Architecture is not something I usually write about or think about, not because of disinterest, indeed the few times I’ve read or watched interviews with architects I’ve found their discourse fascinating if a little over my head and outside my comfort zone. If I’ve learned nothing else in my game it’s that when a subject or assignment presents itself that makes me a bit anxious then that is precisely a subject or assignment that I need to pursue. Such was the case with the following story I did for the Omaha Home section of Omaha Magazine on Mid-Century design and its expression in Omaha architecture of that style. It was edifying to interview architects who applied the principles of that movement in their work. I hope the story’s edifying to you.
Mid-Century Modern Leaves Its Mark
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine’s Omaha Home section
In post-World War II America a contemporary design style borne of the modernist movement and emphasizing a balance of form and function, came to the attention of visionary Omaha developers and architects. The resulting homes and buildings completed in that style made for some distinctive neighborhoods that endure as models of aesthetics and utility and that continue to fascinate owners and onlookers alike.
What became known as Mid-Century Modern is seeing a resurgence in interest today among preservationists and restorers, thanks in part to television shows like Mad Men and their celebration of vintage culture. That interest was never more evident than during a October 7 Mid-Century Modern tour sponsored by Restore Omaha and Omaha 2020 that drew a record 850 participants.
Restore Omaha president Kristine Gerber says it was the organization’s first tour to focus on an architectural style and the Indian Hills neighborhood offered “the best collection” of Mid-Century Modern. A 2010 Omaha Historic Building Survey of Mid-Century Modern neighborhoods by Leo A. Daly architects Christina Jansen and Jennifer Honebrink offered a blueprint or map for the tour.
For tour participants, it meant getting inside homes, for example, they may have long admired from afar or been curious about to see for themselves the various ways in which these structures bring-the-outdoors-in.
Mid-Century Modern homeowners like Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill love their residences. “We both feel we have lived here forever and plan no move now or later,” says Manhart.
Gerber says there’s growing appreciation for the style’s ahead-of-its-time characteristics of flat roofs, open floor plans, floor-to-ceiling windows, ample natural light and green design-construction elements.
There’s motivation, too, in obtaining National Register of Historic Places status for select Mid-Century Modern structures and neighborhoods that qualify.
Mid-Century Modern can be found in other metro neighborhoods besides Indian Hills, but some intentional decisions made it the prime site for it to flower here.
Food manufacturer brothers Gilbert and W. Clarke Swanson, along with architect Leo A. Daly, saw potential to develop a modern, upscale suburban neighborhood taking its name from the old Indian Hills Golf Course. Commercial structures, such as Christ the King Church and the Leo A. Daly company headquarters, became shining examples of this modernist-inspired architectural style.
But it was left up to a pair of edgy young architects, Don Polsky and Stanley J. How Sr., to design dozens of residential homes in this new development featuring the attributes, values and principles of Mid-Century Modern. How also designed one of Omaha’s most distinctive luxury apartment buildings, the sleek Swanson Towers, in Indian Hills. The building’s since been converted to condominiums.
Together, the Swansons, Daly, How and Polksy, transformed the built Omaha.
“They were young tigers and weren’t necessarily rooted in doing the same old thing and I think they saw an opportunity to do some things that were really unique and new,” says Stan How, president of Stanley J. How Architects, the company his late father founded. He says his father was “a cutting-edge guy.”
Polsky apprenticed with superstar modernist architect Richard Neutra in Los Angeles and borrowed concepts from his mentor and others for the work he did in Omaha. He says Mid-Century Modern’s appeal all these years later makes sense because it’s forward-thinking approaches and emphasis on clean lines, simplicity and efficient use of space are what many homebuyers look for today.
“We were green before its time, we put in a lot of insulation, we shaded our windows, we oriented things towards light and brought light into the home. We used insulating glass, we planted trees to give us shade, we broke the wind from the north, we worked with the client’s budget on the configuration of the sight.”
Passive solar features and energy efficient systems were rarities then.
Stan How says his father began practicing architecture for Leo A. Daly right as the modernist movement caught on. “He started his career at a perfect time to absorb all these new things going on. When he went out on his own he had some clients who had the guts, he’d always say, to explore some of these ideas and let him toy around with that.” Mike Ford became a key early client.
“Mike was a young guy who wanted to do something really new, so my dad floated out the contemporary style or what we now call Mid-Century Modern and Mike loved it But he also didn’t want to be the only one on the street with a house like that, so he bought four lots and said, ‘Let’s do four spec houses,’ and that’s what they did.”
One of those Stanley How-designed homes, built in 1963, was later purchased by Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill.
Home buyers like Ford were the exception, however, not the rule, as Mid-Century found relatively few takers.
“We’re a pretty conservative group, Omaha. It’s not Los Angeles. I thought you’d just show a few things and they’d be beating a path to your door, but it didn’t turn out that way,” says Polsky. “There’s still a limited supply of buyers for this type of architecture but you do what you can, you carry the torch.”
Polsky marveled though at the huge turnout to see his homes and those of his old colleague, Stanley How Sr. “It’s amazing how many people showed up,” he says.
Stan How says designs by his father and Polsky are the antithesis of the overblown, oversized McMansions many homeowners reject today. “I think people are coming back to simplicity.” Indeed, Mark Manhart says “the clean lines and classic simplicity” of his home are major attraction points for he and his wife and the many inquirers who call on them.
The only regret How has is that his father wasn’t around to see all the love his homes are getting today. “He would have absolutely reveled in it. He would have loved it.”
The March 1-2 Restore Omaha Conference will once again offer a strong lineup of expert preservation and restoration presenters, says Gerber, who promises a dynamic host site that gives attendees an insider’s glimpse at some landmark.
For details, visit http://restoreomaha.org.
- Progress wins out over preserving Herald building – slideshow (bizjournals.com)
- The Mad Men of Mid-Century Modern Design (swiss-miss.com)
- Sensual mid-century modern (fashionising.com)
- Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- When New Horizons Dawned for African Americans in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Going Mad – for Mid Century Modern (pillowsandpaint.wordpress.com)
Omaha’s popular arts-culture district the Old Market didn’t happen by accident, it evolved with the careful nurturing of landlords, entrepreneurs, and artists whose vision for the city’s historic wholesale produce center went against the tide at a time the district’s future was up for grabs. The late 19th and early 20th century warehouses that now are home to shops, restaurants, galleries, and condos might easily have been lost to the wrecking ball if not for visionaries and pioneers like Roger duRand, a designer who took a firm hand in becoming a creative stakeholder there. This short profile of duRand for Encounter Magazine provides some insight into the forces that helped shape the Old Market in the face of certain obstacles.
Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine
His imprint on this historic urban residential-commercial environment is everywhere. He’s designed everything from Old Market business logos to chic condos over the French Cafe and Vivace to shop interiors. He’s served as an “aesthetic consultant” to property and business owners.
He’s been a business owner there himself. He once directed the Gallery at the Market. For decades he made his home and office in the Old Market.
The Omaha native goes back to the very start when the Old Market lacked a name and identity. It consisted of old, abandoned warehouses full of broken windows, and pigeon and bat droppings. City leaders saw no future for the buildings and planned tearing them down. Only a few visionaries like duRand saw their potential.
He’d apprenticed under his engineer-architect father, the late William Durand, a Renaissance Man who also designed and flew experimental aircraft. The son had resettled in Omaha after cross-country road trips to connect with the burgeoning counter-culture movement, working odd jobs to support himself, from fry cook to folk singer to sign painter to construction worker. He even shot pool for money.
He and a business partner, Wade Wright, ran the head shop The Farthest Outpost in midtown. A friend, Percy Roche, who had a British import store nearby, told them about the Old Market buildings owned by the Mercer family. Nicholas Bonham Carter, a nephew of Mercer family patriarch Samuel Mercer, led a tour.
“We trudged through all the empty buildings and I was really charmed by how coherent the neighborhood was,” says duRand. “It was really intact. The buildings all had a relationship with each other, they were all of the same general age, they were all designed in a very unselfconsciously commercial style.
“They were such an asset.”
Remnants and rituals of the once bustling marketplace remained.
“When I first came down here the space where M’s Pub is now was Subby Sortino’s potato warehouse and there were potatoes to the ceiling,” recalls duRand. “Across the street was his brother John Sortino, an onion broker. There were produce brokerage offices in some of the upper floors. There were a couple cafes that catered to the truck drivers and railroad guys. There was a lot of jobbing, with suppliers of all kinds of mechanical stuff – heating and cooling, plumbing and industrial supplies. The railroad cars would go up and down the alleys at night for freight to be loaded and unloaded.
