Now the fun part – bringing it local.  Can some of the Strong Towns (and others) case studies work here, where doctrinaire needs to meets Zoning code?

What can Reno do to be better?

  • Missing Middle: Right now our zoning code, as in most places in the country, draws a strong distinction between SFRs and multi-unit housing. Huge parts of our city are zoned only for single dwellings, and where multi-unit is allowed, planning and neighborhood review is difficult enough that the incentive is to build very large projects. This leaves out the kind of housing that we see in thriving older cities that developed before strict zoning small, multi-unit, 2-5 story piecemeal development. Planners call this the “missing middle,” and you can read about it here:


  • Progressive Density Increase: Before strict zoning, it was natural for property owners to add another story on top of their house, or another unit in back as the city grew. The increased value of their property over time derived from the higher use it could be put to, not limited supply and increased demand driving prices up regardless of improvement. Right now if you want to build another unit or two in your backyard for family or rental income or investment value, it likely requires a change of zoning or Special Use Permit, which take months, thousands of dollars in fees and consultants, all with no guarantee of success, since approval can be easily derailed by neighbor opposition.

    Reno has stated it is considering lifting the ban on Accessory Dwelling Units, which is a great way to allow some progressive density to develop organically at individual homeowner scale. I personally feel automatic upzoning by a single grade each 15 years (SF9 to SF6 to MF2 to MF3) would give owners additional rights but not obligations to add small-scale infill density. Strong Towns proposes a Floating Height Limit that lets you build more as adjacent owners do: The point is to automatically allow individual owners to increase the density of the existing city, to build vibrancy, individual income, and property taxes without relying on big out-of-state developers working on the margins or assembling derelict city blocks. To my knowledge this hasn’t been implemented in any major US cities.



  • Clean up the Planning Approval Process: Organic piecemeal development requires development rules and procedures that are straightforward for non-professionals to follow. If we want current owners to be able to improve the city by adding an in-law unit, or home business, we need rules they can follow. And especially if we want to encourage the kind of creative reuse and remodeling we have in our local small developers. I don’t have detailed insight on this, but it sure seems Reno’s process is not the easiest. An old ReReno post covers some of how Sparks is beating us on clarity of process:


  • Boundary Rationalization: Regional planning is an important component of how we incentivize development. The cities of Reno and Sparks and Washoe County do collaborate on the Truckee Meadows Regional Plan, currently undergoing periodic review now and open for input: My personal feeling is that the excessive interfingering of Reno and Washoe in particular around West Reno, Verdi, Cold Springs and Suburban SW Reno creates a host of planning and services problems. The fire last week at Hunter Creek burned 50 acres, but had 3 separate fire agencies responsible for parts of it. Shifting a bunch of County residents into the city and de-annexing a bunch of city land around Verdi and Cold Springs back to the County might not be popular, but it would make for much better service and development planning clarity.
  • Land Tax audit: Sustainable growth in cities needs to pay for itself not just with construction and connection fees, but with a tax base that continues to pay enough to maintain and improve our utilities and public services. A lot of the problem we face today is that our public services are a bit of a Ponzi scheme, where large new developments pay big fees, but also saddle the city with ever larger maintenance requirements that the property taxes won’t support. A way to identify productive versus problematic areas of the city is a review of property tax receipts and infrastructure liabilities by parcel like that done for Lafayette, Louisiana:


  • Ditch Historic Districts: I’m not opposed to targeted landmarking, where the property owner agrees. But landmarking needs to not be a pathway to avoiding normal planning rules, and the historic commission shouldn’t approve every mid-century bungalow that was built with cinderblocks from a different factory. But don’t do it to districts, it just halts redevelopment and enforces scarcity to the benefit of current homeowner property values, and detriment of organic city development. Every time we say we can’t let more development happen in the central city, we’re saying it has to happen on the edges, costing more in road, sewer, water and public servants.


  • Ban HOA oversight of private property: In many parts of Reno organic density increases are impossible not just because of the difficulty of the planning process, but because HOAs won’t let homeowners build what they want with their own money and property. I can see how HOAs fill some role in the maintenance of shared spaces, but the city has no reason to let them usurp planning review.

Right now our planning and development process is set up to incentivize large developers building big blocks of SFRs on the edges of our wildland in the same way that EDAWN is set up to give subsidies to companies big enough to plausibly claim hundreds or thousands of new jobs. The processes are so complex that they are only worth doing for highly paid professionals who can reap big margins over large volumes. But small business has long been the cradle of innovation and driver of employment in this country, and smaller scale real estate development could be helping to meet Reno’s growth needs while both improving affordability for our citizens and lowering infrastructure costs for our city.