Revitalization of downtown Omaha's worn-out 16th Street mall is back on track, with the first tangible change due to arrive by mid-2012.
The project now has seed money and an accepted redesign plan, and bus operator Metro is moving forward with relocating its downtown transit center.
This week, the city's Urban Design Review Board signed off on plans to slim down 16th Street's overly wide sidewalks, create a plaza in front of the Orpheum Theater, return parking to the street and install decorative pavement, landscaping and street lights.
The city's 2012 budget allocates $800,000 to formalize the design and tentatively earmarks $1.5 million for 2013 to start construction.
As behind-the-scenes work continues next year, Metro plans to take a stream of buses off the stretch as early as next June.
Curt Simon, Metro's executive director, said the organization has funding to build a new downtown transit center farther north near 16th and Cass Streets. If the remaining details fall in place, the center could be open by the College World Series, he said.
Joe Gudenrath, executive director of the Downtown Improvement District, said he's pleased by the progress, but cautioned that the 16th Street project has a ways to go before moving into construction.
The biggest question looming: Can the city and private interests come up with another $4 million or so to carry out the project?
Gudenrath said 16th Street businesses and residents are still interested in the project. But he said it was too early to know how the funding might shake out.
"Everybody sees this as a very important corridor in the downtown," he said.
For more than two years, the downtown group, city planners and a private consultant have been trying to come up with a new plan to spruce up the street and entice back pedestrian traffic and businesses.
Instead of a business corridor populated with shoppers and diners, the area often has become a place for vagrants and loiterers.
In February 2010, a revitalization plan got shredded when it went before the city's urban design board.
Board members expressed concern that the plan would be little better than the 1980s-era pedestrian mall, which flopped in its attempt to return 16th Street to a bustling shopping center.
The latest plan, which the board approved Thursday with little discussion, is an attempt to get back to basics along the stretch.
Sidewalk widths would be cut in half in spots, while still allowing for fresh landscaping and space for outdoor dining. The excess sidewalk would become diagonal parking, although planners would throw drivers a curve by trying out back-in diagonal parking, where you back into the space instead of going in front-first.
Jed Moulton, the city's urban design manager, said the city wants to introduce a concept to Omaha that's becoming more popular nationally. He said it's considered safer because cars that are leaving don't back into traffic, people who've been shopping can load trunks from the curb and kids getting out of a car unload toward the curb.
"It's a little learning curve, but at the end of the day, people really like it," he said.
Outside the Orpheum, the block would have a plaza design that allows the street to be closed off for special events. The sidewalks would be on the same level as the street and without a curb, set off instead with small vertical bollards. Parking would be parallel, allowing people to drive up and drop off in front of the theater.
Overall, the seven-block redesign of 16th Street would extend from Dodge Street south to Leavenworth Street, where a four-lane street would be cut to two lanes and sidewalks would gain the same features as the northern-most stretch.
Moulton said the design provides a good example of what a downtown, urban street should look like. Moulton said planners are trying to avoid over-designing the stretch to keep the street itself from becoming too much of the focus.
Planning Director Rick Cunningham said construction might not start until 2013. But with a design in place, he said, the plan's supporters can start fundraising to fund work on specific blocks.
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