“A really interesting urban environment.”
He thought this gritty, rich-in-character built domain could be transformed into Omaha’s Greenwich Village.
“I had in mind kind of an arts neighborhood with lots of galleries and artist lofts.”
That eventually happened thanks to Ree (Schonlau) Kaneko and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.
duRand and Wright’s head shop at 1106 Howard St. was joined by more entrepreneurs and artists doing their thing.
The early Market scene became an underground haven.
“In 1968 it was really artsy, edgy, political, kind of druggy,” says duRand.
Experimental art, film, theater and alternative newspapers flourished there.
City officials looked with suspicion on the young, long-haired vendors and customers.
“We had all kinds of trouble with building inspectors,” whom he said resisted attempts to repurpose the structures. “The idea of a hippie neighborhood really troubled a lot of people. This was going to be the end of civilization as they knew it if they allowed hippies to get a foothold. It was quite a struggle the first few years. We really had a lot of obstacles thrown in our path, but we persevered. It succeeded in spite of the obstructionists.
“And then it became more fashionable with the little clothing stores, bars and gift shops. Adventuresome young professionals would come down to have cocktails and to shop.”
The French Cafe helped establish the Old Market as viable and respectable.
Te social experiment of the Old Market thrived, he says, “because it was genuine, it wasn’t really contrived, it evolved authentically,” which jives with his philosophy of “authentic design” that’s unobtrusive and rooted in the personality of the client or space. “Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all. The main criterion wasn’t profit, it was for interesting things to happen. We made it very easy for interesting people to get a foothold here.”
Having a hand in its transformation, he says, “was interesting, exciting, exhilarating because it was all new and it was a creative process. The whole venture was kind of an artwork really. I do have a sense of accomplishment in making something out of nothing. That was really the fun part.”
He fears as the Market’s become gentrified – “really almost beyond recognition – it’s lost some of its edge though he concedes remains a hipster hub. “I’m a little awed by the juggernaut it’s become. It’s taken on a much bigger life than I imagined it would. I never imagined I would be designing million-dollar condos in the Old Market or that a Hyatt hotel would go in.”
duRand and his wife Jody don’t live in the Market anymore but he still does work for clients there and it’s where he still prefers hanging out. Besides, all pathways seem take this Old Market pioneer back to where it all began anyway.
Learn about his authentic design at http://rogerdurand.com.
- Carver Building Rebirthed as Arts-culture Haven; Theaster Gates, Rebuild and Bemis Reimagine North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Omaha, my Omaha. I have something of a love-hate relationship with my city, which is to say I have strong feelings about it and I always want it to be better than it thinks it can, though the attitude problem or more specifically inferiority complex it suffered from for so long has been largely replaced by a bold new, I-can-do confidence. That metamorphosis is part of what drew me to a documentary some years back that took the measure of Omaha by charting the changing face ofrcityscape since World War II, and what a marked difference a half-century has made. In truth, and as the doc makes clear, the most dramatic changes have only occurred in the last decade or two, when the city poured immense dollars into transforming parts of downtown, the riverfront, midtown, and South Omaha. Left mostly untouched has been North Omaha, where the city’s major revitalization focus is now aimed. The film also deals with one of the city’s biggest missteps – the razing of the Jobbers Canyon warehouse district to appease a corporate fat cat who wanted to put his headquarters there in place of what he called the area’s “big ugly red brick buildings.” Those buildings were historic treasures dating back a century and today they would be home to well-established retail, residential, commercial developments that would be employing people and generating commerce, thus pouring money back into the city’s coffers.
Documentary Considers Omaha’s Changing Face Since World War II
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha’s evolution into a homey yet cosmo metropolis that’s discarded, for better or worse, its gritty industrial-frontier heritage is the subject of a new documentary premiering statewide on the NETV network. Omaha Since World War II — The Changing Face of the City is a UNO Television production and a companion piece to UNO-TV’s popular 1994 If These Walls Could Speak.
What the new film does particularly well is frame the growth of Omaha over the past 60 years within a social, cultural and political context. Instead of settling for a Chamber of Commerce paean to development, the film makes a balanced effort at showing not only the dynamic explosion in Omaha’s ever-expanding boundaries and emerging 21st century cityscape but also some of the real tensions and costs that have come with that change. Using soaring, sweeping aerial footage shot from a helicopter video mount, the film provides insightful glimpses of Omaha’s famous sprawl and, even more tellingly, of the riverfront renaissance that’s remaking the city’s traditional gateway into a stunning new vista. Like the fits-and-starts pace of most Omaha development, major pieces in the Return to the River movement have taken decades to coalesce, but now that the new riverfront is emerging, it’s shaping up as a dramatic statement about the sleek, modern Omaha of the future.
While most of this period has seen real progress, valid concerns are raised about one neglected area and a pattern of disregarding history. For example, the film focuses on the decline of north Omaha in the wake of the devastating 1960s riots there and the equally hurtful severing of that community by the North Freeway several years later. News footage of burning stores and marching civil rights demonstrators, along with residents’ personal anecdotes of urban ruin, reveal a community in upheaval.
The late Preston Love Sr., ex-Omaha educator Wilda Stephenson and Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith paint vivid pictures of the jumping place that once was North 24th Street and of the despairing symbol it came to represent. As the $1.8 billion in downtown-riverfront revival continues (development dollars spent in the last six years, according to Omaha Chamber of Commerce figures), it’s apparent north Omaha’s been left behind. Unlike South Omaha, which remakes itself every few decades as an immigrant haven and finds new uses for old landmarks like the former stockyards site, North Omaha still searches for a new identity.
The film also examines how city/state leaders sacrificed the nationally historic Jobber’s Canyon district to the whims of corporate giant ConAgra in the 1980s. A man-made canyon of 22 massive, architecturally unique warehouse buildings closely tied to early Omaha’s booming river-rail economy, all but one Jobbers structure — the former McKesson-Robbins Building, now the Greenhouse Apartments — was razed when ConAgra decided the “eye-sore” must go if it was to keep its headquarters downtown. After seeing homegrown Enron uproot to Houston, Omaha caved to ConAgra’s demands rather than lose another Fortune 1000 company. The canyon was an incalculable loss but, as the film makes clear, the resulting corporate campus served as a catalyst for development.
The filmmakers rightly reference Omaha’s penchant for tearing down its history, as in the old post office, the original Woodmen of the World building, the Fontenelle Hotel and the Indian Hills Theater. Spinning the story in all its permutations are, notably, former Omaha city planning directors Alden Aust and Marty Shukert, architect and preservationist George Haecker, historians Harl Dalstrom, Thomas Kuhlman, Bill Pratt and Garneth Peterson, developers Sam and Mark Mercer and entrepreneur Frankie Pane.
The Jobbers Canyon debacle came at a time when downtown was reeling and in danger of being an empty shell. If not for major investments by a few key players. it may never have come back from the mass retail exodus to the suburbs it witnessed in the 1960s and ‘70s. In a real coup, the film features Old Market pioneers Sam and Mark Mercer, who describe the organic growth of this historic district into a cultural oasis — one that’s served as an anchor of stability.
The longest ongoing story of Omaha’s growth is its westward push. The film explains how this has been achieved by a liberal annexation policy that’s added subdivisions and even entire small communities to the tax rolls. The film touches on the fact that, outside a few developments, this sprawl has created a formless, characterless prairie of concrete and glass. The film also alludes to Omaha’s old neighborhoods, but only highlights one, Dundee, as an example of design and lifestyle merging.
Where the film doesn’t fare so well is in offering any real sense for the personality of the city. To be fair, filmmakers B.J. Huchtemann and Carl Milone didn’t intend to do that. Still, it would have been useful to try and take the measure of Omaha beyond its physical landscape. The only hint we get of this is via the many on-camera commentators who weigh in with their perspectives on Omaha’s changing face. And, to producer-director Huchtemann’s and co-producer-editor Milone’s credit, they’ve chosen these interpretive figures well. They’re an eclectic, eloquent, opinionated bunch and, as such, they reflect Omahans’ fierce independence and intelligence, which is at odds with the boring, white bread image the city often engenders. They are the film’s engaging storytellers.
