The Omaha City Council meeting had a big agenda Tuesday, with debates on the future of Omaha’s urban core and the city’s ability to respond to epidemics. It took the City Council more than seven hours to get through the entire agenda.
Mutual of Omaha and the Future of Downtown
The city’s vision for its urban core was centered in discussions around several items Tuesday, including a $62.7 million tax increment financing (TIF) request for Mutual of Omaha’s proposed new headquarters. Tax increment financing defers taxes between 15 and 20 years, offering incentives for developers to build in areas deemed “blighted.” The request was approved unanimously.
Mutual of Omaha’s tower will be located at 215 South 15th Street, where the W. Dale Clark Library currently sits. The lot will be acquired through a land swap, after the city initiated a controversial process to move the downtown library.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert has said the tower will change Omaha’s skyline, but her Deputy Chief of Staff Kevin Andersen said it was about more than a “pretty postcard.” Andersen said it was important to invest in downtown, and keep businesses from moving into suburban areas.
“Investment dollars can just as easily go out to a suburban-style setting where the cost of development is much cheaper,” Anderson said. “So what tax increment financing allows us to do is, again, level the playing field and make it a much more financeable project.”
Developer Jason Lanoha said a vibrant urban core is important for keeping young people in the city. He said they don’t leave for sprawling, suburban areas, and the project will bring increased density and more public transit.
“Cities never stand still; they’re either advancing or declining,” Lanoha said. “We don’t want to be Anywhere, USA.”
Opponents argued that a 800,000-square-foot office tower isn’t the best use of the downtown lot. Andrew Sullivan said the pandemic permanently changed the economy, and filling the tower will be difficult with so many people choosing to work from home.
“Take a look at where the economy’s going,” Sullivan said. “Because the plan looked great for a pre-pandemic plan.”
Lanoha said the offices would be designed with post-COVID work in mind, and Andersen said the new headquarters is smaller than Mutual of Omaha’s existing midtown campus.
Representatives from Iron Workers Local 21, a construction labor union, spoke Tuesday to ask that the project hire locally. Lanoha said he was open to that and said he would speak with them afterwards.
After approving the TIF request, the City Council approved the Urban Core Housing and Mobility Redevelopment Plan. The plan will guide the development of downtown Omaha, emphasizing public transit and affordable housing.
Troy Anderson from the mayor’s office said downtown Omaha lost 21,000 jobs since 1963 to the suburbs and other communities. He said studies suggest that increased density can bring those jobs back. Meanwhile an overabundance of parking lots downtown has curtailed development opportunities. The city hopes to replace those lots with developments, pushing people to utilize transit, including a slated streetcar system, rather than their cars.
Anderson said they plan on paying for much of the redevelopment through TIF. Any new projects approved for the project area will be required to give 25% of their TIF proceeds to fund infrastructure improvements.
Councilmember Vinny Palermo said this was more important now than ever, as Omaha is “running out of room.”
“We can’t park our way out of this,” Anderson said, referencing a graphic that showed that 30% of downtown Omaha is devoted to parking.
The mask mandate put into place by Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse—who also acts as the city’s health director—was controversial, with challenges by Governor Pete Ricketts and an upcoming lawsuit. A majority on the City Council supported the decision, but Councilmember Palermo, with the support of Mayor Stothert, drafted an ordinance to change the process for public health decisions.
The original ordinance would have created a new position to create a plan and make decisions in the event of any new epidemics. The new Epidemic Health Director’s decisions could be approved or vetoed by the mayor, and the City Council would then vote to affirm or reject the mayor’s decision. Palermo then added an amendment, striking the new position, but retaining the process for the mayor and City Council to be able to reject the health director’s decisions.
Some proponents argued decisions shouldn’t be made by “unelected bureaucrats,” a phrase thrown around several times during Tuesday’s public hearing. Proponents said it was a good step, but didn’t go far enough in giving citizens more input over public health decisions.
One proponent, Ben Tapper, was identified as one of the Disinformation Dozen—12 individuals responsible for two-thirds of all vaccine misinformation on social media, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate. Tapper called this year’s mask mandate “tyrannical and draconian behavior.”
Opponents, including nurses and other healthcare professionals, argued that public health decisions shouldn’t be politicized. Opponent Gary George, a registered nurse, said the ordinance was a thinly veiled political move, and was poorly timed with the pandemic not quite over.
Huse spoke Tuesday, and said the definition of “epidemic” was crucial. She said epidemics can be fast-moving, highly localized outbreaks rather than community wide pandemics. She used an example of a food-born illness at a restaurant, where a temporary closure could be necessary. Taking several days to go through a political process would allow for the disease to spread further.
“Are we ready to allow disability and death to occur because something is unpopular, despite what the host of our local health experts, and not just UNMC experts but all of the chief medical officers in all of our major health systems, have to say?” Huse said.
Douglas County Commissioner Maureen Boyle, herself a practicing physician, also opposed the ordinance. Boyle said political pressure could exacerbate epidemics, where decisions must be made quickly.
“My fear is that with this new process, public health recommendations will be put to a vote,” Boyle said. “I respect all of you and your areas of expertise. Similarly, public health has experts.”
Councilmember Palermo said his intent was not to take power away from the health director, nor does he oppose mask mandates. He said he was frustrated that the mask mandates weren’t in place sooner, and argued that having a city health director to communicate with the City Council might speed up the process.
“We knew that the citizen’s in our community were affected by this indecision, especially those in my community, marginalized communities,” Palermo said.
Huse said there could be better communication on both sides, although she did speak with Council President Pete Festersen before ordering this year’s mask mandate. She said she’s spoken with other councilmembers about masks before, but Huse and Palermo hadn’t met until Tuesday.
Festersen said he wouldn’t have supported the original ordinance without the amendment. He was also skeptical of some of the legal language, which didn’t clarify that the City Council had final say on decisions or whether or not they could add amendments to decisions. There will likely be changes before the vote is held on April 5.
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners also met Tuesday, approving ARPA funding for mental health resources for immigrants and refugees, and to organizations like Together Inc. and the Women’s Center for Advancement.