Downtown Omaha’s signature water feature is nearly dry, a key step toward the city’s donor-driven $290 million riverfront makeover.
Construction workers plan to pump the last water out of the Gene Leahy Mall lagoon next week, steering it into nearby storm sewers.
The city let gravity drain much of the lagoon’s water this month. Private crews are removing the rest with up to six pumps, at a cost of more than $15,000, Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority officials said.
The pumping has revealed a trove of treasures lost, including children’s toys, a traffic cone, trash and at least two marooned bicycles.
The new view is a change for those used to trees and dark water, where ducks played and people were warned not to swim. Many stopped on the bridges to look because they couldn’t see past the fences at street level.
Midmorning jogger Josh Sauer, 34, described the muddy lagoon’s bottom as “ugly” and “weird.” He said Thursday that he is torn about the renovation. He will miss seeing the water. But he said the additional space to gather and play Frisbee will be nice.
Most of the park’s trees are gone, except a handful that are being preserved. Others had to be cut down before birds moved back in for the spring, the city said. The city is still waiting on a robin, goose and duck nesting on the ground and nearby landscaping.
The birds should not slow construction, the city said. They will leave after their offspring hatch, said city officials, who consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We will be monitoring when they hatch,” said Brook Bench, the city’s parks director. “And we will help them get where they’re going.”
City Parks Department workers have relocated turtles and fish from the lagoon to parks with water, including Heartland of America Park and Levi Carter Park. The city and Kiewit construction crews are relocating any stragglers, MECA said.
Fish were never officially stocked in the Leahy lagoon, but some made their way in, officials said, likely because people dropped them in. Some koi and other carp were still swimming in the lagoon’s shallower pools Wednesday, but six people working for the city and Kiewit are moving as many as they can.
“We aren’t killing anything,” Bench said.
Demolition and grading of the mall will begin in earnest once the lagoon is dry, MECA officials said.
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The plan to remake the mall, Heartland of America Park and Lewis & Clark Landing includes bringing the mall to street level. All but about $50 million of the cost will come from private donors, along with a city commitment to spend about $3 million a year on upkeep.
MECA controls the mall during construction, which is expected to be completed by mid- to late 2021, and will also be in charge of maintaining the space after the project.
The group is working with a private company to evaluate what public artwork can and should be moved, said Roger Dixon, MECA’s president and CEO. Among the pieces in the park is the “Heritage” statue of a pioneer family.
Downtown workers and residents will need to be patient while crews demolish and haul off concrete from the park, Dixon said. But the wait will be worth it.
“I’m excited about what the mall will end up being,” he said, adding that it will help connect downtown and the Old Market with the Capitol District.