Still, a film about the city’s changing face begs for an analysis of Omaha’s identity crisis. Mention the name, and outsiders draw a blank or recall a creaky remnant from its past or ascribe a boring blandness to it all. That’s before it had any “Wow” features. Now, with its gleaming new facade, Omaha’s poised to spark postcard worthy images in people’s minds. What is Omaha? What do we project to the world? The answers all converge on the riverfront. That’s where Omaha began and that’s where its makeover is unfolding. The monumental, sculptural pedestrian bridge may be the coup de grace. Interestingly, the film explains how much of what’s taking place was envisioned by planners 30 years ago. It’s all come together, in piecemeal fashion, to make the water’s edge development Omaha’s new signature and face.
So, what does it say about us? It speaks to Omahans’ desire to forge ahead and be counted as a premier Midwest city. No mention’s made of Hal Daub, the former mayor whose assertive energy drove Omaha, kicking and screaming, into the big time. He gave Omaha attitude. The film suggests this bold new city is here to stay.
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The inner city awakening that’s happened in South Omaha may or may not be a model for the long overdue revitalization of North Omaha, but there’s no doubt that the momentum that’s transformed large tracts of land once occupied by packing houses and the stockyards and the resurgence of a business district that was long in decline continues moving forward. The following piece looks at some of what has already been done in South O and projects ahead to what may follow as part of the South Omaha Development Plan.
A South Omaha Renaissance
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine
The festive streets, high traffic flow, brisk business and diverse people of South 24th Street are a microcosm of the economic engine and cultural melting pot that South Omaha’s always been. Today, mariachi music plays instead of polka, tamales rule over dumplings and mixed use developments stand where the stockyards and packing plants once stood, but that rich past survives, mixing with a robust present, to keep South O growing.
Now, a Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce initiative called the South Omaha Development Project envisions a new slate of quality of life improvements to make the area even more desirable for residents, employers, workers and visitors.
Project coordinator Karen Mavropoulos and her board are charged with implementing a master plan two years in the making. Architecture, engineering, consulting firm HDR led the study that informed the plan, unveiled in April to mostly positive reviews.
The 178-page report, which earned Omaha Planning Board approval and awaits City Council endorsement, contains recommendations for transformation.
Before Mavropoulos took the post, she headed micro business training development for Catholic Charities, a job that sold the Venezuela native on South Omaha’s potential.
She said, “There’s a lot of good things the area has to offer. I see the passion of the community, I see all the opportunities that are there.”
Chief among South O’s assets, she said, is its energy. “It’s a vibrant place with a lot of activity. The people are very entrepreneurial.”
“The South Omaha community has a pull-yourself-up-from-the-bootstraps mentality. That is going to happen with this project, even in a recession,” said State Sen. Heath Mello, a project board member.
The area’s already seen a resurgence. The busy South 24th business district features row upon row of small businesses that attract shoppers and diners amid a colorful, carefully designed streetscape.
“There’s been some great things done,” said HDR’s Doug Bisson, who led the SODP design team. “There’s vibrancy on South 24 Street — that’s how streets should be, that’s how they always have been, full of activity. That’s what cities are all about.”
The $75 million Salvation Army Kroc Center on the former Wilson packing plant site represents “a neighborhood changing improvement” that makes “the area much more attractive and safe,” said senior Kroc Center officer Major Todd Thielke.
South High School’s new Collin Field is a showplace stadium. The repurposed Livestock Exchange Building is a full-occupancy, mixed-use success. Metropolitan Community College’s South Campus boasts the new South Omaha Library branch.
The Omaha Botanical Center and Henry Doorly Zoo are established, ever-expanding anchors. The Bancroft Street Market and Leavenworth Art Corridor are emerging cultural hubs.
All of it, said Bisson, points to “the synergy going on in South Omaha right now.”
The project is making neighborhoods-housing, commercial centers-corridors and industry-employment its focused implementation areas. There’s also emphasis on enhancing marketing-tourism and transportation-parking.
Mavropoulos said the project depends on partnerships: “There are a lot of organizations doing very good work. We’re here to see where we can align efforts or create synergies, where we can fit in with expertise to help make things happen.”
Addressing substandard homes and creating new affordable homes are priorities. The project plans a campaign educating property owners about upkeep issues and code violations. She said the project may partner with an existing community development corporation or form a new one to coordinate efforts.
Attracting new industries and filling their labor needs is another priority. “For employers to go into an area there has to be space available, incentives (tax) and a skilled labor force that lives nearby,” said Mavropoulos. Strategies include reusing former industrial sites, tax increment financing and job training.
In addition to large employers, she said, “we’re going to work with small businesses.” There’s strong support for a proposed mercado, an incubator for small businesses and artisans in the Plaza de La Raza on South 24th.
“It seems like everyone feels the mercado would be an exclamation point and really help draw in not just area residents but people from throughout the Omaha metropolitan area and probably points beyond,” said Bisson.
Brick-and-mortar changes will take time. Clearing and cleaning brown fields, for example, can take years.
“It’s a 20-year plan, people have to understand that,” said Mavropoulos. “Development plans are not immediate, you don’t see changes quickly. I mean, some things will start happening, but they’ll have to do more with education pieces that go out to the community, which creates the groundwork for bigger projects. It is a process.”
With the master plan complete, she said, “now people just want to see things happen.”
South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance president Duane Brooks said “there’s almost a wait-and-see attitude on what’s going to come out of this implementation process. There’s an amount of skepticism here in South Omaha because there’ve been so many plans developed over the years.”
Bisson said a vetted plan gives stakeholders and developers confidence to invest.
Mello has no doubt a dynamic slate of new growth will follow.
“We’re going to find ways to implement some of our short term goals of improving housing stock, encouraging better work force development and educational opportunities, maximizing public infrastructure and community parks and trails. Those are tangible, completely doable initiatives,” said Mello. “It’s just a matter of bringing the right people to the table for each individual project and following through on that commitment.
“I feel very confident the people leading this project will help some of these short term initiatives come to fruition as we start working towards our longer term goals.”
Visit the project’s website at www.omahachamber.org/sodp/.
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Connie Spellman, the subject of this story, speaks softly but carries a big stick in the form of her sterling reputation for getting things done and the insider organization she heads, Omaha By Design, which under her leadership is doing nothing short of steering Omaha toward a more cohesive and aesthetically pleasing New Urbanism design. See a related story on this blog (in the City Planning/Urbanism category) about the three Omaha city planning directors who helped nudge Omaha in this same direction.
Designing Woman: Connie Spellman Helps Shape a New Omaha Through Omaha By Design
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Connie Spellman’s imprint on Omaha grows every day. As director of Omaha By Design, the Omaha Community Foundation (OCF) initiative attempting to do nothing less than change the face of the city, she has her hands all over the metro.
When she joined what was then called Lively Omaha in 2001 Spellman was already a passionate advocate of the city from her prior Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce career. Her Chamber experience gave her a keen understanding of how the private and public sectors work in Omaha.
“I’d had a wonderful career at the Chamber and couldn’t imagine having another position that was as fun and meaningful and rewarding as that,” she said. “I’d had a year of retirement and other opportunities that sounded like jobs. And I wasn’t ready. And this one came along…”
“This one” refers to her Omaha By Design position, which is that of facilitator and visionary. She brings diverse people together to brainstorm ideas, design guidelines, write zoning-construction codes and develop projects that embody aesthetically pleasing, eco-friendly, cohesive urban planning. The aim is to improve Omaha’s appearance and the way people interact with their lived environment. She works closely with the city, neighborhood groups and the private sector to do that.
She took the newly formed post, she said, because “I love Omaha. I enjoy challenges. I thought the timing was right because sometimes timing is everything. The city was really ready for looking beyond its historic attributes to look at its environment in a bigger picture.”
When then-OCF chairman Del Weber recruited her to the job Omaha was in the throes of an identity crisis. The city embodied stolid Midwestern values predicated on friendliness and work ethic but could claim few signature public spaces. The adverse effects of suburban sprawl, inner city neglect and scattershot development were everywhere.
“We’re a great city of individual projects that were developed without consideration of how they’re connected to each other,” she said.
Studies confirmed Omaha lacked a positive image and that residents, especially younger ones, found the city dull and drab. Spellman said a Gallup survey found only a small percentage of Omahans thought the city attractive.
“I was appalled,” she said. “I thought, What a shame. It means we really haven’t paid attention to it and we didn’t have much pride in it. How can we be competitive and expect our kids to stay here if we think our city is unattractive?”
Foundation supporters, who include some of Omaha’s movers and shakers, hired Minnesota consultant Ronnie Brooks to assess the city’s Wow! factor. He suggested Omaha needed to be more” connected, smart, significant, sparkling and fun.” The foundation created Lively Omaha in 2001 to do just that, but it floundered trying to put into action what sounded so abstract or, as Spellman put it, “nebulous.” Meanwhile, Omaha’s doldrums and inferiority complex festered.
