This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner
Tucked behind two of midtown Omaha’s busiest corridors is a quirky residential pocket that’s been home to four generations of Debbie Rushlau’s family. She calls it an oasis.
It’s where Rushlau and hubby Mark work on vintage cars, grow gardens and bask in the quiet of a dead-end street the city never paved or connected to the grid.
It’s where the Rushlaus watched their son get married, amidst the backyard evergreens, and where they now hang with grandkids, chickens, turkens, cats, a dog and a huge African tortoise named Winston.
When the weather’s right, the Rushlaus sometimes walk over to swim in a mini tropical resort built up by their neighbors to the south. To the north is an old dairy farm property that hosts annual July 4th picnics. It’s where the 14 Petersen kids grew up and where one still lives.
“There must be something magical about this place because everyone wants to stay,” said Debbie Rushlau, 64. “It’s like living in the country — right in the middle of the city.”
But with a wave of redevelopment lapping at their eastern edge, the vibe is about to shift for the eclectic collection of dwellings on roughly four city blocks, anchored by a street called Mayberry, and stretching from about South 49th to 50th Streets.
A nearly 200-unit apartment complex is poised to rise just east of the Rushlaus — spurring some area homeowners to sell their properties to the project developer. Others have dug in their heels, raising their voices in hopes the project shrinks.
Tip of tsunami
They’ll continue their protest next week, when Lincoln-based developer Commercial Investment Properties takes the $44 million project to the Omaha City Council.
Emotions flying around Mayberry Street may be just the tip of a tsunami, as Omaha faces game-changing growth drivers that are certain to lure more development, jobs, fresh talent and tourist attractions — while at the same time roiling deep-rooted neighborhoods accustomed to the way things are.
The recently announced streetcar system, for one, is expected to usher in $3 billion of new construction activity along its planned route from downtown to midtown. That doesn’t include the $2.6 billion to $4.3 billion of investment expected from the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s NExT facility.
Sure to propel additional shifts and dense housing in even more vintage neighborhoods is a ticking clock: The fact that Omaha is running out of suburban room to grow.
“I don’t think the public is too aware of it,” Planning Director Dave Fanslau said. “City Hall is.”
Consider this alert sounded by the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency: If only the remaining open-spaced “greenfield” areas were developed, Douglas County could be fully built out by 2046.
In Sarpy County, also following historical trends, that day could come by 2078.
Survive and thrive
Fanslau and urban planning consultant Steve Jensen are among experts who have been saying for years that replenishing older areas of Omaha with new property tax generators is the way the city will survive and thrive.
Density, that’s how you continue to grow your tax base … go up instead of out.
– Dave Fanslau, Omaha planning director
They say that building up established areas such as midtown and South and North Omaha with more condensed housing and commercial projects will slow suburban land consumption.
It’s cheaper for taxpayers to connect new structures with already existing infrastructure and services. And, they say, development essentially hits a wall at the Elkhorn ridge and the Platte River floodplain because installing a new sewer system and other infrastructure in that area becomes cost-prohibitive.
“Density, that’s how you continue to grow your tax base,” Fanslau said. “You have to go up instead of out.”
If warnings are not heeded, Jensen said, cities such as Omaha face the kind of economic and social distress that has set back landlocked places like Detroit and St. Louis.
“Cities can get trapped in this kind of leveling off in their property values,” Jensen said. Housing gets old and deteriorates. Jobs and people leave.
“If you’re not careful,” he said, “you get caught in this downward spiral.”
Scarcity of land
What is commonly referred to as infill development has other benefits, too, according to MAPA’s regional development report. Building “up” and in already established areas preserves agricultural land on the edges of the city and reduces potential damage from downstream flooding.
When pavement or structures replace grassy fields, the report notes, the ability for water to be absorbed in the area is compromised. Impervious surfaces accelerate downstream water flow, which can overwhelm systems and require costly storm water control.
MAPA Executive Director Mike Helgerson said the scarcity of land able to be developed is a pressure felt not only by Omaha but also by cities throughout the region.
Omaha, in the mid-2010s, ramped up the pace of homebuilding in the city’s core. In 2017, for the first time in modern history, the city recorded more housing permits inside the Interstate 680 loop than out. The next three years, however, saw a return to patterns of the previous decade, where the share of inner city permits were in the mid 30% range.
Now fresh efforts are underway that should bump up the inner city housing count. They range from the streetcar proposal and $400 million downtown parks transformation, both of which are expected to lure more development, to a multimillion-dollar plan pushed by a few state senators to revive North and South Omaha.
Surrounding communities also have directed lots of dollars and attention to reviving aging neighborhoods and main streets.
Notable, said Helgerson, are projects such as the Hinge mixed-use project in Ralston, Bellevue’s Old Towne facelift, Papillion’s downtown renewal and La Vista’s City Centre.
Change feels threatening
In Lincoln, PlanForward 2050 calls for 25% of all new dwellings to be built in established neighborhoods during the next few decades, saying that will grow the population and the tax base while lowering the public spend.
Infill development has steadily increased already in the capital city, with the number of residential building permits in 2020 hitting a high of at least 15 years.
