This story originally appeared in the Nebraska Examiner.

It’s happening increasingly in the City of Omaha’s core: Aging housing is wiped out to make way for newer, trendier — and pricier — apartments.

Such efforts, while signaling a healthy appetite for urban living, have provoked objections from renters and community advocates decrying the loss of dwellings within financial reach of many working-class people.

 Urban Core area, from Omaha’s 48th Street on the west to 35th Street in Council Bluffs on the east. (Courtesy of Greater Omaha Chamber, HDR)

To try and replenish affordable housing, a Greater Omaha Chamber-led urban core committee is working on a way to tap into tax-increment financing proceeds, which are envisioned also as a method of paying for Omaha’s future streetcar system.

In a 100-page strategic plan released Monday, the chamber group identified as one of its first tasks the need to create lower-rent housing as it seeks to upgrade the look of the Omaha-Council Bluffs central core with a dozen “big moves” building projects.

Those construction initiatives range from a new pedestrian and streetcar bridge over the Missouri River to the removal of underused Interstate ramps to clear the way for downtown development.

‘Accessible to everyone’

Some projects identified by the committee have already been announced and are in the works, including plans for Omaha’s $306 million modern streetcar system and Mutual of Omaha’s $443 million new downtown headquarters.

 Before: Existing view looking south toward downtown Omaha shows the barrier created by Interstate 480 between downtown and neighborhoods to the north. (Courtesy of Greater Omaha Chamber, HDR)

“Everything we’re trying to do ends up improving vibrancy, promotes development and adds amenities,” said the chamber’s Stephen Osberg. “But we want to make sure all these good things we’re building up are accessible to everyone.”

One way to do that, Osberg said, is to capture a slice of new property tax revenue generated by future development and “put it back into addressing pain points” — such as lost affordable housing. Philanthropic groups would be called upon to contribute to a fund that helps replace and create lower rent housing in the urban core for eligible renters.

On a broader level, the strategic plan that’s been in the making for more than three years identifies a goal to lure 30,000 more residents and 30,000 more workers in the next couple of decades to the Omaha-Council Bluffs urban core.

Midtown Omaha to Council Bluffs

That’s a target zone that encompasses the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus on the west and spreads eastward through downtown Omaha and across the Missouri River into the Bluffs’ Dodge Park.

 After: Section of I 480 becomes street-level boulevard allowing “seamless” merging of downtown and north downtown Omaha. Development is envisioned on area that would open up. (Courtesy of Greater Omaha Chamber, HDR)

Within that tract, generally between Leavenworth and Cuming Streets on the north and south, are about 20 neighborhoods, ranging from the historic Blackstone enclave to still-developing, mixed-use campuses such as north downtown’s Millwork Commons and the River’s Edge in the Bluffs.

Authors of the plan call their vision an attempt to weave all those parts together “to create an overall tapestry that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.”

It offers no grand price tag, and only some detail on funding mechanisms.

“We’ll look at what gets traction,” Osberg said. “We needed to start with an idea of how everything fits together, have the projects in the queue and start making pitches for them.”

‘Lingering concerns’

Underlying the plan, authors said, were “lingering concerns” about the economic future of the city’s core, despite obvious momentum from the $400 million, public-private remake of the riverfront parks and downtown amenities, including a new science museum. 

They note that since the early 1960s, Omaha’s downtown area has lost 21,000 jobs rather than gaining some 13,000 jobs projected in a 1963 plan. Also noted was Omaha’s dwindling suburban frontier on which to develop.

 Bird’s-eye view of all recommended projects (Courtesy of Greater Omaha Chamber and HDR)

“Essentially, Omaha will become ‘landlocked,’” the plan says, reinforcing the call to keep the tax base growing by creating more housing and commercial density in older, central core areas.

The committee penning the plan included business leaders, city planners and economic development experts, real estate developers and others. 

With key projects outlined, the committee hopes to draw additional population and jobs to boost downtown and midtown — and restore the urban core’s historic role as the “engine of growth for the entire region.”

“Big moves” proposed to lure jobs, people and investment to urban core

  • Project NExT and Saddle Creek. A 350,000-square-foot administrative center is planned to rise southwest of Saddle Creek Road and Farnam Street to house clinical and office space for UNMC. That will open up space on the main campus for the proposed NExT project, a federal disaster response and medical training center estimated to cost between $2.6 million and $4.3 million.
  • Saddle Creek “lid.” To provide a safe and “seamless connection” between the main UNMC campus and its new western campus, a wide, landscaped pedestrian bridge is to be built across Saddle Creek.
  • Library and “first block.” Just west of the revamped Gene Leahy Mall are two blocks, one currently vacant and the other occupied by the public library that’s soon to be home to the Mutual of Omaha office tower. “Development of these two sites will not be left to chance,” the plan says.
  • Modern streetcar system. A three-mile route from downtown to the UNMC campus is to have 13 stops, be fare-free and funded through tax-increment financing.
  • Civic Auditorium site. The four-block site is to become a mix of residential, office and retail uses developed by the White Lotus Group.
  • Interstate 480 “lid.” Similar to the parklike pedestrian and bike bridge across Saddle Creek, a land bridge a couple of blocks wide would be built over the Interstate by Midtown Crossing and Turner Park, helping to reconnect area neighborhoods.
  • 19th and 20th Streets ramp removal. Originally built for quick access to the now-demolished Civic Auditorium, removal or revamp of the ramp would reclaim three blocks for new development.
  • 30th Street ramp removal. If the ramps were removed and new ones constructed to complete the final leg of the Dodge Street interchange, about six blocks of land could be redeveloped.
  • Missouri River bike and pedestrian and streetcar bridge. A new bridge just south of the I-480 bridge and east into Iowa’s Dodge Park could provide added connection between Omaha and the Bluffs and lead to more development.
  • Iowa’s Dodge Park. A new walkable neighborhood is envisioned to replace the public golf course on the east side of the Missouri River in Iowa, allowing the urban core to “attract and retain talent and compete at a national level.”
  • I-480 retrofit: The east-west leg of I-480 on the north side of downtown Omaha presents a barrier to Creighton University and North Omaha neighborhoods. A new option could replace that with a street level, multiway boulevard or a one-way couplet that would maintain traffic flow but help connect neighborhoods and create infill development opportunities.

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