Drive west from the Old Market and the heart of Omaha's downtown business district, and you encounter a stretch of blocks that seem to have lost their way.
There are plenty of big institutions — Joslyn Art Museum, Central High School and the Rose Theater, among them — but just as many vacant storefronts, empty office buildings and unkempt parking lots. It's a bit of a no man's land, wedged between the well-established Old Market and Midtown Crossing neighborhoods.
To city planners and a handful of developers beginning to transform the area, it represents an unprecedented opportunity.
“A lot of cities would kill to have something that close to their downtown main area that empty, to be able to bring it up,” said Todd Heistand, co-owner of NuStyle Development Corp., which is turning the former Northern Natural Gas Co. headquarters at 22nd and Dodge Streets into apartments.
For years, as developers have transformed neighborhoods such as north downtown, Midtown Crossing and Aksarben Village into trendy destinations, city officials have wondered what to do about the area roughly between Dodge and Harney Streets, from 20th to 25th Streets.
Now, for the first time, they have a plan.
This month, the Omaha Planning Board approved the Joslyn Neighborhood Development Study. It's the result of a year-long process of surveys, public open houses and planning meetings. The 73-page report, which will go to the City Council for a vote, includes a long list of recommendations planners think would give the area an identity: “the new heart of downtown Omaha.”
None of the projects will happen immediately. Most would require additional study and a combination of public and private funding.
But Rick Cunningham, city planning director, said the study will help guide new projects that go through his office.
“When people come in and want to (develop), we will be looking to the plan that's adopted by the Planning Board as sort of a guidance, a vision for that area,” he said.
Already, there are signs of new life on the west side of downtown.
NuStyle's project, called the Highline, is nearing completion. The 15-story, 1950s office building is scheduled to reopen April 1 with 194 new apartments.
Heistand said he sees the building as a spark for bigger things in the area. He has seen similar transitions in other neighborhoods: NuStyle renovated the Tip Top building in north downtown nearly a decade ago.
“It took about eight developers in that area to really get it going full blast, working better, to get it popping,” he said.
A few blocks south, near 24th and Farnam Streets, Arch Icon Development and Construction is renovating the former Downtown Boxing Club building into apartments and office space.
Darin Smith, co-owner of the company, said Arch Icon had been looking at the area for a while. When he saw the Highline making progress and heard about bigger plans for the neighborhood, he decided it was time to jump in.
“Bits and pieces of the area are a little rough, but overall, it's really a building here and a building there that need a bit of attention,” he said.
The Junction, Arch Icon's project, will have 12 apartments and office space that is to be used as a photography studio. Renovation work should wrap up by late April.
Both Smith and Heistand said they believe their projects will fill up quickly because of growing demand from young professionals looking to spend their money on nicer — if slightly smaller — living spaces and be close to downtown workplaces and attractions.
The first tenants to move into the buildings will be pioneers, of sorts. There are few occupied residential units in the area.
Heistand, who helped with the Joslyn Neighborhood Development Study, said planners figured that out early on in the process.
“We said, 'OK, let's get all the neighbors together' — and there was nobody really there,” he said.
Joe Gudenrath, executive director of the Downtown Improvement District, said he expects that to change if the city and developers start making their way down the list of recommendations. Once the area feels more accessible, like the Old Market, he said, it will become more of a housing destination.
Both Gudenrath and Cunningham pointed to efforts already in the works, like expanding bike lanes on Harney Street. There's talk about expanded bus routes that could help move people through the entire downtown area.
“It's almost a blank canvas, to where there are redevelopment opportunities for large-scale development that might not be possible in a central business district or Midtown Crossing,” Gudenrath said.
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