Still, she said, those words by Brooks “in one way or another kept coming back to everything we do — to how we look and how we act…”
Then something happened that brought the organization’s mission into focus. When the downtown-riverfront construction boom began — one that ultimately resulted in $2 billion in new development — Lively Omaha saw the potential for an Omaha makeover on a citywide scale.
The Omaha World-Herald’s Freedom Park, Union Pacific’s and First National Bank’s new headquarters, the Holland Performing Arts Center, the Qwest Center, the Gallup campus, the National Parks Services building, Creighton University’s soccer stadium and new dorms and a beautified Abbott Drive created a dynamic new downtown-riverfront corridor. What had been unsightly was now a picture postcard destination district. These projects signaled a major turnaround in not only Omaha’s appearance but in the way Omahans felt about their city.
More energizing projects followed, including the Saddle Creek Records build-out with Slowdown and Film Streams and nearby hotels in NoDo. More is on the drawing boards, notably the $140 million downtown baseball stadium slated to open in 2011.
The cityscape is changing far beyond downtown as well. Improvements around 24th and Lake Streets and along the South 24th Street business strip, the transformation of the former stockyards site and the mixed use developments going up on the Mutual of Omaha and Ak-Sar-Ben campuses are examples of the New Omaha.
Spellman said such projects are changing residents’ and visitors’ appreciation for a town that’s long battled an image problem.
“That translates into so many things,” she said. “You can’t help but feel good when you’re downtown today or driving into our city. There’s an energy here that’s coming back because people have a vision that is being realized. And I think that attitude can accelerate the implementation of the vision because once you get a taste of it you want more, faster.”
She’s certain if a survey were done today sampling the city’s “It” quotient there would be a very different result than a decade ago.
“I think people would feel better about their community. I think there is a contagion that is going on because of the continued development that’s happening downtown and the revitalization of suburban areas like Village Pointe.
“I see it everywhere — in what people do with their own homes and what they do with their businesses and what they want to see happen with development in general and how they view their city.”
As Omaha comes out from under its shell, she said, not just Chamber wags but every day residents are saying, “’Come look at what we’ve got. Look at what we’re doing.’” Publications from the Kansas City to New York are taking notice.
It’s ironic the woman who has Omaha reinventing itself through sustainable, livable design strategies had to immerse herself in the subject when she got the job.
“I knew nothing about urban design or public space,” she said from her office in the historic Blackstone building. She’s about a stone’s throw away from Mutual of Omaha’s Midtown Crossing at Turner Park project under construction — an example of the kind of transformation she advocates. “I have always had an appreciation of art and architecture but I never really put them in the context of public spaces or design. And so the first thing I had to do was educate myself.”
That posed no problem for this former teacher who’s devoted much of her public service to education. She read, she sounded out experts, she attended trainings.
“Perhaps the basis for most of my education came from Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a national advocacy group,” she said. “It grew out of the work of New York planner William Whyte, whose book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is fascinating. I learned enough to allow me to ask questions. And then I was fortunate enough to meet people like Doug Bisson, a planner at HDR, who recommended more books.”
After PPS training in New York she returned to Omaha to organize Place Making sessions, which she describes “as a way to engage citizens in helping them decide what their own spaces should look like and discover their own neighborhoods’ potential.” Place Games and Place Definitions workshops were held with neighborhood associations. Program Manager Teresa Gleason leads these sessions today. Ideas get broached, goals set and actions taken to make improvements — from lighting to green spaces to facades.
Through these experiences Spellman and others gained a new sense for how Omaha could be flipped.
“I had to have that ‘Ah-ha’ moment in looking at Omaha because I’ve seen it as I’ve always seen it — family-oriented, hard working, conservative. I loved it but I didn’t see it in terms of its potential,” she said. “Then I saw it in terms of what it could look like — a lively, more interesting Omaha that is cutting edge, exciting and fun.
“You can never see the city the same way again once you see it as what it could be. That’s probably the greatest gift to me — opening my eyes to see what the potential is for this city.”
Spellman is unabashedly devoted to Omaha, where she and her husband, attorney Rick Spellman, moved in the ‘70s. It’s where they raised their three kids. Some of Omaha’s greatest ambassadors didn’t start out here and she’s among them. The former Connie Hoy grew up in Wahoo, Neb. Her family moved there from a farm they had near Lincoln. She enjoyed small town life.
“I probably had the most idyllic childhood. I lived a block away from school. The thing about small towns is you’re forced to do everything because there aren’t enough people. I love the opportunity to sample everything. I think that’s useful.”
Her role of helping Omaha see itself in a new light is in keeping with her background.
“I am first and foremost an educator because that’s what I went to school to be,” the 1965 University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate said.
She taught high school in Ashland, Neb. for two years while her husband Rick was in law school. Even then she showed a knack for getting broad coalitions of people involved as she started a speech and theater program. Under her direction community productions of South Pacific and Our Town were staged.
“We got the whole town engaged in these productions,” she said.
Sound familiar? She built coalitions as a volunteer with the Junior League, a women’s group that promotes community involvement and leadership development. Her work there led to her involvement with the Chamber, where she spearheaded corporate leadership and public school education initiatives.
In a sense, what this designing woman does today is direct an epic scale version of Our Town where the props and the players are real and the stakes are for keeps.
The more she steeped herself in what constitutes good design the more she saw Omaha for the first time. The striking new face that began emerging downtown and on the riverfront offered a preview of what could be. It increased expectations.
“With the downtown redevelopment we were beginning to see that transformation is possible and energizing and positive. It was a wonderful catalyst to begin to say, Boy, if we can do it downtown, why can’t we translate this throughout our entire city? We can still be hard working and family-oriented but we can also be cutting edge and exciting and fun. We can be competitive in a regional market which we really hadn’t been. All of that, I think, gives a sense of pride, a sense of energy.”
What became known as Omaha By Design evolved from studies, surveys and discussions prompted by Foundation donors. This led to public meetings where citizens weighed in. The work continues today.
“It’s all citizen-led,” she said. “One of the terms we use is, ‘The citizen is the expert — the community is the expert.’ They know best what they want for their community. We just help them see it differently.”
All the feedback called for a citywide approach focusing on key neighborhoods, districts, corridors, sectors that took a more considered approach to development — from signage to setbacks to lighting to landscaping to public art.
The idea’s to create organic, splendid, interconnected, pedestrian-friendly spaces that make Omaha a more pleasant place to live and therefore a more competitive market for attracting and retaining companies and individuals.
“Besides the feel-good aspect there’s an economic component to this as well,” Spellman said. “If you design a building well, if you have a shopping center that’s easily accessible for pedestrians and exciting and attractive, that’s going to be a return on investment.”
The real work began in response to a pair of new Wal-Mart stores slated for Omaha. Objections arose over the plans for the big box projects and their ugly concrete footprints, which all but ignored elements like greenery or enhanced lighting. Spellman, local elected officials, Omaha Planning Department staff and other concerned citizens concluded if the city wanted projects with more curb appeal than design standards must be adopted that compel developers-builders to conform. Rules and regulations with oversight-enforcement teeth were needed.
“In order to create the vision there had to be a change,” she said. “Otherwise, you would have continued to perpetuate the development that’s gone on before.”
Wal-Mart was Omaha’s line-in-the-sand.
“We weren’t content to take the bottom drawer of a Wal-Mart or any box store,” she said. “We were confident enough to say we won’t accept that anymore. We deserve more.”
That’s when her organization decided to undertake a comprehensive plan, called the Urban Design Element, which meant identifying and articulating areas of the city in need of revitalization and redesign. This required the collaboration of a cross-section of city departments, design firms, real estate developers, lawyers, utilities providers, neighborhood associations and others.
Philadelphia planner Jonathan Barnett helped devise Omaha’s plan. He divided it into three focus areas — Green, Civic and Neighborhoods. “That was one of the best organizational tools we could have come up with,” Spellman said, “because it helps you so much describe it, define it, categorize it, implement it. This way you break it down into very visual, concrete segments that anybody can see. There’s something for everybody.”
A list of goals for each segment is now in place and projects have been targeted within each goal.
The Urban Design Element was not the end game, however.
“It was written not as a plan but as a specific element that once adopted went right into the (city’s) master plan,” she said, “which I think was a brilliant thing. We didn’t want it to be a report that sat on the shelf. Just because it’s part of the master plan doesn’t mean it has the force of law or automatically gets done. It doesn’t unless attention is given to it.
