For years the building has sat empty and forlorn, a once-handsome structure tied to downtown's long-past heyday.
But now downtown is making hay in a different way. And the longtime eyesore is on its way to becoming an eye-pleasing home to 48 apartments and, it is hoped, street-level stores.
The 1929 Barker Building, a seven-story office building on the southwest corner of 15th and Farnam Streets, has been boarded up for years. But financing is mostly in place for an $8.8 million redevelopment.
“Several years ago, we kind of fell in love with that building, and everything that was going on around it,” said Royce Maynard, president of Dicon Construction, which owns it. “And it's got a pretty long history on that corner.”
The Barkers were an early Omaha family arriving in 1856, two years after the founding of the city. Before long, the family acquired real estate.
Two previous Barker Buildings burned down before Peter Kiewit built the concrete-and-steel neo-Gothic structure on the same site, 306 S. 15th St.
From 1994 to 2002 it was owned by the Maharishi Vedic University, and was home for a few years to healing classes and Transcendental Meditation. But it was boarded up by 1999, and then purchased by a Seattle-based nonprofit corporation that planned to convert it for condominiums.
That project failed and Maynard said Dicon, which was to be the contractor, “more or less inherited it.”
Dicon eventually hooked up with Shamrock Development and Alley Poyner architects, and the Omaha City Council next Tuesday will hold a public hearing on a request for tax increment financing. TIF diverts future gains in real-estate taxes to subsidize project costs.
Once the area's major retail center, downtown Omaha declined the same way as many downtowns in the late 1960s and the '70s, with department stores closing and heading for the suburbs.
In recent decades, though, downtown has transitioned — first with the development of shops and restaurants along the brick streets of the Old Market and then with gleaming new headquarters for Union Pacific and the First National Bank, as well as public and private development along the riverfront.
With the Heartland of America Park, the Holland Performing Arts Center, the CenturyLink Center for conventions, sports and concerts, the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge and the TD Ameritrade ballpark, downtown is a new and different place. Around the Slowdown music venue and the Film Streams art-house movie theaters, north downtown is redeveloping, too.
But unpleasant vestiges of decline remain, and the Barker Building — despite a seemingly excellent location — sticks out like, well, like a bloodshot eye. It hurts to look at it.
Harold Peterson, who owned the building and operated the Peterson Brothers insurance and real estate business from there before selling the structure in the 1980s, said Monday he is pleased to learn that the building finally will be redeveloped.
“It was a high-class building and I liked the location and the design very much,” Peterson said. “A lot of people still associate it with us, and it looks bad.”
He said the redevelopment of other parts of downtown, including the Old Market, “has exceeded my imagination.”
In the past 15 years or so, it has exceeded lots of people's imaginations. And the area has attracted downtown residents who enjoy what Shamrock developer Mike Moylan called “the urban atmosphere.”
In the block east of the Barker Building, Moylan converted the old Paxton Hotel, a vacant, 12-story structure slated at one time for demolition, into 58 condominiums — 57 of which have been sold.
Today, he said, the apartment market is strong. Occupancy rates are high downtown, and “there is a pent-up demand.”
The condominium phase downtown appears to have mostly run its course. In large part because of the difficult national economy, the WallStreet Tower condo project on the empty site of the previous Union Pacific headquarters never got off the ground — or even into it.
Moylan and Maynard, both Omaha natives, said they are confident the much smaller Barker redevelopment will go forward. Interior demolition is under way, and they say construction could start by late summer, with occupancy next year.
The building is flanked by restaurants on three sides — Sullivan's to the north, Jazz to the east and the Zin Room to the south.
Also nearby are the Orpheum Theater, the main public library, the Gene Leahy Mall and lagoon, and the U.P. and First National Buildings. City Hall, the courthouse and the Woodmen Tower sit two and three blocks to the west.
Moylan said the 72,000-square-foot Barker Building has access to nearby surface parking. Rents probably would range from $900 to $1,200 per month.
If all goes well, it will be another step in the renaissance of downtown Omaha.
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