There’s an encore in the works for the century-old Maryland Theatre and its neighborhood south of downtown Omaha along 13th Street.
The former 492-seat movie hall and a pair of connecting structures were sold recently to a developer seeking to revive the trio as trendy retail, office and entertainment venues.
Nearby, a Hoarder’s Paradise just opened. Close to that, a 123-year-old structure is deep into a half-million-dollar transformation that will create a personal residence and expanded offices for a local lawyer.
All are signs of a new movement underway to bring the kind of urban energy sweeping downtown and midtown Omaha to one of the city’s oldest and storied neighborhood spines.
Once the heart of the city’s Czech immigrant community, the 13th Street corridor centered at William Street lost much of its vibrancy and young ethnic generations decades ago to suburban flight.
With urban living back in vogue, city planners and real estate experts say the enclave’s walkability, proximity to the Old Market, architectural charm and surrounding residential areas should make it easier for resurgence to take hold.
“It has all the right bones,” said Jed Moulton, the City of Omaha’s urban design manager. “There’s a lot of potential, and physical characteristics that make it a great pedestrian, neighborhood-centered district.”
P.J. Morgan Investments Inc. is among those staking a claim on the corridor with the recent purchase of the three-building redevelopment project spanning about 19,000 square feet south of William. Anchoring that cluster is the former Maryland that operated as the Berkley Theatre into the mid-1950s.
Most recently, that grouping of buildings erected in 1909, 1916 and 1948 served as a bumper and auto business that now is down the street in a newly constructed facility.
While many area storefronts are empty or in disrepair, Morgan’s Ryan Ellis said the residential boom on nearby 10th Street makes its 13th Street counterpart ripe for retail and services such as a bakery, restaurant, coffee shop or bike shop. The theater’s exposed metal trusses and brick walls, he said, offer a setting for unique clothing shops, offices, or even a nightclub.
“We got into this because we love the old buildings, the character and history,” said Ellis, president of P.J. Morgan Real Estate.
Also buying up more than a dozen area parcels, most under the name of CzechVillage LLC, is Clarity Development of Omaha. The Clarity properties are centered on William Street and include homes, lots and a 127-year-old building between 12th and 14th Streets. Clarity also is building the 36-unit South Hill Rowhouses on 10th Street just north of William.
President Tom McLeay envisions more housing developments around William that could include office and retail elements. He noted that William in its heyday also served as a commercial corridor.
“We believe in the long-term opportunities down there,” McLeay said.
Redevelopment could be accelerated, he said, with road reconfigurations for smoother pedestrian flow and parking.
He also has approached city officials about expanding a blighted designation to allow the old Czech enclave to benefit from tax-increment financing. The 10th Street corridor has that redevelopment tool available, but 13th Street does not.
The P.J. Morgan company also has been involved in changes along 10th Street; its newest proposal calls for a 19-unit town house project to be constructed near 10th and Pierce Streets.
Ellis and leasing agent Colleen Mason have frequented neighborhood association meetings and launched a yard sign campaign to stir neighborhood nostalgia. They’ve featured, for example, the former A. Marino grocery and the historic Gallagher building.
Mason said the corridor’s eclectic mix of shops and old buildings is a hallmark of the revivals of other business districts such as Benson and Blackstone.
She said Little Bohemia has an added cultural flair, with landmarks such as the Prague Hotel built in 1898 and the longtime Bohemian Cafe that was established in 1924 and which still serves up traditional svickova and Czech beer.
At one time the area boasted Czech entrepreneurs such as Kalcik the tailor, Kuncl’s meat market, Polan’s Hardware, Nemec’s shoe store, Masek’s bakery, Michka’s eatery and Stenicka’s hat shop.
Susan Ann Koenig lives above the old Emil Cermak drugstore at 1266 S. 13th St., in a remodeled residence that retains original woodwork, parquet floors and funky heat registers. The main floor of the 1899 building still has tin ceilings and a mosaic tile floor, but was tailored in 2000 for the law offices of Koenig and Angela Dunne.
Dunne, managing partner, recently bought and is renovating the antique store next door. With help from Pen Architect and Traco Inc., Dunne is expanding the law firm’s size and staff, and she will make the upper floor her residence.
For Koenig, who grew up in South Omaha and now is an executive coach, the live-work venture was personal.
But even those newer to the area are smitten and wonder why 13th Street storefronts haven’t filled up.
Bryan Frost and Erica Cardenas of Lexington, Nebraska, opened the Wallflower vintage clothing store in a corner bay of the old Prague Hotel. The two — he’s an interior designer and she’s got a degree in fashion — decided against the competitive Benson commercial strip in favor of “someplace new.”
They were encouraged by the proximity to downtown and Grace University. To their north is a doughnut shop, vacuum repair, tattoo parlor and cobbler. However, until more foot traffic emerges, they’ve whittled store hours and are open only on weekends.
“It’s shocking for us it hasn’t taken off sooner,” Frost said of the area.
Since 2008, Eric Elnes has lived with his family in an “urban oasis” on the west side of the 13th Street corridor south of the Bohemian Cafe and amid light industrial businesses and antique-type stores.
When they moved there from Arizona, Elnes, senior pastor at Countryside Community Church, recalls thinking how it made sense to revitalize the street.
“It seems like Omaha has been totally asleep to it,” he said. “We’re pleased people are starting to wake up.”
Tracy Kyler, who in 2004 bought the nearby Ethnic Sandwich Shop with husband Rich, also is glad to see the attention — as long as it doesn’t take away the “charm” of the ethnic enclaves where she was raised. She’s a great-granddaughter of a Sicilian immigrant who launched Little Italy’s old Trentino’s Restaurant and later ran Italian Gardens.
Kyler also is concerned that future road changes could slow down the traffic upon which her take-out business depends.
“I want to make sure they consider us little shops and our needs,” she said.
Terry Kapoun of the Bohemian Cafe said he’s pleased old buildings like the theater will be saved. Mostly he’s excited to see some action.
“The city has been talking for years and year and years,” he said. “It seems to be happening.”
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