“The highest priority was the implementation of those recommendations that required codification in order to be effective. That became our next major effort.”
In August of 2007 the Omaha City Council unanimously adopted the Urban Design Element into the city’s official master plan. Ideas and goals had been turned into tangible, enforceable codes. As a result, Omaha no longer has to settle for what a developer or builder decides is a sufficient design but the city now has specific standards in place that, by law, must be met.
She said the effort needed both the private and public sectors involved “to make this work and we did have that from the very beginning. It was a wonderful blend that was strategically thought about to make sure that every sector had a voice.”
Spellman got diverse players to sit at the same table and work out the details. Her talent for “bringing people together to get things done” is one of the skills she learned in her 20 years at the Commerce. She managed its Leadership Omaha and Omaha Executive Institute programs and led its education and workforce development initiatives, Omaha 2000 and the Omaha Job Clearinghouse, respectively. Her successes made her a player.
Typical of Spellman, she prefers deflecting attention away from herself and onto others. For example, she credits the Omaha Planning Department with helping make the Urban Design Element a reality.
“I can’t say enough about the role of the Planning Department in making this happen,” she said. “Steve Jensen, Lynn Meyer and Co. are trusted and respected by the development community and they’ve been a real factor in working this through. They were totally professional and patient.”
Her work, however, has been much recognized, including being named The World-Herald’s 2007 Midlander of the Year. She’s previously been the recipient of the Ike Friedman Community Leadership Award and other awards noting her community focus and consensus building.
She said as arduous as creating the Urban Design Element was, “codifying these design standards” was a classic “the-devil’s-in-the-details process” that required innumerable meetings. An expert committee addressed the codification, which among other things put the standards into language that was clear and binding. There was much discussion, argument and compromise.
“It was more technical. It was a smaller, tighter group having to deal with the codes,” she said. “We added more developer-real estate-leasing agent-finance people that really understood the implications of what was going to be asked of them and coupled it with the design community — architects, landscape planners, city department heads — all at the table.
“We thought it was going to be a year’s process. It turned out to be two years. It was the best thing that we did take the two years because nobody had ever done this before. We’re really trying to address so many things from so many different perspectives.”
Spellman said no U.S. city has ever tackled such a sweeping, all encompassing design plan to code.
“Where others had done major sections of code it was usually in a city like Santa Fe, where everything is the same, uniform Southwest look, or a Santa Barbara, where there’s very strict requirements. Well, we didn’t want Omaha to look all the same, so that meant our code doesn’t fit all. Therefore, we really needed to make sure there were no unintended consequences.
“We had to test and reevaluate and retest. There was a several month period where we studied (design) surettes of (mock) urban settings and suburban settings to see how the codes would affect those. Then we learned how topography affects those. It was a true education in how important it is to do it right the first time. It takes time.”
Developers, builders and others who will be working within these codes on future projects expressed various concerns.
“There’s a fear factor,” she said. “What if it doesn’t work? What if it’s going to cost more? What if it’s going to prohibit development? Those are legitimate issues. That’s why it took so long — to be sure that all of us were comfortable with the outcome. The last thing any of us want to do is to hamper economic development. We’re all in this for economic development and quality of life.”
Consequently, nothing’s set in stone. By its nature, urban design is evolutionary.
“It’s not hard and fast,” she said. “Something this big and this broad can’t be perceived as perfect the first time out. That’s why the Technical Advisory Committee decided to stay together to be that sounding board. If the language doesn’t meet the intent then let’s by all means change it. We’re already working on some issues that we discovered need to be changed.”
The committee also serves on the city’s Design Review Board, which is charged with interpreting the codes.
Redesigning Omaha carries the responsibility of being true to all those who’ve participated in the process.
“In a way we’re protecting the interests of all the people that attended meetings and voiced their opinions,” she said. “So we really felt this was a mandate from the community. We went through this process not just as an exercise but as something we want to see because we love our city and we want to make it better. I take that as a responsibility and I don’t want to stop until we’re done.”
Omaha By Design recently released its Streetscape Handbook. This primer for project managers, developers and design professionals offers guidelines for creating enhanced streetscape environments that give careful attention to street fixtures rather than treat them as afterthoughts.
“It deals with all of the street furnishings in the public right of way,” she said. “Signage, street lights, wires, bike racks…If you think about the placement of this stuff you have to have anyway, if you think about maintenance and sustainability and how it relates to each other and how it looks on the street, it makes a whole different visual impression.”
The committee that generated the handbook was made up of architects, landscape designers, city planners, public works professionals, roads experts and “anyone that had something to do with the placement of street furnishings or the streetscape,” she said. “We worked together for 27 months, once a month, to figure out what we needed to do and how we could do it. I think we’re proud of what we’re presenting. It’s an example of people working together because there’s a vision of what we want out city to be some day.”
None of this could happen, she said, without broad support and participation. “We rely heavily on volunteers and community leadership to make these things happen,” she said.
Where is Omaha By Design’s work taking shape?
Projects have now been identified in each of the Urban Design Element’s goals, “which I think is very exciting,” Spellman said. Keep Omaha Beautiful is undertaking one of the first projects — a landscaped highway’s edge at I-680 and Center.
Other efforts are in progress or soon to start. Omaha By Design acts as project manager for some, including the Benson-Ames Alliance, a comprehensive plan for integrating the design of commercial centers with their neighborhoods. The goal is mixed-use centers that blend retail, residential and office in a balanced manner. The plan also addresses transportation, housing and public space issues.
The Alliance has two projects underway — the Cole Creek Project and the Maple Street Corridor Project. The first entails various stormwater construction to help cleanse runoff and moderate the amount of water flowing into Cole Creek; the second designs functional-decorative streetscapes along the Maple corridor and builds on the entrepreneurial growth under way in downtown Benson with a goal of spurring development in neighboring sectors.
All this activity requires Spellman attend many meetings.
“My to-do lists are pages long,” she said.
But she’s doing exactly what she wants to do.
“I’m very fortunate. It’s just a gift. I am totally content and most days very excited about the potential of what we’re doing.”
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Overarching Plan for North Omaha Development Now in Place, Disinvested Community Hopeful Long Promised Change Follows
Here’s a cover story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about a plan and a vision that may at last signal the start of significant turnaround for long stagnated North Omaha. To be more precise – Northeast Omaha, where the predominantly African-American community is located and has awaited meaningful change for going on half-a-century. If it doesn’t happen now, then when?
Overarching Plan for North Omaha Development Now in Place, Disinvested Community Hopeful Long Promised Change Follows
©by Leo Adam Biga
As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Recent adoption of the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan into the city master plan gives direction and impetus to energizing a stagnated, disinvested area never fully recovered from decades-ago civil disturbance and urban renewal.
Unanimous approval by the Omaha Planning Board and City Council sends a strong signal to public-private funders and developers the plan provides an officially endorsed blueprint for action. What happens next to realize its 30-year vision is up to stakeholders, entrepreneurs, elected officials, movers and shakers.
The Empowerment Network initiated plan, which drew input from residents, business concerns, philanthropists, planning consultants and others, envisions $1.43 billion in redevelopment along key corridors. The initiative puts the Northside in the crosshairs of major transformation as never before.
Some plan contributors and likely implementers recently spoke with The Reader about what this means for a section of the city that’s long awaited significant change.
“One reason it’s important is to show the people who participated, who live in the community, that we’re serious about a North Omaha that is a strong component of the overall city, one that shares in the successes and in the future of the whole city,” says Omaha Planning Director Rick Cunningham.
“It’s important because as the Planning Department this gives us then our marching orders. This is what we then work with with developers to compare their ideas and plans against. It gives people a clear understanding of what the vision is and where they can best take their dollars and invest them.”
Omaha Economic Development Corporation president Michael Maroney sees the plan as “absolutely essential” for addressing some sobering realities.
“I’ve been working in this community for over 40 years and over that period of time I’ve heard over and over again from the political leadership of this city, from the corporate-business community, why can’t North Omaha leadership get together and speak with a single voice in terms of what the needs are.
“And this whole effort going back five years in the creation of the Empowerment Network was really in part a response to that, because we recognized we had to start doing things differently.”
The need for a new approach became painfully obvious, he says, in the wake of a 2005 study. It showed that in every quality of life measure constituting a healthy community blacks “were either no better off or worse off compared to the majority community” than they were in 1977, he says.
“That basically said all the good work all of us thought we were doing wasn’t making a difference, not in the overall scheme of things. Something was missing.”
