Makeover on 16th Street? -
Published Friday, November 15, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 7:27 pm
Downtown rebound
Makeover on 16th Street?

Like anybody else with a stake in the stretch of 16th Street that runs through downtown, Sara Webster has heard it all before.

Three decades ago, the city, business owners and other donors pitched in $20 million to make over the downtown district into a lively pedestrian mall, complete with wide sidewalks, landscaping and artsy glass bus shelters.

That effort failed in a big way. For years, office buildings emptied out, businesses struggled to survive and the big, open walkways became a gathering spot for Omaha's homeless and dozens of people waiting for buses.

Despite talk about trying again, the street's slow decline continued.

But now, people like Webster, property manager of the Orpheum Tower apartments, are starting to believe there may be something to all the talk about a 16th Street rebound.

Last year, the city pulled out the old, rusty, graffiti-covered bus stops. Officials are meeting regularly with business and property owners, and the city is taking proposals from contractors for the first block of a streetscape project.

And at the Orpheum Tower, there's been some activity, however small. Crews have come by to take measurements of the building to see how it would fit in with the city's plans.

“I actually am optimistic that something's going to happen,” Webster said. “They've not only come once, they've come twice — which makes me feel like they're a little more serious.”

The plan — which has been floating around since 2009 — would cut back the wide sidewalks, providing room for parking stalls up and down 16th Street from Dodge to Leavenworth Streets.

In total, there would be 95 parking spots, 29 of them parallel parking and 66 of the back-in angle variety. The trees lining the street would be cut down and replaced with new trees, shrubs and perennials. The skywalk between Douglas and Farnam Streets would be removed, and eventually, most of the 350 buses that pass through every day would be rerouted to a new transit center.

In short, said City Engineer Todd Pfitzer, it would be “more of an open, pedestrian-friendly space.”

City Councilman Chris Jerram said he and others have been holding monthly meetings with business and property owners in the area. The city launched a website with information about the project and put the first small chunk of the project — the block between Dodge and Douglas Streets along First National Tower — out for bids, with a Nov. 20 deadline.

According to the timeline, work on the first phase of the project would begin in April and wrap up by mid-May. Phase two, which would cover Douglas to Howard Streets, would begin in June and be completed by October.

What hasn't been sorted out, however, is who will pay for the work.

The city has just under $2 million marked for the project for 2014 and 2015 in its capital improvement program. But a sizable portion of that money is listed as “other local funds” — money that would have to be dug up from private donors.

The total project is estimated to cost just more than $7 million.

Jerram said the city is working to iron out any technical problems and draw up final plans so it can share them with people who may want to contribute to the project.

“The model that we're trying to use is similar to what we used in Dundee with the Underwood project,” he said. “We have to have more design completed so we can approach the major foundations and donors as well as the property owners who will need to have buy-in. We're working feverishly to try to get that done.”

He said some people want more specific plans from Metro on what it will do with its bus routes before they commit to a donation. For now, the transit agency says it will reroute buses once construction begins on 16th Street, but it doesn't have a specific plan for where it would build a new transit station.

Curt Simon, Metro's executive director, said that decision won't be made until the completion of a public process for a major central Omaha transit study. A public meeting on that project is scheduled for Dec. 3 at the Mutual of Omaha auditorium at 33rd and Dodge Streets.

Despite the hold-ups, people who spend time on 16th Street are seeing some changes happen on their own. New businesses have moved in, including Culprit Cafe & Bakery. And the historic Lerner Building, at the Harney Street intersection, is in line for a major facelift that includes construction of three new stories on top of the existing structure.

Dennis Siegrist, who lives with his family in the Brandeis Building, said he's still dealing with such headaches as people urinating in the alley, littering and congregating near bus stops. He remains hopeful that the area can become the kind of thriving, safe neighborhood where people want to spend time and feel comfortable at any time of day or night.

That, he said, is going to take some considerable changes.

“The street has so much character as it is, and with redevelopment, more businesses and shopping and restaurants down here its going to be fantastic,” he said. “But in the meantime, I think there's an overwhelming sense of this area not being very good.”

Contact the writer: Erin Golden    |   402-444-1543    |  

Erin covers the Omaha City Council and the Mayor's Office.

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