Of course, as is the case with midtown Omaha’s Mayberry Street area, where some houses are over a century old, disrupting a settled neighborhood with something new and different can feel threatening to a way of life, said Gordon Scholz, professor emeritus who led the Department of Community and Regional Planning at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“How do you stop that redevelopment? Do you want to stop that? That’s one of the big policy questions,” he said.
His expert opinion: Healthy cities are growing organisms that don’t stay static.
At the same time, he and Sarah Gerecke of the national Urban Institute say governments and developers can step up to better ease transitions — including doing something as basic as meeting with and listening to what people want to look at in their neighborhood.
Melina Petersen is among Mayberry area residents who have objected to what some refer to as the “monster” sized CIP project that is to stretch across about five acres southeast of Mayberry and 49th Avenue and extending to South Saddle Creek Road.
As proposed, the venture will replace five houses and a small apartment building along 49th Street, and some industrial and office businesses along Saddle Creek Road. The developer says the project will visually improve hard-to-build-upon, uneven land whose eastern border fronts the corridor booming with UNMC-related growth.
Home of 14 siblings (and then some)
But Melina Petersen, 53, bristles at the thought of apartments towering over the property where she grew up with her 13 siblings and dozens of foster kids that her parents helped raise over the years.
Now, as an adult and mother of fifth-grader Bea, Melina Petersen has moved back onto the property that’s been in her family nearly 70 years. She replaced her aging childhood house with a newer, ranch-style residence after her parents died, wanting to create a haven for her own daughter similar to the one she had growing up.
In those earlier days, she recalled, the Petersen household had a rule: “We could not leave our yard. Everybody else could come over, but we could not leave.”
The rule — intended to keep track of so many kids — didn’t bother her. They had treehouses and a hide-and-seek paradise. Almost always in motion was a pickup football or baseball game in the spacious “back lot” ringed by backyards of several other friends’ houses.
Her brothers, two of whom still live in the area (so do two sisters), raised show pigeons in a coop they built on stilts. Dad Arnie brought home lambs, ducks and other small animals that slept in the barn that was a vestige of the dairy farm.
To this day, Melina Petersen hangs laundry out on a line, like her mom, Jeanne, used to do. The back lot now hosts picnics for Bea’s class get-togethers.
“People are amazed that there is somewhere like this, so quiet and peaceful,” Melina Petersen said. “Just listening to the birds and quietness is fun.”
To maintain a semblance of that lifestyle, she has asked for a fence or wall between her yard and the new street that is to be carved through the back lot area for the apartment project.
Larry Jobeun, the developer’s lawyer, said CIP is still in discussions with neighbors. He said the team has tried to be good neighbors with such features as the pitched-roof, row-house-style western border that blends better into the residential area.
Because of the grade change, he said, the project’s four stories of apartments over two floors of parking appears lower in height on the neighborhood side.
“Is it a change? Yes. But it’s a compatible change,” Jobeun said.
When asked about abnormal street connections that helped create the unusual residential pocket, Fanslau, the city’s planning director said: “Today that would not happen.”
Fanslau said that it would take digging to understand how the Mayberry area came to be configured as it was but that current codes require streets in new developments to be paved and linked to thoroughfares within two years.
Mayberry-area neighbors, meanwhile, said they’re getting a crash course on tax-increment financing, developers and the workings of city government.
Morris Petersen, one of Melina’s brothers who lives in the neighborhood, said he is not against “progress” and understands that midtown improvements will raise the value of his home. “It also will raise my taxes,” he said.
Debbie Rushlau says she feels as if “the city is shoving apartments down the throat of every community.”
CIP says that 2,200 new market-rate apartments have sprouted in a 3-mile radius since 2018. Often, such projects have been met with at least some resident opposition to size, style, traffic, parking and public subsidy concerns. But typically they’ve been green-lighted by city officials if they meet city codes, or were granted exceptions to certain rules such as parking ratios.
The Rushlaus said they never entertained the hefty offer by the developer to buy their property, which is rather hidden at the end of a short dirt road northeast of 50th and Pacific Streets. A lot of time and energy is invested, they said, in the 1.5 acres they own. The property is dotted by gardens, bird baths, three fire pits and a few houses for the chickens.
Their supersized garage, plastered with Route 66 and other vintage signs, stores a Nash Metropolitan, a ’34 Chevy, a 1960s-era mail cart and other classic vehicles the Rushlaus tinker with.
Their house itself is an anomaly: The Rushlaus paid for it to be physically transported from a small town and planted there three decades ago.
Debbie Rushlau’s roots run even deeper, as she grew up in the nearby home her parents moved to in the early 1950s. The Rushlaus’ son, Paul, now lives there with his wife, Brittnay, and their two children, marking the fourth generation of the family to live in that house. The Rushlaus’ daughter, Paige, lives about a block away.
Debbie and Mark Rushlau and some of their neighbors have consulted with a lawyer to check out their options in at least seeing the apartment project downsized. On a recent day, Mark Rushlau looked out at the green space around him and said that’s where you’ll find him, Debbie and their company most of the time.
He said it would “be a shame” to run a road through their little off-the-beaten-path paradise and have their view dominated by apartments.
“We wanted this for our grandkids to enjoy,” Debbie Rushlau said. “This is our legacy.”