The community action coalition African American Empowerment Network was born.
“We sat around a table and said we’ve got to start working together, we’ve got to start collaborating, we’ve got to start connecting with each other, and bring all our combined talents together,” says Maroney. “That led to this village revitalization visioning we did.”
To those who might regard the resulting plan’s price tag as excessive, he says, “We cannot be afraid of reality. Now we’re not saying we’re going to go out and get a $1.43 billion commitment tomorrow. It’s a 30 year process, and it’s not going to come from any one entity or one source or one area. Government has a role in this, the private sector has a role in this, there’s going to be a lot of bank financing in this thing.”
“When $3 billion has been spent in downtown and midtown, what’s a billion dollars for North Omaha to make it a strong resource, a strong player, a big part of the tapestry for a sustainable Omaha?” asks Cunningham.
It’s no exaggeration to say the plan is a put-up or shut-up moment in Omaha history.
Maroney says, “For decades the greater community has said come together and the support will be there. Well, we’ve done that now, and I have to say we’ve had good vibes all along the way from those various entities. But the proof is going to be in the pudding. We now have a very solid process we’ve gone through that creates a long term vision for the community. We’ve done this in a collaborative way that engaged the city and the business and philanthropic community. Now the question becomes, Will you step up to the plate? We’ve got this down, we’ve got it in phases, we’ve got even the first couple projects identified. So we’re moving to that next level and we’ll see if what has been suggested and indicated for years will actually happen.”
Empowerment Network president Willie Barney says the plan’s “going to take focus and commitment from the community itself,” adding, “New businesses and venues will only be sustainable to the level they’re supported by the people who live here.”
For the area to thrive, says Maroney, “it’s more than just brick and mortar because we know if people don’t feel safe and secure, I don’t care how nice we make it, they’re not going to be there, they’re not going to come.”
Observers agree infrastructure needs like the sewer-separation project must proceed to lay the way for large scale development.
Seventy Five North Revitalization Corp. executive director Othello Meadows says whatever happens next, the Network deserves credit for making North O a priority.
“I’m encouraged by what the Empowerment Network is doing,” he says. “They’ve been consistent, they haven’t let the momentum fizzle out. They’ve been diligent. They’ve put together a really comprehensive plan. Anybody can quibble with aspects of it, but the fact they’ve put this together is a major accomplishment.
“They’ve kept the conversation going long enough to get the attention of the right people and it’s moved to a very concrete step being part of the master plan.”
He’s confident North O has the players it needs to drive the plan to fruition.
“I think there’s far more executors than they’re used to be. There’s more people who are used to being held accountable, to executing and getting things done and who are much less interested in talking about it and much more interested in doing it. That’s the single biggest component of what will make North Omaha successful.”
Another aspect of economic development the plan implicitly addresses is improving work skill readiness and creating more living wage to career job pathways.
“Omaha has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, yet we still have in North Omaha a very high unemployment rate,” says Barney. “We have not really bridged that gap yet. We really haven’t come to grips with job creation and development. I think more so now than ever the business community is alongside us in looking at how to solve this. There are training programs through the Urban League, Heartland Workforce Solutions, Metro Community College that I think will do a more effective job of getting people ready.”
The Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Solutions partners with local employers, Metro and Goodwill Industries to train skill deficient workers for entry level professional jobs. Meadows, who headed the Omaha Workforce Collaborative, says too many North Omaha residents still have “the steepest of hills to climb” to become proficient.
North Omaha is a much studied, social serviced area suffering disproportionately from poverty, unemployment, underemployment, educational-skill gaps and health problems. As Omaha as a whole has prospered, North O’s languished, cut off from the mainstream of commerce and affluence that ranks the city among the nation’s best places to live. For half a century its predominantly black population has seen their community cast as a crime-ridden danger zone and charitable mission district.
Branded as an undesirable place to live or do business in, major investment has bypassed it. Thus, it lacks goods and services, its population is down, its housing stock deteriorated, its vacant, condemned properties number in the thousands. Added to this is a sparse entrepreneurial class and scarcity of entertainment options-attractions.
Planning Director Cunningham says though efforts have “stabilized what was a declining part of town, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of work to do,” adding. “To say we’ve stabilized is not great, but it does give us a platform upon which to move forward.”
“If North Omaha is to be a sustainable community, and that means it really takes care of itself and it doesn’t need to be a welfare community, we have to have a different mind set,” says Maroney. “That does not mean we forsake those in need, but we have to create the atmosphere by which we not only bring back people with higher incomes but we elevate those people within upward. We must create a community that is generating resources that turn around in the community by creating jobs, creating opportunity.”
“The whole idea is to make North Omaha a neighborhood of choice,” says Cunningham. “That not only people who live there now stay, because they can afford to stay, because of new jobs and opportunities, but people who moved away are invited-enticed to move back and people looking for a new place to raise their families move there.”
He says the plan mitigates against gentrification pricing out residents.
“The concept is to not have just one type of housing but a full range of housing types and income levels. I think that’s all through the plan.”
Facilitating mixed income housing projects is what Seventy Five North plans doing. The new nonprofit, in partnership with Purpose Building Communities, is quietly acquiring properties to infuse new life into neighborhoods.
Prospect Hill has recently seen the addition of new “green” homes to its stock of older homes courtesy of a collaborative venture between OEDC, Alliance Building Communities, Holy Name Housing, Wells Fargo Bank and Family Housing Advisory Services. More partnerships like this are needed, says OEDC’s Maroney.
Cunningham says if North Omaha is to be a prime development landscape the same way other parts of the city are, “we need to identify innovative and new ways we can invest. So we’re looking at the economic development tools we have to make it just as easy to develop and reinvest there. We’ve got to do that. We’ve got to utilize the resources of this city.” He says, “A plan like this is a catalyst that begins people thinking about, What if? Why not? and people are doing that already. There are partners (emerging) out there the public doesn’t know about at this point.”
Othello Meadows feels a serious attitude change is necessary.
“One of the things I see a lot is almost this antithetical attitude to people coming into North Omaha to make money,,” he says, “as if it’s almost a bad or exploitive thing, and I don’t understand that. The only way North Omaha grows in a sustainable way is if somebody sees an opportunity to go in there and make some money. That’s how North Omaha gets tied to the rest of the economic prosperity the city has enjoyed.”
Nurturing more entrepreneurs, says Maroney, “is absolutely key. It’s an area we’re working on. It needs a lot of help. A lot of it is access to credit and capital. A lot of its entrepreneurial development training. That’s critical because as we develop all this brick and mortar we need to have people ready to move in and create businesses and jobs and hopefully make a lot of money.”
The city and Chamber are actively recruiting black businesses outside Nebraska to open operations in North Omaha. Consultant Jim Beatty heads an Atlanta initiative that’s imported one business thus far, All(n)1 Security. He says aggressive, wide net efforts like these are needed to market the revitalization plan to entrepreneurs, philanthropists and developers. “I think we need to present North Omaha as an opportunity for investment, and we need to tell that story, not only locally but nationally,” says Beatty, who chairs the Black History Museum board.
The Chamber’s Ed Cochran, who heads the North Omaha Development Project, says, “There are several ways to grow business in a community. One is to grow it organically
through inspiring entrepreneurs with brand new businesses. Another is to strengthen and grow existing businesses. A third is to import businesses from other locations.” He says North Omaha needs all these approaches.
For too long, says Meadows, the Northside has been treated as a charity case.
“I feel like there’s almost a patriarchal type relationship that always leaves North Omaha in a secondary position. At this point North Omaha doesn’t have the capital, in a lot of ways it doesn’t have the personnel, kind of by way of brain drain, to transition itself organically without outside resources. At this point it needs help from philanthropy and individuals whose hearts are in the right place, who simply want to do the right thing.
“I think the compassion that exists in this city is rare, especially in the philanthropic community, but I think we have to have a little bit more analytical, clinical approach.”
While the adjacent downtown, riverfront and mid-town have bloomed, North O’s seen piecemeal, stop-gap change, with pockets of redevelopment surrounded by neglect.
“Historically what we’ve done, and I’ve been a part of that, is have a scattered gun approach toward development,” Maroney says. “A lot of good things have been done, but they’ve been done in isolation. We need to better coordinate and understand how these things relate to each other, and then how you build on top of those. We’re now trying to take a more deliberative and directed approach toward development.”
Backers of the revitalization plan see it as a guide and stimulus to making North O a destination to live, work and recreate in. Among the early focal points is developing 24th and Lake into a heavily trafficked, tourist-friendly arts-culture district.
