has a clear vision for this project and can get together to fight for it. Let’s stay on the alert for updates and keep holding public representatives accountable to their constituents. Let’s do what we can to show concerned developers that the agreed-upon plans will be an economic boon to their businesses, not a bane. Let’s keep working together to make sure this becomes the great street we need at the heart of our city.

Check out the RGJ’s coverage of the meeting and the decision here. Additionally, Addison’s analysis at Reno Rambler adds a great perspective and can be found here.

RTC Pushes for Same Old Virginia Street

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Virginia Street in all its glory. Is this really what we want to perpetuate?

This post is rife with frustration, so if you’re already in a bad mood, skip it. If you’re already familiar with the Virginia Street project, you are excused from reading the next three paragraphs. If you have any corrections, clarifications or other points of view on anything below, I would love to hear them.

Way back in 2014-15, the Regional Transportation Commission solicited community input on plans to overhaul Virginia Street. The street has been considered a blight in the community for decades. With tiny, non-ADA-compliant sidewalks, poor sightlines from cross streets and unsafe pedestrian crossings combined with high traffic speeds, the street is a hassle and a hazard to navigate, no matter what your conveyance. It was clear that something had to be done, and with the RAPID transit project underway, this was our opportunity to reform the street. I didn’t get involved with this project until mid-2015, so I can’t speak to the beginnings of the process, but by the time I came along the RTC had put out several design alternatives for consideration and was in the middle of the long process of figuring out what the community wanted out of this street.

So they held community meetings. So many of them! Community members were given myriad options for providing input. There were giant, blown-up maps spread out on the tables that we could write on to express our thoughts, frustrations and suggestions for individuals blocks and intersections. There were mockups of all of the proposed plans propped up on easels and people gathered ‘round, engaging in discussion, building consensus and sparring through some arguments. During town hall-style sessions, we voiced our opinions out loud and listened to the perspectives of young people, old people, business owners, home owners, those with disabilities, moms, dads, kids, cyclists, pedestrians and drivers. We reviewed the plans at home, came up with our own plans and brought those plans to the meetings. We kept coming back. I felt like it took a lot of time and a lot of energy, but many of my friends and colleagues worked ten times as hard on this project as I did. It’s what we thought we had to do to get our voices heard and to turn this blight at the center of our community into something awesome, something we could be proud of, something that worked as well as it could for everyone.

The plans that were eventually agreed upon (located here for the section from Liberty to Center Streets), known as the “Locally Preferred Alternative” or LPA, were not perfect. They didn’t include dedicated bike infrastructure, the main thing I wanted out of the street. But I understood that for this particular mix of business owners and citizens and city officials, separated bike lanes just didn’t have the necessary support. That’s not great, but it’s ok. No one got everything they wanted. I consoled myself with all the other fantastic and forward-thinking elements that WERE included in the LPA, like sidewalks as wide as 22 feet to allow much more space for pedestrians, benches, art and outdoor dining to exist on this street. Like space for shade trees so that someday this might actually be a street you’d want to walk down in the summer. Like lower speeds and fewer pedestrian-vehicle interaction points, leading to a much safer experience on Virginia. These would be HUGE improvements. They weren’t everything, but they were a hell of a lot of something. They made all that time and energy feel worth it.

Then this week, this showed up.

This is a recommendation to the RTC from Executive Director Lee Gibson and Director of Engineering Jeff Hale to “approve a design modification of the Mid Town section [of the Virginia Street project] from Liberty Street to Vassar Street that eliminates the proposed raised center median, which restricts left turns at private driveways and specific intersections and replace it with a center two way left turn lane.”

Wait, what?

From the same document, summary section:

“Recently, concerns have been raised from a few Mid-Town stakeholders regarding the potential for adverse business impacts due to the LPA limitations on left turns within the Liberty Street to Vassar Street section. A request has been made to reconsider the LPA in this area.

“Replacing the median island with a two way left turn lane would generally maintain the same amount of parking spots as the no left turn configuration. [Ed. note: THANK GOD] The additional space needed for the median lane would be obtained by narrowing the proposed 11 foot wide sidewalks on each side to six feet. Bulb-outs would be constructed at locations for pedestrians to cross; however, the reduced sidewalk width would eliminate space required to accommodate street trees and other furnishings…While this change can be incorporated into the final design, a two way left turn lane will be less safe due to increased vehicle and pedestrian conflict points and will degrade traffic operations, which can increase congestion.”

In short: A few business owners whispered in the RTC’s ear and suddenly two years of consensus building, community outreach, and civilian time are out the window, along with our plans for a walkable, livable, human-scale street. We’re back to 6 foot wide sidewalks (the literal least we can do in order to comply with the ADA), no trees (enjoy the beginnings of heat stroke as you stroll down your tiny sidewalk in full sun on an August afternoon), increased pedestrian danger (probably fine since no pedestrians will want to be on this street), increased traffic congestion (a Virginia Street classic!) and oh! I almost forgot:

“Approval of this item will increase final design costs.”

Awesome.

I find this very, very frustrating. As I said, I didn’t spend anywhere near the amount of time that my more dedicated neighbors and friends did on this project. Yet even with my relatively low-level involvement, I left work early to attend meetings. I skipped dinner with my family. I left my 9-5 job staring at a computer screen to go home and stare at another computer screen so I could read and understand the proposed design alternatives and offer an informed view. The opinions I voiced were with the majority at every single meeting I went to. But based on this recommendation from the RTC Directors, that work didn’t matter. After years of wasting the community’s time, the RTC is willing to accept an unattractive, dangerous, expensive alternative at the eleventh hour because a handful of business owners are too shortsighted to see their own feet as they shoot them.

So. The RTC is meeting Thursday to discuss this (meeting time and location info below). I am going to do my best to go, but as my first obligation is to the job that pays me a salary, I might not be able to make it. At the very least, at the recommendation of my councilmember, I’ll be writing an email to each member of the RTC board and copying the city council, the acting city manager and the public works director to voice my opinion on this nonsense one more time (names and emails for all are listed below). The basic gist will be:

  • This is an unacceptable alternative.
  • This alternative flies in the face of nearly every element that the public wanted for Virginia Street based on the meetings I attended.
  • An enormous amount of civilian time and energy has already been sunk into this process, and it’s bad faith and bad politics to screw your constituents so blatantly with this kind of recommendation.

RTC meeting to discuss proposed design modification:
Thursday, January 19, 1 p.m.
Washoe County Commission Chambers
1001 E. 9th Street, Building A
Reno, NV 89512

RTC Board
Paul McKenzie (mckenziep@reno.gov)
Neoma Jardon (jardonn@reno.gov)
Ron Smith (rsmith@cityofsparks.us)
Bob Lucey (blucey@washoecounty.us)
Marsha Berkbigler (mberkbigler@washoecounty.us)

Reno City Coucil:
Mayor Hillary Schieve (schieveh@reno.gov)
David Bobzien (bobziend@reno.gov)
Jenny Brekhus (brekhusj@reno.gov)
Naomi Duerr (duerrn@reno.gov)
Oscar Delgado (delgadoo@reno.gov)
Paul McKenzie (as above)
Neoma Jardon (as above)

Acting City Manager Bill Thomas (thomasb@reno.gov)
Public Works Director John Flansberg (flansbergj@reno.gov)