Despite temperatures well below freezing, Omaha City Council grew heated Tuesday as residents objected to Mayor Jean Stothert’s plan to demolish and replace the W. Dale Clark Library.
The city council held a public hearing for the new locations’ lease agreements Tuesday. If approved, the downtown library branch would move to a building at 1401 Jones St., while special collections and administrative offices would move to a former Shopko at 3020 South 84th St. The lease agreements each last 10 years at $465,000 and $405,000 per year respectively, with an opt-out after five years.
Mayor Stothert’s deputy chief of staff Kevin Anderson said, “Having these two available spaces, kind of feels like the stars aligning or planets aligning to allow us to take advantage of this opportunity and make a very transformative change for our library system as a whole.”
The library controversy first made it on a city council agenda at the Jan. 11 meeting, when the city council delayed voting on an agreement with Noddle Company to oversee the move. That vote was moved to coincide with the vote for the new lease agreements on Feb. 1.
Anderson said the goal is to have the move completed by Memorial Day, and opponents raised concerns about the rushed timeline. Dawaune Lamont Hayes, the former head of the North Omaha nonprofit news organization NOISE, pointed out that while the city promotes Speeding Awareness Week, a public service campaign to follow speed limits, this process is moving too fast.
“I suggest you take your own advice: stop, slow down, listen to what we are saying,” Hayes said.
The recommendation to relocate W. Dale Clark was first made in the library’s 2017 facilities master plan, but several opponents questioned why it’s being prioritized now. Opponent Mark Brandon said adding a new branch in southwest Omaha is also a part of the master plan, but that hasn’t happened yet.
On Tuesday evening, the Nebraska Examiner reported that Mutual of Omaha will seek to purchase W. Dale Clark’s current location at 15th and Douglas Streets for their new headquarters. Proponents said during the meeting that the site would be an opportunity for development.
Holly Barrett, executive director of the Omaha Downtown Improvement District, said the current W. Dale Clark building has become dilapidated, and her organization welcomes the revitalization that the project will bring.
Opponent Pete Faye said he agreed with the mayor that W. Dale Clark sits on valuable land, which is why he thinks it shouldn’t be sold.
“Memorial Park doubtlessly sits on valuable land; why not bulldoze that so we can build Village Pointe 2?” Faye said. “Why not cement over Standing Bear Lake to make way for a few more Casey’s gas stations?”
Proponents and opponents agreed that the current W. Dale Clark needs improvements. Opponent Scott Blake said both the 1401 Jones St. location and the former Shopko are both older than W. Dale Clark, and would need improvements. The Shopko location, which would house special collections, is in a floodplain, and the new downtown branch is estimated to need $3 million for renovations.
Accessibility was also a major sticking point for opponents. The current downtown location sits on an ORBT bus stop, while the new location would be several blocks south. There are bus lines that stop within walking distance of the new location, but transit advocate Sarah Johnson said the area isn’t very accessible for walking. She said the improvements necessary likely wouldn’t get within the mayor’s timeline.
Omaha Public Library Board of Trustees President Mike Kennedy said the board supports the plan, and that there is more room for community input as the process moves along. He said the new location has a lot of potential.
“We have two floors of blank canvas that I think we can make one of our top branches in the city,” Kennedy said.
The city council also approved changes to the Human Rights and Relations Board and a plan to revitalize the Civil Rights Hearing Board, ending a debate that’s lasted since Dec. 14. The new Civil Rights Hearing Board will consist of three members selected from the existing Human Rights and Relations Board, and it will provide an alternative for people who don’t want to take a discrimination to court.
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners met Tuesday to receive a weekly COVID-19 update from Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse as the Omicron variant wave appears to level off.
This week, the Douglas County Health Department reported declining case numbers for the first time since the Omicron variant caused record-breaking spikes. Huse said it’s too soon to say we’re in a steady decline, but it’s at least one positive indicator.
Hospitalizations have remained high, with the number of COVID-19 patients in metro hospitals at its highest point since the pandemic began. The overall occupancy rate is hovering between 80 and 90%. Huse said hospitals moving to crisis plans and turning away certain non-emergency procedures has kept the issue from getting worse. Hospital numbers lag behind cases, so she said it could be weeks before we see a decline.
Commissioner Maureen Boyle, who’s also a physician, said it’s possible that the citywide mask mandate has prevented cases and hospitalization numbers from getting worse. A judge upheld the mandate after it was challenged by Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson.