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$290 million plan for Omaha riverfront draws praise, but some like Gene Leahy Mall as it is

$290 million plan for Omaha riverfront draws praise, but some like Gene Leahy Mall as it is

Real estate experts and civic leaders raved Tuesday over the $290 million, largely privately funded plan they say should draw more people to the Omaha riverfront and eventually more commerce to the city’s core.

“They nailed it,” said Todd Heistand, whose NuStyle Development has converted or built hundreds of new apartments in the downtown area.

To be sure, not everyone appreciates the proposed changed landscape. Social media buzz included skepticism about raising to street level most of Gene Leahy Mall, which underwent a $1.8 million overhaul just a few years ago.

The proposal calls for adding grassy lawns for events and performances, a Farnam Street promenade that stretches to the Missouri River, a ribbon-shaped rink for ice skating and rollerblading and a “world-class” children’s play area, among other amenities.

The plan also calls for the downtown library to potentially move a block east, to 14th and Farnam Streets.

The lagoon would become a smaller water feature that extends to an open, continuous park leading to the river.

“It’s a lot,” said Michael Hall, an Omahan who attended a public meeting about the plan Tuesday. “The first word that comes to mind is ‘overwhelming.’ ”

Comments on social media tended to question why changing Gene Leahy Mall was a priority.

“It’s iconic,” one person wrote. “Leave it and focus on other projects.”

But another said, “It’s privately paid for so those who put the money up get to decide where it goes.”

Civic and business leaders on Tuesday unveiled to the public their conceptual master plan for a 90-acre area of Omaha’s downtown, from the Gene Leahy Mall to Heartland of America Park and Lewis & Clark Landing.

Leaders behind the project, including Ken Stinson and Mogens Bay, who are Omaha businessmen and Heritage Services board members, said they believe that it will be a catalyst for growth in the city. Heritage Services has backed other major Omaha projects such as the Holland Center and the CenturyLink Center.

Mayor Jean Stothert has committed $50 million from the city in lease-purchase bonds over three years. The rest would come from the city’s philanthropic community. Most — $150 million — has already been verbally committed. Stothert said the project won’t raise taxes.

In all, the project is estimated to cost between $260 million and $290 million based on conceptual drawings. And construction and demolition could start soon — the middle of next year — pending the necessary approvals.

City Council President Ben Gray likes the plan and said he supports Stothert’s plan to pitch in $50 million in taxpayer money through city bonds.

“It provides a lot of green space, a lot of space for families,” Gray said. “Raising (the mall) to street level is good in a lot of ways, starting with safety.”

Omaha Public Library Board member Mike Kennedy said he’s excited about the vision and said the proposal offers the library flexibility.

“Every generation, the downtown has had a redevelopment plan,” he said. “Now, the Omaha Public Library gets to be a part of that. I think that’s great.”

Mike Moylan’s Shamrock Development led construction of downtown’s Capitol District project just north of Capitol Avenue near 10th Street. He said he is impressed with how the plan’s road extensions and other aspects link downtown neighborhoods and attractions.

Jason Fisher, president of Omaha’s Lund Co., said raising the mall should improve and promote pedestrian flow from the Old Market to places like the Capitol District and the CenturyLink Center.

Great cities, he said, have popular urban park anchors — and not the type of “sunken water feature” that currently exists in downtown Omaha.

Fisher leads an investor group that has launched a renovation of the Landmark Center on the south side of the mall. He said the coming hotel lobby that will face the mall should encourage more bustle in the area. The future Landmark also is to offer new dining and bar options.

Tuesday’s announcement comes as Conagra Brands pursues its proposal to transform parts of its campus adjacent to the riverfront.

Tom D’Arcy, senior manager of Houston-based Hines, the developer leading the Conagra campus project, said his team has been working with the riverfront committee’s architects to help ensure that their visions mesh. He said the groups agreed that the size of Conagra Lake at Heartland of America Park would shrink.

D’Arcy called the riverfront committee’s plan an “enormous positive” for Conagra.

The first phase of the Conagra plan includes a 350-unit apartment building, a 720-space parking garage, 50,000 square feet of retail space and a hotel that should lead to $100 million in investment, said D’Arcy. It is to break ground next summer.

Though the Heritage Services-led mall and riverfront proposal is heavy on creating recreational and entertainment spaces, real estate officials said those are necessary steps to luring more commercial ventures, office users and retailers.

Conceptual drawings show the potential for future development north of Douglas Street and east of Eighth Street. They also show a “future discovery pavilion” at today’s Lewis & Clark Landing.

Mary Krzemien, who lives in South Omaha and attended Tuesday’s meeting along with about 250 other people, said she hopes that no other large structures are built along the water, like Gallup and apartments.

“We’ve already got restricted access” to the river, Krzemien said.

Barry Zoob of Colliers International, which specializes in commercial real estate, called the proposal an accelerator. “It’s going to accelerate people’s desires to go downtown, hang out, go to concerts, ice skate.”

Zoob pointed to Detroit — a city that went bankrupt, later redeveloped its riverfront and is seeing a population surge. He predicted that Omaha, which already has seen an increase in urban dwellers, would raise its profile and attract new business.

“It’s going to be a hip looking downtown in the next 10 years,” Zoob said.

World-Herald staff writer Christopher Burbach contributed to this report.

Omaha World-Herald: Afternoon Update

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Cindy covers housing, commercial real estate development and more for The World-Herald. Follow her on Twitter @cgonzalez_owh. Phone: 402-444-1224.

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