University of Nevada, Sprawl

In 1962, the Reno City Council—at the request of the University of Nevada—changed the name of Center Street to University Avenue. The fire department then learned that the change fostered confusion between University Terrace and University Avenue, whereupon the city council rescinded the name change.

The city has often been too accommodating to the campus—sometimes without wanting to be—and often regretted it. Under state law, the city council’s ability to curb university actions that undercut the quality of life in Reno is limited. University leaders can be shortsighted, not through malice but because their academic blinders keep them focused on campus matters, not the overall needs of the territory they inhabit. In the 1970s, the campus newspaper Sagebrush discovered and reported that the university had altered the channel of the Truckee River without permission. UNR was ordered to reverse the change.

The Reno City Council must take a wider view. Sometimes they cannot bring the campus to heel because state law gives UNR freedom from local permitting (see news, page 8). But that’s the point—because the campus already gets too much unrestricted power, the city councilmembers must do all within their power to subject UNR to rigor in scrutinizing its plans and making sure the campus is a good institutional citizen of Reno. At this moment, it is difficult to make the case that it is, particularly since it abandoned the late President Milton Glick’s policy of reducing campus sprawl and ending acquisition of neighboring homes.

Among the things the council must watch is the campus’s sprawl and its sensitivity to local concerns.

Earlier city councils encouraged expansion of the university into the downtown, while many residents—when they were consulted at all—felt it was a good idea for the campus to stay north of the freeway. There was near unanimity in neighborhoods around the campus that expansion should go to the relatively undeveloped north, not south.

Even better would be not expanding the campus footprint at all—to grow up, not out. Its not just homebuilders who should be held to anti-sprawl standards. It is also airports, campuses and other entities that once grew without regard to quality of life. How serious is officialdom about sprawl if it doesn’t hold public institutions to the highest standards? The UNR campus has no need of growing in the near future, given the amount of empty land at the north end of the campus, and the airport should reduce its footprint.

Construction of the Redfield campus far to the south was typical of UNR myopia and sprawl. Faculty members complain of the drives they must make to the other side of the valley from main campus. Environmentalists note the wastage of fuel between the two points. And students avoid the distant location.

The university is a community resource, but that does not mean it should operate without rigorous scrutiny and accountability to the rest of the community, like any other entity. At its April 27 meeting, we urge the Reno City Council to break away from past policies of keeping hands-off the campus, listen closely to both sides of the issue of 19th century homes on Center and Lake streets—and avoid giving UNR undeserved preference.