Omaha B2B Quarterly Magazine article

Destination Midtown
Operation Renaissance

No matter the city, it’s a common scenario: A public hearing where a developer or institution excitedly lays out expansion plans followed by citizens taking an angry turn at the microphone to explain how the project will hurt their neighborhoods and property values.

The players behind a proposed master plan to redevelop Midtown Omaha, however, have turned this recurring theme on its ear. Instead of antagonism, Midtown neighborhood associations, public institutions, city government, and small and big businesses alike are emphasizing their common interests and desires as they promote the plan called Destination Midtown.

This ambitious redevelopment strategy is designed to restore Midtown’s faded luster and transform the area into a “destination” that attracts Omahans to live, work, shop and play.

“I feel a new era in Omaha has been established,” says Ron Frey, president of the Gifford Park Neighborhood Association.

The bold aspirations of the privately financed Destination Midtown plan are described in a 159-page document released to the public in May. The plan, given final approval by the City Council on August 17, defines Midtown as the 3.6 square miles bounded by Cuming Street to the north, Center Street to the south, Saddle Creek Road to the west, and 24th Street to the east.

Destination Midtown sets out the blueprint for turning Midtown into a pedestrian-friendly “city within a city” that encourages a happy mix of small businesses and residences, refurbished parks and green spaces, tree-lined streets, safer transportation routes, improved building code enforcement, and an overall emphasis on improved aesthetics and public safety.

Some of the 101 proposals—such as transforming Dodge Street into a tree-lined boulevard and a light-rail shuttle system—are bold and intriguing, but are obviously years away. Others, such as reconfiguring traffic flow and improving intersections, are more likely to be accomplished fairly quickly.

“The hallmark of Destination Midtown is that it’s a true partnership … with so many different interests coming together with one common goal,” says Doug Bisson, Destination Midtown’s project manager and a community planner for HDR, the architectural firm hired in 2001 to coordinate the project.

The seeds of Destination Midtown were planted years ago when officials from Mutual of Omaha, Creighton University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center came together to discuss their building and expansion master plans, says John McClelland, a senior vice president of Mutual and chairman of the Destination Midtown steering committee.

“As we talked, we realize that this really involves more than just us … because (neighborhoods and small businesses) are involved,” McClelland says.

Once HDR was hired, workshops and nine public meetings were held over the next 1-1/2 years until Destination Midtown was officially announced on April 1, 2003. The meetings were attended by officials from the three institutions, city officials, and representatives from Midtown small businesses and neighborhood associations.

All involved now sing the praises of Destination Midtown, but the early meetings revealed the neighborhood associations’ apprehension about what Mutual and others had in mind.

“This was a neat opportunity because you don’t often get Fortune 500 companies calling you to get involved,” says Margie Magnuson, past president of the Joslyn Castle Neighborhood Association.

Magnuson says many residents were concerned early on that Mutual and other Midtown businesses were simply pushing their own agenda.

“Big business operates very different than a neighborhood association,” Magnuson says. “So the first couple of months, we were really learning to come together and break down stereotypes. We came to believe that yes, they are sincere. It’s great to see them care about and be concerned about more than just their perimeters around their building ”

The turning point from mistrust to cooperation, McClelland says, came when steering committee members took a tour of Midtown by bus. That’s when all involved realized that everyone’s concerns are basically the same: public safety, transportation, building codes and economic development.

“The health of the neighborhoods is just as critical to the health of the institutions as the institutions are to the neighborhoods,” says Frey, the neighborhood association president. “Some of the institutions have come to a place where they realize that they are part of an environment that involves their neighbors. And if those neighborhoods decline, it hurts their interests.”

Creating an attractive Midtown is in Mutual’s best interest because it makes working for the insurance giant attractive for employees who can feel comfortable and safe working and living in Midtown, McClelland says. “We (Mutual) are part of the city, and we want to sustain the environment we work and live in,” he says.

Of Destination Midtown’s 101 proposed projects, three will be studied at a cost of $200,000 as part of Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey’s fiscal 2005 budget:

  • Turning Famam and Harney streets in Midtown back into two-way streets.
  • Reconfiguring the intersection of Turner Boulevard and Douglas Street near Turner Park.
  • Studying traffic patterns at the Saddle Creek Road-Dodge Street intersection.

The budget also includes increased building code enforcement with the addition of one housing inspector, greater community policing, and an increase of $35,000 to $85,000 for the mayor’s neighborhood grant program. These initiatives will benefit Destination Midtown, says Pete Festersen, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff.

“The mayor is committed to the Destination Midtown plan and sees it as a bi model to move the city forward,” he says.

In addition, Mayor Fahey announced a fiscal 2006 contribution of $200,000 for the construction of a plaza in front of Saint Cecilia Cathedral (at 40th and Webster streets) to commemorate the Cathedral’s 100th anniversary. The improvements areintended to extend down 40th Street to Dodge Street as well. The city is working with the Joslyn Castle Neighborhood Association on the project, Festersen says.

Of the projects, Bisson, the project coordinator, says changing Farnam and Harney back into two-way streets (like they were until the 1970s) with on-street parking is the key first element in transforming this east-west corridor into a mixed-use district that encourages pedestrian foot traffic and a mix of shops, restaurants and other retail and commercial uses.

The current one-way setup, Bisson says, is great for moving traffic quickly into and out of downtown, but has contributed to the deterioration of surrounding areas and is not conducive to good business. Bisson envisions the Farnam-Harney corridor as an “uptown” area similar to the LoDo District in Denver, Minneapolis’s string of urban uptown areas, and Dallas’s West Village.

“The demographics are definitely here, and we can do the same,” he says. Those involved know there are obstacles to implementing the Destination Midtown vision, especially encouraging gun-shy developers to take a chance on Midtown.

“In west Omaha, land is plentiful and a developer can do what he wants,” says Jim Champion, the director of the Midtown Business Association and owner of Charlie Graham Body and Service.

“Here developers are a little reluctant because it’s more piecemeal and dense and limited. But once one project gets in, it will domino from there.”

Development in an urban area like Midtown presents challenges, but they can be overcome with the Destination Midtown model of cooperation, McClelland says. “An urban setting like this … creates diversity and makes for more difficult issues, but you can do it when you bring more people to the table,” he says.