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Transit heads to rear seat in planning

Anne Knowles

The cities of Reno and Sparks and the Truckee Meadows Regional Planning Agency are reassessing a guiding principle of land use and transportation planning after continued pushback from area businesses and developers.

Transit-oriented development, or TOD, is a popular urban planning concept designed to spur development of high-density neighborhoods near transit stations with a mixture of retail, office and residential. The goal is to encourage people to use public transportation more and cars less, and to create a walkable, accessible city while minimizing sprawl.

But a decade since its introduction here, and several years after the local economic boom burst, TOD is under scrutiny. Critics say the concept is too widely and aggressively applied, making development more difficult when the cities and county should be doing everything they can to attract new businesses.

“The extent of TOD in the regional plan was way too large and way too broad,” says Randy Walter, planning manager with Places Consulting Service Inc., a land-use planning consultant in Sparks. “It was applied to places where it made no sense at all. One size does not fit all.”

TOD standards are laid out in the 2002 Truckee Meadows Regional Plan, which by law the cities’ master plans must comply. It delineates two downtown centers, in Reno and Sparks, eight regional centers and five TOD corridors, covering Stead in the north to Verdi in the west, Sparks to the east and Redfield in south Reno.

The standards vary depending on the area, with strictest standards in the downtown centers, and rules that establish the ratio of a building’s total floor area to the size of the parcel of land upon which it is built. The ratio in downtown Reno, for example, is designated as 1.5, meaning a building’s total square footage must be 1.5 times the size of the land parcel.

Executives of Truckee Meadows Regional Planning Agency contend the cities have plenty of leeway in applying the standards.

“It leaves a lot of flexibility to the local government in terms of how they develop their master plan and how they address it in zoning,” says Kimberly Robinson, executive director of the agency. “We have some standards in the regional plan, but the lion’s share of implementation is left to the local government.”

“We drew this huge paintbrush across Reno and Sparks,” says Jim Rundle, a senior planner with City of Sparks. “We’re now refining it.”

Late last year, the Sparks City Council reduced the cities’ TOD area by 493 acres rezoning the area south of Prater Way, north of Interstate 80, east of Sparks Boulevard and west of Vista Boulevard saying the TOD restrictions had squelched development in the largely industrial area.

NOW Foods, for example, a food manufacturing facility in the now re-designated area, had to negotiate with the city in order to place employee parking in the front of the building so it could unload trucks in the back. TOD requires buildings be built as close to the street as possible, with parking located in the back.

“Once we meet and work with city it gets worked out,” says Stan Thomas, executive vice president for marketing and competitive expansion at Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada. “There have been three or four different times on Vista Boulevard, and every time we’ve been able to work with the city to make the changes. But it’s a challenge and puts planners in a box.”

“It may be that it is more appropriate for Victorian Square area and Oddie Boulevard. I hope we’ll continue to evolve it,” says Sparks’ planner Rundle. “It involves two cities and the Regional Transportation Commission and even the school districts. It is definitely a regional effort.”

For its part, the Reno Planning Commission is holding TOD workshops to get feedback from developers and other interested parties. Truckee Meadows Regional Planning Agency is working on its latest five-year update to the regional plan and is focusing on TOD. The staff is working closely with both cities as well as the RTC and will make recommendations to the Regional Planning Governing Board in June, according to Robinson.

“Reno is having a good conversation about what they’d like to do,” she says. “We are now working much closer with the RTC and having a conversation around how it affects their RTC funding.”

The RTC, which may be most affected by any changes to the TOD map, is more of a bystander in the process and characterizes itself as a resource for the cities and planning agency. Its $33 million operating budget is funded through the fare box, local sales tax and federal money. Right now federal funds are not contingent on adhering to TOD standards but that might change, says Lee Gibson, executive director of the agency.

“The federal government wants to focus on performance measurements at the local level so we may in the future see a change,” he says.

The RTC is in the midst of preparing its 20-year, 2035 transportation plan and needs to consider any fallout from changes to the area’s TOD map which could affect ridership. The agency will soon release a draft and is holding a public meeting for comment at Reno’s Discovery Museum on March 14.

“We recognize the challenges the development community faces. With the economy hit hard, we don’t want overregulation,” says Robinson. “We’ve gone through our own shrinkage. But the demographic is changing. Our seniors need alternatives to the automobile. We want to avoid isolated communities.”


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