“In North Omaha one of the real epicenters is 24th and Lake, where you have a really nice combination of history and communal feeling,” says Meadows. “It’s one of the hubs of the community. I think you could make a tremendous splash by focusing on that area. You can’t find somebody who grew up in North Omaha that hasn’t spent a lot of time in that area, whether they got their cut there or they went to church there. So to me it makes sense to start with an area that touches so much of North Omaha.
“If I were a developer I’d start right there. It’s close enough to downtown to draw from a lot of different nodes, which is important.”
Anticipated commercial development would build on existing anchors in strategic areas:
24th and Lake (Bryant Center, Jewell Building, Omaha Star, Family Housing Advisory Services, Blue Lion Centre, Loves Jazz & Arts Center, Omaha Business & Technology Center, Great Plains Black History Museum)
30th and Lake (Salem Baptist Church, Salem Village, Miami Heights, Urban League, Charles Drew Health Center)
Adams Park and the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation
Refinements to 16th and Cuming and the 24th and 30th St. corridors are meant to spur a “seamless transition” from north downtown to North Omaha. Cunningham says “development there would integrate with the downtown and begin to bring the flow of people, goods, enterprise and economic development over into and overlapping with what has been historically the North Side.”
He adds, “We’re working now with 24th Street and an existing building there housing an historic business to revamp their footprint so that it says this is a front door rather than a back door. We’re also working with Creighton (University) and their plans for 24th and Cuming. That’s an entry portal for them too. They’re a partner in this and they have a vision for what’s happening there, really from 30th to 16th Streets, in creating a Cuming that is not a barrier, not a border, but a strong component of activity.”
Asked if it’s vital the first projects find success, Cunningham says. “Absolutely, because that builds momentum. We have to have successes early because it will be easier for the next developer to come in.” Sources indicate government funded projects are likely to launch first to “prime the pump” for private investment to follow.
Sustainability will be critical.
“Each one of those projects, particularly ones in the initial stages, have to be able to stand on their own in the event nothing else happens so that 20 years from now that project will still be there, will still be functioning,” says Maroney. “Not only do we look at what is it going to cost to create that project, but what is it going to take to sustain it over time. We nee to make sure thats built in also.”
Meadows says, “The same kind of rigor, due diligence and economic models that went into determining the feasibility of midtown and downtown development projects needs to take place with each North Omaha project” to ensure their sustainability.
More than anything, Meadows just wants to see change.
“When my friends come to visit from out of town there’s very little positive to show them on the Northside, very little you can point out and say, ‘Wow!’ So I’m glad we potentially have some things to be proud about in our neighborhood, in my community.
“I think North Omaha is really poised. I think residents are getting ready to see actual movement, they’re getting ready to drive down certain streets and see real development, real improvement. I can’t remember when that’s happened here.”
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- Lifetime Friends, Native Sons, Entrepreneurs Michael Green and Dick Davis Lead Efforts to Revive North Omaha and to Empower its Black Citizenry (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Decent House for Everyone, Jesuit Brother Mike Wilmot Builds Affordable Homes for the Working Poor Through Gesu Housing (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Tired of Being Tired Leads to a New Start at the John Beasley Theater (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Soon Come: Neville Murray’s Passion for the Loves Jazz & Arts Center and its Role in Rebirthing North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Miss Leola Says Goodbye (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- After a Steep Decline, the Wesley House Rises Under Paul Bryant to Become a Youth Academy of Excellence in the Inner City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
For years Omaha suffered from no image or, if it had one at all, an unflattering image that connoted a dusty prairie town and not the cosmo metropolitan center it has pretensions of being and is in fact becoming. Part of the city’s transformation on the image front is the dramatic remaking of its riverfront and downtown, and more recently, of some of its midtown and inner city districts. A few years ago I sat down with three men who at one time or another held the title of Omaha City Planning Director to get their input on the emerging new Omaha taking shape, and the following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the result.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
As Omaha embarks on a series of lofty urban developments that promise transforming the city in the most dramatic fashion since the early 1900s boulevard system, The Reader caught up with the burg’s three most recent planning directors for a roundtable discussion on Omaha’s newly emerging face.
Former Omaha City Planning Directors Bob Peters, Marty Shukert and Alden Aust are friends and former colleagues. Meeting in the 11th floor Civic Center office of Peters on the very May afternoon he announced his retirement, Peters looked around at the men who held the same job before him and said, a little wistfully, “This is family.” He suggested the three of them be referred to as “the X-Men.” Aust, now 88, called Peters and Shukert “my two best hires.”
Peters helped oversee the Omaha By Design initiative whose progressive, uniform, community-based New Urbanism planning guidelines and standards have been adopted as master plan policies by the city. He also saw the fruition of long-held plans for redeveloping the riverfront that began with his predecessor and mentor, Aust. Peters and Shukert, another Aust protege, collaborated on 1980s near downtown projects — Town Terrace and Pierce Point — that incorporated features of the New Urbanist design movement. That movement, which advocates pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, integrated village concepts that make dense urban spaces inviting gathering spots and destination points, is at the core of what’s happening here and what’s happened in places like Portland, Ore. and Minneapolis, Minn., two cites that are models for Omaha’s renaissance.
Shukert, a principal and partner with local RDG Planning and Design, served on the Omaha By Design Advisory Committee. He’s contributed to plans for the Millard Town Center Project and prepared urban designs to many other communities.
Aust, whom Peters refers to as “the grandfather of the city.” is credited with making Omaha’s ‘60s-era Return to the River campaign more than a slogan. He pushed through, over much resistance, the creation of the Central Park Mall, renamed in honor of the late Gene Leahy, one of six mayors he served under. Love it or hate it, the mall, which is slated for extensive renovations, reshaped and reenergized a decaying downtown and gave Omahans a new perspective on what their city could be. More importantly, the mall was the first conduit to what eventually became, thanks to additions that extended it eastward to 10th Street and later linked it to the Heartland of America Park, Omaha’s new public connection to the riverfront. As recently as a decade ago, the same riverfront that’s now home to Rick’s Boatyard Cafe, Louis and Clark Landing, Qwest Center-Hilton, the National Parks Division headquarters, the Gallup training complex and newly under-construction high-rise condos, was an industrial wasteland.
The X-Men have been involved in a decades-long process, whose latest and most dynamic chapter is the grassroots Omaha By Design effort, to reimagine and retrofit the city as a true urban center drawing people and activity together. Much of what the X-Men have worked towards is articulated in recently announced plans for multi-million dollar developments around Mutual of Omaha-Turner Park, the Ak-Sar-Ben property and north downtown or No-Do. Similar revitalization is being realized on the riverfront and the north-south sides of town.
They’ve seen Omaha stagnate and sprawl, aspire and achieve. They’ve been there for its missteps and inspirations. While not in the city’s direct employ anymore, the X-Men act as consultants. Each shares a personal and professional interest in what’s gone on before in urban design here and each is curious about the shape of things to come. Their strong views on what Omaha can be reflect their passion for the city. They’re optimistic about the prospects of Omaha finally metamorphosing into the cosmo cityscape it’s been haphazardly flirting with for generations. They feel its maturation, in aesthetic design terms, has the city poised to shake off the image problem that’s always dogged it. They say it’s a matter of confidence.
“Image is a very hard thing to change,” Shukert said. “You don’t have control over it. But it’s not impossible. There are places that have transformed their image. Baltimore, for example. Indianapolis. Frankly, our image is that we are a cow town. And there will be people in various parts of the country who will have a hard time thinking of us as anything different. Part of what’s important is our own image of ourselves. When we stop seeing ourselves as that way, but as a different and transforming place, then that image is going to be communicated to other places.”
“I think it’s happening now,” Peters said. “First of all, there’s a pride I’ve never seen exhibited so visibly in this community. It’s been a difficult romance, but residents have finally fallen in love with Omaha. Some of the events along the new riverfront have a big city atmosphere. That doesn’t happen except in those circumstances when things click. And things click for a reason. I mean, we’ve got new clothes. Great cities are defined by their cultural arts and the corporate leaders in this community recognized that quite some time ago, and what’s been developed here is significant and wonderful for visitors and residents. We have the Western Heritage, the botanical gardens, the zoo, the Joslyn, the Qwest Center, the new Holland Performing Arts, the riverfront. We’ve got great neighborhoods. We’ve got great bones to build on. They’re environments and experiences that are probably unexpected, and I think that’s what Urbanism is about.”
