The City of Omaha’s Planning Board cleared the way for a controversial blight designation in South Omaha on Wednesday, making it easier for private companies to access public tax incentives for development.

The designation borders Pacific Street to the north and I-80 to the south, as well as 16th street to the east and I-480 to the west. 

“I am concerned by that practice because this seems to be out of convenience for the city and developments,” said Jenny Synowiecki, who grew up in the area and whose parents still live there. “And that further concerns me because there’s a lack of protections for actual people in development law.”

Extremely blighted designation in South Omaha.

In November, The Omaha World-Herald reported plans were in place to build a $100 million health and recreation campus near 28th and Martha Streets led by the developer Community Health Development Partners, which currently includes a salvage yard and abandoned grain elevator holding a sign for another long abandoned Salvation Army. Wednesday’s designation was to declare the area “extremely blighted,” a new tool for tax-increment financing (TIF) that would allow developers to pay existing property taxes for 20 years even as they improve the property, typically saving them millions that would otherwise go to the city. The practice has been criticized for being used to further private interests at the expense of the city’s most needy.

In December the World-Herald reported additional plans to expand the project by $55 million, building 176 affordable apartments led by Neeraj Agarwal, a principal at Clarity Development Company in Omaha.

Now opponents say this blighted designation will fast track this and future developments, forcing people from their homes. Synowiecki also said Community Health Development Partners has been attempting to buy 50 homes in the area.

“So essentially a development can come through, benefit from an earlier blight study so as to not have to request one [and] not speak to communities…by the time it gets to city planing or city council it will so much momentum it’s impossible to stop,” Synowiecki said.

Don Seten with the City of Omaha Planning Department said the city tries to draw maps that are inclusive to potential future developments. He also said while the city has communicated with the developer, they’ve taken no official steps.

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“Again we’re not conflating the project with the designation,” Seten said. “The projects have not reported any applications to the city as this point, it’s still very preliminary. The project that’s been complained about the most has had public meetings that they’re not required to have, they’ve reached out to the neighborhood, maybe not as effectively as some people would like, but they have reach out in advance of making any applications.”

Seten said the city had a meeting with about 50 residents on Jan. 19 which they arranged by contacting various neighborhood associations in the area. At the meeting several residents expressed concerns with the designation’s connection with the planned project.

“People are worried about potentially not living in their home next year,” said one unnamed neighbor, according to KETV.

The board passed the designation 4-0.

The Omaha Planning Board also cleared the way for major TIF projects near midtown and Elmwood Park, approving both agenda items 4-0.

A four-story apartment complex is slated to go up in a lot on 39th and Dodge Streets that’s been vacant since 2006 when a hotel was demolished there. The View on 39th Street would be a 136-unit apartment containing a mix of one bedroom and studio apartments that the city called a major step forward toward furthering transit-oriented development and building the urban core. The project, which would need approval from the Omaha City Council, would cost about $27.4 million and receive  $3.7 million in TIF dollars.

Artist renderings of a planned development on 39th and Dodge Streets.

The sole opponent to the project said she worried how adding 136 new neighbors would impact parking and traffic safety, but said she was excited to see development in the area.

The board also heard another project to build townhomes at 54th and Leavenworth Streets. The project would cost about $8.6 million and receive about $1.5 million in TIF dollars, pending Omaha City Council approval. Neighbor Jen Bauer opposed the project saying while she welcomes development in the area, it won’t be affordable to many who live there as each of the townhomes, which contain three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a two-car garage, will sell for about $450,000. Baurer also wondered how adding so much space for cars would impact traffic the area, especially one that’s on a bus route in a time that city is attempting to pivot toward more transit-oriented development.

Jay Noddle with Noddle Companies, which is constructing the townhomes, said while Omaha is moving toward that model, but “right now the Omaha market demands room for cars.”

Seten also spoke in support of the project saying Noddle Companies have take many steps to redevelop the area appropriately, putting in serious effort to relocate tenants of two duplexes on the property.

Noddle Companies Vice President Todd Swirczek said the company is committed to helping them find new housing and covering some costs. 

Planning Board Chair Rosenbaum asked what that effort looks like and what does covering “some costs” mean.

Swirczek said Noddle Companies is helping less internet savvy tenants find homes and would provide moving costs if asked. They’ve also worked with the previous landlord to return security deposits.

In addition to high-dollar TIF projects, the board also gave its approval to transfer city-owned vacant lots in North Omaha to Les “Pee Wee” Harrison. Harrison said he grew up near the properties and wants to invest in a community that was torn apart by the construction of Highway 75 about a half century ago. Harrison said he plans to build rentable units.

“My goal has been to bring back life into that community,” he said.

The board also approved allocating $1.5 million in CARES and Community Development Block Grant funds to Together Omaha so they could buy a non-congregate shelter for people experiencing housing instability, as well as several suburban development plattings and a TIF project to rehab the interior of the former Scoular office building across from Omaha Central High School. 

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Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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