This story is part of (DIS)Invested — a longterm Reader investigation into Omaha’s inequities.
Two major projects for Omaha’s downtown cleared hurdles Wednesday afternoon after the city’s planning board gave the greenlight to a nearly half-billion dollar skyscraper and a housing and transit redevelopment plan which includes bringing a streetcar to the city.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert’s Deputy Chief of Staff Troy Anderson presented the overall plan to overhaul how Omaha invests in its urban core in the city’s Urban Core Housing and Mobility Redevelopment Plan. Since 1963, downtown Omaha has lost 21,000 jobs, Anderson said, and despite decades of acknowledging the city’s success depends on its urban core, investment, or the right kind of investments, haven’t followed.
“The jobs and housing [we need downtown] can’t fit without fundamental changes to parking mobility,” Anderson said.
The main obstacle to address this in the redevelopment area, which spans roughly from 50th Street to the Missouri River and Cumming Street to Woolworth Avenue, is that Omaha has sacrificed prime real estate to build more parking lots than the city can even fill. In total, 308 acres are taken up by parking lots in the redevelopment area, bigger than the total size of Disneyland, and even during peak usage Anderson said about 17,000 parking stalls remain empty.
The plan is to build a long researched and discussed streetcar which would run east-west about 3 miles from 42nd and Farnam streets to 10th and Cass streets and provide free transportation. Anderson this would accomplish a “park one” solution. Instead of leaving work downtown in a car to get to the University of Nebraska Medical Center for a doctor’s appointment, or driving from an apartment to the CHI Center, people can instead park once and use the bus and streetcar to navigate downtown.
Two Omahans spoke against the plan, but both said they weren’t opposed to it, just surprised that it was moving forward with little community input.
“Overall we would love more time to digest this, to learn more about this, to ask more questions,” said Sarah Nelson with the Dundee Memorial Park Association. “And since there is such a huge amount budgeted for [tax increment financing], $356 million, we really think that should include some public engagement.”
The city plans to pay for the first phase of the streetcar partially with tax increment financing (TIF) dollars. The public tool gives developers a tax break for 15 to 30 years, allowing them to pay current taxes even as they improve the land. The end goal is that once the project is finished, it will generate enough tax revenue to pay the deficit back. The tool is only supposed to be used to incentivize developments that would otherwise not happen, but some critics say the city’s used it on ineligible projects, costing potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tax revenue.
Nelson even said it feels like Omahans are being “TIF’d out” with how many high-profile projects receive that funding. Just a day earlier the Omaha City Council approved millions in TIF funding to help raze three multi-unit buildings with affordable rent to make way for a new, largely market-rate apartment complex.
Nelson also said it was concerning that the city was not pursuing federal dollars for the project, which would require extra studies on the project. Anderson said while Omaha has not requested the dollars yet, it may in the future for other phases of the project. He also said the city has followed the entire federal process short of actually requesting the money.
The Omaha’s Planning Board voted 6-1 to approve the plan. Board President Greg Rosenbaum was the sole dissenting vote and said while the plan looked good, he couldn’t vote to approve because he too had questions.
“Like I said, you’ve done a great job answering our questions, but I’m not even sure all the questions I may have,” he said. “I just got a lot of this information today. My vote’s not going to change anything, but for that reason I’m voting no today…in the future I hope we can be included in large projects like this.”
The themes of big ideas but requests to slow down developments continued as the board looked at Project Beacon, the towering skyscraper that would house Mutual of Omaha’s headquarters and 4,000 of its employees, rising from the soon-to-be demolished W. Dale Clark Library. The $433 million project asked for $68.6 million in TIF dollars on Wednesday.
Project manager Jason Lanoha of Lanoha Real Estate Company said if the development gets necessary approvals, his team can start construction by January 2023 after the library’s set demolition in the fourth quarter of 2022.
Though the city’s urban renewal plan and the Mutual of Omaha skyscraper were separate agenda items, it was clear one wouldn’t work without the other.
“Although we are not here on behalf of the streetcar, these two are intertwined together,” Lanoha said.
The building, along with the city’s urban renewal plan, is an effort to make a bold statement in downtown Omaha — one that could keep and attract talented young people who would otherwise move to cities with more amenities.
“You don’t get talent by building some low-slung, non-visionary building,” he said. “You get talent by being a leader in our community, being on the forefront and building a building people want to work in.”
Dawaune Hayes, founder of the North Omaha news outlet NOISE, spoke in opposition to the project saying while these decisions are made for the benefit of young people, they are not the ones leading the conversation or casting the votes.
“[We’re] building a monument to insurance and corporatism on top of a publicly owned temple of knowledge — the library. It’s important that this be said because symbols are very important. We talked about the skyline, what does a skyline really mean? What does a skyline truly represent? Who does it reflect?…[it doesn’t represent] the people who are trying to survive and are asking to be listened to.”
The board also asked Lanoha whether building a skyscraper with 800,000 square feet of office space is really necessary in a time where so many are preferring to work from home. While Lanoha said no one knows exactly what the future of work will look like, there will be people in the building, but whether everyone will be there every day is unlikely.
Board chair Rosenbaum also clarified that while Lanoha said this would bring 4,000 new jobs to downtown, they would be the same people already working at Mutual of Omaha’s headquarters less than two miles west in Midtown, also in city’s urban redevelopment area Anderson presented earlier.
The board voted 7-0 to approve the building’s TIF allocation, though it still requires approval from the Omaha City Council.
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