“I don’t know who it was that defined Urbanism as a place that provides a high probability of unplanned positive encounters,” Shukert said, “but that’s it.”
Alden Aust and Bob Peters
Historically, Omaha’s city-led design approach was an isolated process with no overarching, codified standards and little public input. That resulted in Omaha having some of the barest, “ugliest streets,”imaginable Peters said. Basic elements of good design were ignored. “City streets were put in” with no corresponding plan “to plant trees and to do median landscaping,” he said. “Simple, inexpensive measures that would make a world of difference.” That’s changed with Omaha By Design and the related Destination Midtown. These corporate-neighborhood association led-actions have opened the process up to dialog, review and goal-setting by everyone from small business merchants to CEOs to home owners in making things like streetscape improvements and green spaces a matter of policy.
“The sea change with Omaha By Design is that it’s privately funded. It is a buy-in by the private business and neighborhood community as opposed to a planning director saying, ‘Oh, I think we’ll put $100,000 in the budget this year and do an urban design plan.’ And here’s why that’s important: Not that many years ago the standards proposed in that process would have been dismissed as socialism or as unnecessary frills or maybe as good enough for the East Coast but not something we need in Omaha,” Shukert said. “Now, we’ve evolved to the point where it is the corporate community and not pointy-headed planners who are in fact demanding and enforcing those standards. And when that happens those standards actually become law and owned by the community.”
To Shukert’s dismay, not everyone embraces Urbanism. He said, “Some question spending $25 million on the proposed Missouri River pedestrian bridge, but spending $120 million on an elevated (West Dodge) expressway is no big deal.” “To get through two stop lights,” Peters said disdainfully. “That’s the most God-awful expenditure I’ve seen in this city in a long time,” added Aust.
“There are projects and features that do tend to drive us apart and be the enemy of Urbanism,” Shukert said, “and those things are obstacles. And sometimes they’re our own fault. We still in this city live very far apart. We have people who’d like to live further apart yet. Who’s image is very anti-urban — it’s an acreage out in the country. There are neighborhoods that believe a commercial development or a lower-priced home will depress property values, and so they build walls.”
Shukert said those that question “the need” for something like the pedestrian bridge to link Omaha and Council Bluffs just don’t get it.
“Chicago didn’t need the Millennium Park. New York didn’t need Central Park. The St. Louis Arch wasn’t necessary. But, in fact, those elements make a city great. We’re getting to the point where we’re realizing the value of making the place great as opposed to functional. One thing we’ve seen clearly is an elevation of community standards, expectations and acceptance. A critical point has been reached. We’re not all the way there yet, but we’re getting there,” he said.
What set the stage for this heightened design awareness here?
“For one thing, lifelong or long-term Omahans have traveled and seen places they like and wonder why those places don’t exist here,” Shukert said. “Then there’s the demand for a higher standard that people new to the city bring from other places they’ve lived. Finally, some of the major corporations, like First National Bank and the Omaha World-Herald, have made huge investments in top quality design. They, in effect, said, We’re establishing this standard that everybody else should live up to, and so they become standard-bearers.”
“I think it’s a reflection of what the community has always desired but there wasn’t a discussion that became so public as to coalesce and congeal those desires,” Peters said. “The transformation of the riverfront was the linchpin of that. It focused everybody’s attention on a relatively few projects that changed the physical makeup of the city forever.”
Shukert described “three transformational projects, all related to Mr. Aust’s original vision of downtown Omaha,” that showed the way. “The first of those was the Gene Leahy Mall. You don’t know the struggle to get that thing done. When it was finished people said, ‘This doesn’t look like Omaha.’ It was the project that showed Omaha it could be something else. Project number two was the ConAgra campus. There are still those who argue whether it was the right design or the right use for that land or whatever, but it certainly changed the nature of the debate and, for the first time. it engaged the city with its river.
“The third project that really kicked things into high gear was the riverfront development north of the I-80 bridge — the Qwest Center, Hilton and everything else. It’s begun to make downtown Omaha a west Omaha-type development real estate market that is a self-sustaining market people invest equity in.”
The X-Men agree that proposed new developments, along with others envisioned around the 72nd Street corridor and a stretch of inner city Dodge, fit nicely into the new Urbanism scheme, which isn’t so new after all.
“New Urbanism is to some degree very skillful packaging of what always used to be,” Shukert said, “and that’s Urbanism. Neighborhoods like Dundee and Benson and some elements of Millard and Florence are in some ways a model for what New Urbanism is trying to recreate. There are certain patterns that describe an urban environment. They deal with public space, with connectedness, with scale and intimacy, with how people experience a neighborhood or district in its variety of social functions and interactions. And there are many ways to skin that cat.”
Being sensitive to and taking advantage of an area’s unique attributes, he said, is key. ”Different solutions are appropriate in different areas.” If there’s a unifying principal, however, it’s connectedness. “That involves having civic spaces where people meet each other as opposed to being compartmentalized in cars or having a mix of uses not cordoned off one from another,” Shukert said. “Ultimately what we want to try and be about is the creation of great places and experiences that are connected to one another.”
Shukert said a lack of design standards allowed the suburban strip mall scene to get out of hand here — in areas like 132nd and Center and 144th and Maple. “Despite tremendous investment, they developed in a sort of piecemeal, separated way. They never quite came together as a destination” He said a response to those mistakes is seen in projects like Village Pointe, Shadow Lake and Twin Creek. “While not perfect, they attempt to pull elements together. It’s a realization that some commercial developments really are activity centers and really need to function that way and should not just be individual, separated buildings that surround parking lots and that impose bewildering traffic patterns.”
Omaha missed an opportunity to create connections on an epic scale by never completing the original park and boulevard system designed by Horace Cleveland and by not building new linkages between neighborhoods and attractions. “It’s important we don’t make that mistake again,” said Shukert. “A characteristic of a great city is a progression of districts and features that make it a rich experience. That’s why things like the pedestrian bridge and trails are important, because they link things together.” Even “greening the streets,” he said, can give a sense for “being part of a greater whole” and “reinforcing” core aesthetic design elements.
While the park-boulevard system wasn’t fully realized, Peters said, what there is of it provides a “seamless” approach that anchors areas and give them identities. “The health and vibrancy of the neighborhoods north and south along that network is directly related to that system. It created interconnectedness and an image.”
Now on the drawing board is nothing short of a complete make-over of the city, including mammoth redevelopment plans, streetscape improvements and public works projects. Old neighborhoods and business districts are in line for rebirths. There’s no telling yet which projects will reach fruition. Developers and funding must be found for some.
“It’s never been done in any city on a comprehensive basis. Other cities have done a downtown plan or an open space plan or a riverfront plan, but no city has taken from the civic, neighborhood and green perspectives and remodeled and created what that city is going to be from that point forward,” Peters said.
“One of the only other purely privately funded planning efforts of this magnitude I can think of is the 1909 plan of Chicago,” Shukert said. “And what did that accomplish? It accomplished the city of Chicago as we know it today.”
The X-Men said developments and amenities in Omaha will still be in isolation from each other unless an organic linkage solution is found. Public transportation is one possibility. Alden Aust proposed an elevated rapid transit light rail system back in the ‘70s. It found scant support then and later attempts to revive such plans fizzled. Studies show the costs to build and maintain a system of that sort is prohibitive in a market where projected ridership numbers are deemed too low to sustain it. The most likely form a connecting public transit system will take, Peters said, is a trolley system like those floated in recent years.
“If it happens,” Peters said, “the first modeling of it will be to link destinations-attractions. Rosenblatt with the zoo with the botanical gardens with Western Heritage with Joslyn with the Old Market with the Qwest Center. By doing that, you’re creating the boulevard system of the 21st century. The old system connected pastoral locations that became a network of parks where eventually neighborhoods developed and linked to it. If the corporate leaders ever decide to support a transit system linking destinations, the neighborhoods adjacent to those attractions will explode. It will be a renaissance along those streets.”
Omahans may not have long to wait, Shukert said, if plans for No-Do come to life in the mix of restaurants, live music venues, movie theaters, shops and residential units that Blue Stone Development and other developers envision there. “It’s building a neighborhood that connects the Qwest Center and the riverfront with Creighton (University). It’s a linkage concept entirely. Pedestrian and transit facilities then become the spine that can create stronger neighborhoods.”
Peters acknowledges Omaha has moved slowly in reaching an urban design consensus that heralds reformation, but he said acting cautiously has let it study what similar-sized cities have done right and wrong. Now, he said, an Uber Omaha is primed to arise. “We’re going to surprise the hell out of people”
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