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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