Council men (and women) can’t jump

Mayor Jeff Griffin’s metaphor regarding site selection for a long-needed homeless shelter was apt.

“We walk to the edge of the cliff … and we always step back,” Griffin said. On the table Tuesday at the Reno City Council: finally selecting one of two sites for a shelter.

Desperate homeless service providers reminded the council of the dire need. In 1998, says Anne Cory of United Way, the agency spent $10,000 on emergency shelter—a “Band-aid measure” that puts men and women in motels. Now that’s more than quadrupled.

“We can’t drag the process out any further,” Cory said. “Every day we delay, there are homeless men and women out on the street.”

The council had been just about ready to accept—after 10 years of research and debate—a site on Sage Street, in an industrial part of town, when neighboring businessfolk suggested yet another alternative.

Their grand new recommendation? Build it on Kuenzli Street—not far from the Reno Gazette-Journal building.

Cory, also representing the Reno Area Alliance for the Homeless, agreed that—all things being equal—the Kuenzli site is closer to services and is in more of a residential area. But she made it exceptionally clear that the point is to proceed with a shelter.

“The Sage Street location can be made satisfactory,” she said. “None of the sites are perfect.”

If the council wants to build at Kuenzli, it’s going to face several messy and likely lengthy battles. The site costs about $200,000 more, though it’s smaller. To build there would require a zoning change and a change to the area’s developmental master plan. Those changes would require hearings. A neighborhood representative promised the council that residents would fight the selection of Kuenzli every inch of the way. And then there’s the issue of land acquisition. Ken Zeal of A-1 Radiator said he owns 60 percent of the proposed land for the Kuenzli site. How does he feel about a shelter?

“Kuenzli’s not for sale,” Zeal said firmly. He later sat without expression as council members discussed using eminent domain to acquire his property.

No pesky landowners would keep the Sage Street property from the city. The city would lease the land from Union Pacific, and the city would get ownership of the land upon completion (hypothetically) of the ReTrac train trench project.

Site selection seemed a no-brainer. Certainly one of the council members would step up to the edge and jump, I thought, making a historic motion to recommend building at Sage Street, braving the ire of the businesses there.

Councilman Pierre Hascheff, instead, made the motion on Kuenzli. The RAAH folks sitting near me became agitated. “Somebody say something,” one whispered.

The mayor tried to talk sense into the council, to no avail. The council voted, 4-3, to take the Kuenzli detour. Griffin, along with council members Dave Rigdon and Jessica Sferrazza-Hogan, opposed the move.

Maybe everything will fall smoothly into place at Kuenzli. Maybe Zeal will change his mind and the neighbors will open their arms to help those in need. More likely, this is a waste of time, as fearful leaders again step away from the cliff.